The House of Commons is a sham

No one shows up. Nothing gets done. The sad decline of our most important institution.
The House of Commons is a sham
Adrian Wyld/CP

In the early evening hours of an otherwise unremarkable Thursday in December, as a crowd gathered on Parliament Hill for the official opening of the annual Christmas light show, Jim Maloway was lecturing a nearly empty House of Commons on the history of suicide as a technique of military assault. “We had Dutch soldiers fighting for control of Taiwan in 1661, who used gunpowder to blow themselves and their opponents up rather than being taken prisoner,” he explained.

Maloway, a New Democrat backbencher, is either the last man truly dedicated to Parliament or the greatest symbol of its current neglect. In 2010, he spoke more than three times as many words in the House—309,647 in total—as any other member of Parliament, nine times more than the Prime Minister. In the month of December alone, Maloway contributed to debates on vehicle imports from Mexico, autism, white-collar crime, free trade with the European Union, RCMP reform, the parole system, Canada Post, human rights, a proposed national Holocaust monument, railway safety, the prosecution and registration of sex offenders, immigration reform, the military justice system, the census, oil tanker traffic off the coast of British Columbia and prison farms. All the same, you’ve probably never heard of him.

On that Thursday night in December, the House was debating a Senate bill that sought to add suicide bombing to the Criminal Code. A small cluster of four Conservative MPs, chatting with each other in the southwest corner of the room, waited impatiently for Maloway to finish. Irwin Cotler, the Liberal MP, sat listening on the opposition side. The teenage pages assigned to deliver notes and fetch glasses of water for MPs had already begun to clean up. In addition to the 300 or so empty seats around Maloway, the galleries above were empty as well, save for a few police officers.

After he had finished, a series of perfunctory oral votes confirmed that the bill had the unanimous support of the House. And thus did Canada apparently become the first country in the world to explicitly outlaw suicide bombing as a crime unto itself. Save for a short item on the National Post‘s website a week later, not a single major newspaper would carry word of this apparent landmark in international law.

To witness such a moment is to see the House of Commons at both its most serious and least relevant, to understand the gravity of the institution and the sense of neglect that hangs over its proceedings. Indeed, of all the questions the House of Commons must consider on a daily basis, there is one that underlies everything: does this place still matter?

On a basic level, the answer to that question must be yes. “This assembly is the most important ever held in any part of British America,” declared Robert Alexander Harrison, the former MP for Toronto West, upon making his maiden speech in the House shortly after it first convened in November 1867. “In its hands it holds the destinies of half a continent.” This is still essentially true. The House of Commons contains the 308 elected representatives of the population. It authorizes the collection and expenditure of tax dollars. It passes and amends the laws that govern our society. It holds the government of the day to account. Its purview is immense, up to and including—as set out by Speaker Peter Milliken’s ruling last year on access to Afghan detainee documents—the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.

But then there is what you see when you linger around the chamber that Harrison and those first parliamentarians passed on to us, and the questions of purpose and meaning that follow. Except for perhaps a dozen MPs and the odd tourist group, the vast room sits empty for almost the entire day. Thousands and thousands of words are spoken to little obvious notice or consequence—the press gallery mostly ignoring the proceedings and almost all votes of any importance destined to break along party lines. Power has coalesced around the offices of party leaders. Decisions are made elsewhere and then imposed on this place, debate seemingly rendered moot. For all its hallowed tradition and sombre ritual, the floor of the House of Commons cannot now be said, except on a purely geographic level, to be at the centre of political life. But for all the modern laments about the emptiness of our politics, here would seem to be the yawning gap at the heart of it all.

As the clock turned 10 on a Thursday morning this month, the mace, an enduring symbol of royal authority and the parliamentary system, was laid upon the clerk’s table and the Speaker took his chair. After a moment for prayers, Peter Milliken paused to address the two dozen MPs in attendance. “I invite the House to take note of today’s use of the wooden mace,” he said. “The wooden mace is traditionally used when the House sits on Feb. 3 to mark the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the original Parliament Buildings on this day in 1916.”

The occasion thus noted, the House moved to the tabling of a report from the standing committee on procedure and House affairs and the introduction of a private member’s bill from New Democrat Olivia Chow that would establish a national transit strategy. Petitions—which can be tabled before the House so long as they contain at least 25 signatures—were presented on behalf of citizens concerned, respectively, about the war in Afghanistan and the import and export of horses for slaughter and human consumption.

After the Speaker had ruled on an outstanding point of order concerning another private member’s bill, the House resumed debate of Bill C-42, an act to amend the Aeronautics Act. The NDP’s Libby Davies picked up where she had left off the day before. A few pairs of MPs chatted with each other as she spoke. Most of the others in attendance sat with their heads down, their attention directed at paperwork or BlackBerries. Those MPs assigned to the House each day generally do likewise, using the time to catch up on correspondence, reading or, as the season may dictate, the signing of Christmas cards. Except when there is a grunt of derision or amusement, it is generally difficult to say who is paying attention to what is being said. “As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to examine this kind of legislation in great detail to establish whether or not it is warranted and whether or not the legislation goes too far toward invading the privacy of Canadians,” Davies ventured. “I would say for us in the NDP, we have come to the conclusion that this legislation does go too far.”

The House of Commons is a sham
Chris Wattie/Reuters

Various New Democrats took turns—one rising to deliver a speech, then others rising to ask that person rhetorical questions—lamenting legislation that would govern the sharing of passenger information with American authorities for flights that travel over the United States. Eventually, a few Liberals joined the discussion. Not until 11:25 a.m., in response to a speech from Liberal MP Joe Volpe, did anyone from the government engage the debate.

For about 20 minutes, a sizable group in the south gallery brought spectator attendance to approximately 11. Later, a number of schoolchildren stopped by. One young man, perhaps 12 years old, joined the New Democrats in clapping as Peter Stoffer called on the House to “kill” the bill in question. Otherwise, the gallery was rarely home to more than a few visitors at any one time. Those who do stop by over the course of a normal sitting day tend to regard the proceedings as one might a museum exhibit.

But only by attending in person can one get any sense of this scene. In the interests of objectivity, TV cameras and still photographers are restricted from broadcasting images of anything but the head and torso of the individual speaking at any given time. Though a backbencher was recently spotted napping in the background of one shot, this mostly hides the peripheral goings on. Still, to mask the fact that speeches are often given in the company of hundreds of empty chairs, MPs are sometimes recruited to sit near the person speaking, to fill out the camera frame.

On the floor of the House that day, the number of MPs eventually dipped to about a dozen. When Liberal Martha Hall Findlay rose to deliver a speech, the entirety of the Conservative presence in the chamber was three MPs. Before she had finished, that was down to two. For all of this—and for much of the day—the press gallery was entirely empty.

As if to address this scene directly, the NDP’s Peter Julian stood to plead for attention. “It is important,” he said, “for all members to speak to Bill C-42 because, even though it has not received a lot of media attention and journalists have not been writing the kinds of articles they should be writing about its implications, it does have implications for the average Canadian from coast to coast to coast.”

In many ways, the scene in the House reflects modern practicalities. Since the proceedings are televised, attendance is not necessary to follow what is said. MPs have myriad other responsibilities they must attend to, from committee work to dealing with the concerns of constituents. In the beginning, House debates were covered extensively in the popular media. Up until the mid-1980s, the Canadian Press kept a reporter in the House for the duration of each sitting day. But those days are gone and, besides, despite the impressive decor—carved sandstone and wood, chandeliers and stained glass—a lack of wireless Internet access makes the chamber something less than a modern workplace for reporters.

But the sight of the ornate room sitting mostly empty, an MP on his or her feet pontificating into the abyss, speaks as well to the undeniable obscurity of the institution at this point in history. Because the debates don’t matter, the press doesn’t cover them and because the press doesn’t cover them, the debates don’t matter. Instead of covering the exchanges that occur each day in the House, the evening political shows prefer to assemble their own panels of MPs to exchange shouted talking points.

The system itself seems to be fading, maybe even fraying. According to figures compiled by Ned Franks, the Queen’s University professor and parliamentary scholar, the number of sitting days for the House has gradually declined over the last half century, from highs of 163 days per year decades ago to a low of just 105 days per year between 2004 and 2008 (a period that included three federal elections). After being prorogued to start the year, the House sat for 119 days in 2010. And even those figures may flatter more modern Parliaments, Franks figures, because of how rarely the House now sits through the evening and how many MPs travel to and from their ridings on Fridays and Mondays.

How effectively that diminishing time is used is questionable. Between 1963 and 1968, Lester B. Pearson’s minority governments introduced 285 bills and passed 245 (86 per cent) of those into law. Since Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, just 117 of 279 government bills (42 per cent) have been so successful. While the government regularly complains of opposition obstruction, the opposition accuses the government of wilful delay. When Parliament is prorogued or dissolved, all government bills that have not been passed into law are terminated and must be reintroduced when business resumes. In the last five years, Parliament has been prorogued at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request three times and dissolved once.

Meanwhile, recent governments have taken to loading legislative measures into the annual budget that are then not properly considered by the House. Last year’s bill topped out at 883 pages, including measures related to Canada Post, credit unions, environmental regulation and the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. As Franks has written, such omnibus bills “subvert and evade the normal principles of parliamentary review of legislation” as they are rushed through the House and Senate. “I don’t subscribe to the theory of the decline of Parliament,” he says, “but I will say that, in many ways, it has been abused in recent years.”

The House of Commons is a sham
Nathan Denette/CP

The last two years have been marked by direct challenges to parliamentary authority: from last year’s battles over detainee documents and the government’s rejection of calls for political staff to testify before parliamentary committees to a current squabble over the government’s refusal to turn over technical information related to its own legislation. But if the government is susceptible to charges of disrespect, the opposition—divided and fearful—has not always functioned as an effective check on authority.

And abuse, whatever the source, may be a natural result of disregard. When it came time last fall to present the traditional economic update that follows the budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did so in a speech to the Mississauga Chinese Business Association, on the Tuesday of a parliamentary break week. Opposition MPs fumed that Flaherty was avoiding the accountability of the House, but the chamber is rarely the scene of a closely watched address. Aside from the residential schools apology, two addresses on the arrival of foreign dignitaries, and customary replies to two Throne Speeches, Prime Minister Harper’s remarks to the House over the last three years have been almost entirely limited to the 35-second replies of question period.

“I worry about it,” says NDP MP Joe Comartin, about the state of Parliament. “I don’t think we can continue on this path for much more than another five or 10 years. We are eroding… the role of individual parliamentarians. And eroding the role of the ministers as well. Eroding the role of committees. Eroding the debate, the importance of debate and the effect of that debate on the public discussion. We have to reverse that course.”

By 1 p.m. on that recent Thursday, the House is ready for a vote on the proposed amendments to the Aeronautics Act. A sufficient number of MPs enter the House from the adjacent lobbies to ensure the necessary quorum­—just 20 MPs are required. The acting speaker asks for those in favour to say yea, those opposed to say nay. In her opinion, the yeas have it, but a recorded vote of all members is requested for the following week. (It will pass with all but the NDP voting in favour.) The House then moves to consideration of a free-trade pact with Panama.

As the clock nears 2 p.m., the noise of humanity begins to fill the House. The benches on both sides are suddenly occupied; the south gallery fills with tourists and interested observers. Invited guests and staff members file into the east and west galleries. Even the press gallery sees a half dozen reporters.

Monday through Thursday, question period—”oral questions” on the official schedule—takes place for 45 minutes each afternoon, starting at 2:15 p.m. The 15 minutes immediately preceding are reserved for statements by members. During this time, any MP may stand to speak for one minute on a topic of his or her choosing. Mostly it is a time for members to honour favourite causes and constituents. On this day, Deepak Obhrai rises to address a recent spate of executions in Iran. Liberal Jean-Claude D’Amours salutes several award-winning entrepreneurs in his riding of Madawska-Restigouche. In recent years, despite objections from Speaker Milliken about the personal nature of some attacks, this time has also become an extension of question period: MPs rising to spout uncontested partisanship on the off chance anyone’s paying attention. This afternoon, Liberals Shawn Murphy and Yasmin Ratansi rise to respectively condemn Conservative policy on taxation and foreign affairs, while Conservative Tilly O’Neill-Gordon praises government efforts in her riding of Miramichi.

The 45 minutes that follow are both the most-watched and most-bemoaned portion of each day in Ottawa. In its wake, there are regular complaints about decorum, mindless partisanship and unanswered questions, most of which may misunderstand entirely what it is that ails the House. “Decorum,” says Comartin, “is almost more of a symptom than it is a disease itself.”

Monday through Thursday, question period brings perhaps 250 MPs to the House. The vast majority will have no direct involvement in what follows. They are here not to speak, but to sit around those who are speaking and nod their heads for the sake of the television cameras. They are here to stand and clap and cheer for their side and heckle and sneer at the other. A few government backbenchers will be given the honour of rising to ask a planted question of whichever cabinet minister has something self-aggrandizing to say that day. Here the MP is at once at his most prominent and least useful.

Immediately following this show, there are often complaints from the floor—MPs rising on points of order or privilege to claim some slight or offer some further argument of an issue raised. Mostly these interventions come to nothing, seemingly raised only for the sake of getting something on the record. On this day, Liberal Wayne Easter will rise to complain that his involvement in plans to run an underwater cable between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick has been misrepresented by Transport Minister Chuck Strahl. Government House leader John Baird will then stand to ridicule Easter’s version of events. Speaker Milliken will dismiss the dispute. “I do not think that is a point of order. It sounds like a dispute as to facts,” he says. “I suggest we move on to orders of the day.”

By 3:20 p.m., moments removed from question period, there are just 15 MPs in the House as debate resumes on free trade with Panama. In the relative quiet, Scott Brison, a lively and entertaining speaker, engages in a spirited back-and-forth with the NDP’s Peter Julian, an insistent orator, over the moral obligation of international trade and the politics of Central America.

The House of Commons is a sham
Adrian Wyld/CP

In the relative intimacy of a mostly deserted House, the discussion can be substantive, even wonkish. Members will address one another cordially and cross the centre aisle to sit and talk with each other. There are moments too of passion and eloquence. “One of the arguments that the NDP members used against the free-trade agreement with Colombia was that there had been some level of illicit drug trafficking and money laundering in Colombia in the past,” says Brison, recalling a previous debate to make the case for dealing with Panama. “I want to address that because if we are serious about working with the government of Colombia and the people of Colombia to reduce that drug trade, the most important thing we can do is provide alternative economic opportunities through legitimate trade.”

As debate proceeds, Liberal Kevin Lamoureux, a newcomer to the House who may challenge Jim Maloway’s dominance of the word count, finds excuse, in discussing the benefits of free trade for the Manitoba hog industry, to note that Manitoba annually produces more pigs than it has people. As he and Maloway go back and forth, several MPs work away at laptops. The NDP’s Linda Duncan, seated nearby Maloway, alternates between listening to him and reading various documents she’s brought with her. A group of five teenagers arriving in the south gallery brings the audience to six. With his fourth intervention of the day, Maloway raises France’s tax treaty with Panama as a point of comparison. He will speak five more times before the day’s business is finished.

Before being elected at the federal level, Maloway served for 12 years in the Manitoba legislature. There, he says, he was less interested in engaging in legislative debate and more interested in media interviews and attention. Now, he figures, he’s making up for lost time. He says he is in his Parliament Hill office most nights until 9 p.m. reading up on legislation. He enjoys the competition of debate, and figures more people are listening than it might seem—a view shared by other MPs who report emails and questions about speeches they’ve made and legislation that is being considered. He also understands his practical value to the NDP side. If he is able and willing to sit in the House and speak to whatever legislation is on the order paper each day, other NDP MPs are free to take care of appearances, speeches, interviews and other demands.

How you view the purpose of the House depends largely on how you view the purpose of an MP like Maloway. What should an MP’s role be? Does he represent his riding or his party? Is she beholden to her constituents or her party leader? Is he a conduit for the wishes of others or is he ever entitled to do what he thinks is best?

On paper, the MP possesses great power, but the idea of the backbencher as a powerless placeholder has become central to our politics. After all, the Westminster system functions, often efficiently, as the product of oppositional “teams.” Elections are presented as a choice of party and prime minister. (In a recent Ekos poll, only 17 per cent of respondents identified the local candidate as the most important factor when it came to voting.) At present, the most highly prized quality in modern Ottawa is discipline, both of behaviour and message. The party leader who exerts it is admired. The MP who disobeys is ostracized. There is a certain logic to this. “We happen to be individual persons, but we were also elected as a group of MPs under a certain set of promises that we also have to respect and hopefully implement,” says Conservative MP Bruce Stanton. “I understood that my role in this was to get my seat elected so that my party could put a new program in place.”

The system is as well, to a certain degree, self-regulating. Individuals who disagree with a party’s policies are unlikely to run for, or remain in, that party. Leaders who fail to heed the views within their caucuses are unlikely to remain in power for long. MPs point out that debate does occur—within caucus and in private conversations between members.

Such discussions may occur beyond the public realm, but then the public may not be interested in the discussion. “I remember the controversy over prorogation,” says Conservative MP James Rajotte. “We were back in the House and it was probably mid-April and people were still saying, ‘So when is Parliament getting back to work?’ ” As Stanton explains: “The whole prorogation thing last year raised the notion that the public often thinks we’re not working unless we are in Ottawa, but the fact is you get more appreciation when people see you out and about in your own riding.”

So perhaps Canadians aren’t really interested in what goes on in the House on a day-to-day basis. By one understanding of representative government, that’s logical enough: we vote to elect representatives to mind such business for us. But amid declining voter turnout—a historic low of 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in October 2008—here may be another of those traps. Because we aren’t concerned about the individuals we send to Ottawa, we have a House of Commons that doesn’t interest us and because we have a House of Commons that doesn’t interest us, we aren’t concerned about the individuals we send to serve there.

When the Conservatives campaigned in 2006, they promised all votes in the House except those on the budget and the main estimates would be considered “free votes”—that most elusive dream of reformers. Five years later, such freedom is only generally applied to votes on private member’s bills and so-called votes of “conscience.” In the past year this led to interesting splits on bills concerning such contentious issues as euthanasia, abortion and transsexual rights. (The bills on abortion and euthanasia were defeated. The bill on transsexual rights passed the House and is now with the Senate.) But the extent and meaning of this freedom is limited by how rarely private member’s bills ever move far enough or fast enough through the House and Senate to become law. In the last decade, only 25 private member’s bills originating in the House achieved royal assent. Six of those were drafted to mark special occasions (for instance, the fourth Saturday of November each year is now officially “Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day”). Four of those involved changing the names of ridings.

A vote last September on a private member’s bill that would have abolished the long-gun registry was perhaps the most closely watched in recent years (even if all but the NDP’s members broke along party lines). A result hung in the balance, the votes of individual members mattered and a national debate ensued. If those who seek change have a dream of a more perfect Parliament, this was a peek at that future.

Since announcing that he would not seek re-election, Liberal MP Keith Martin has been searing in his criticism of the present situation. “I’ve never seen morale so low or Parliament so dysfunctional in more than 17 years of being there,” he says. “There’s an overwhelming sense of futility, disappointment and sadness among most of the MPs who are there.” Martin is unmatched in tone, but is not alone in his concerns. One MP uses the term “farcical” to describe the process of debate in the House. “I think the vast majority of MPs are interested in playing a bigger role,” says Conservative MP Michael Chong, “in having greater authority and autonomy to execute their roles.”

The House of Commons is a sham
Chris Wattie/Reuters

Martin is explicit in assigning blame. He laments for those who surround party leaders, the “fairly young, ambitious, rapidly partisan individuals who often treat MPs with utter disdain.” The incentives, he says, are backwards. “Rabid partisanship is rewarded,” he says. “Overweening and excessive party discipline has disempowered members of Parliament and forced them to pay utter homage to the leaderships of their party, instead of their true bosses, which are the people that sent them there.”

There are, by Martin’s telling, two particularly worrisome results of the system as it is: the important debates it does not allow Parliament to have and the untold number of individuals it discourages from taking part. “We’re sending a very sad and sorry message to the bright and the young,” he says, “that their skills are not going to be used to the best of their abilities if they go into federal politics.”

Change, if it is ever to transpire, would need to start with those questions about who and what an MP is supposed to be. Since 1970 it has been a requirement of the Elections Act that any candidate seeking to stand for a political party in an election must receive the signed endorsement of that party’s leader. Chong, whose proposals for question-period reform are being studied by a parliamentary committee, would start there. “The current situation is at the root of the imbalance between not just the executive branch and the legislature, but also the root of the imbalance between party leaders and their caucuses,” he says. “If you know that the leader may not sign your papers in the next election or may in fact kick you out of caucus, that’s going to colour your judgment about whether or not you’re going to support the party line on a particular vote.”

The theory follows that moving the power to authorize candidates from the party leader to the constituency or a regional authority would leave the MP less beholden to the leader and more likely to speak freely. If MPs were more likely to speak freely, more free votes would have to result. And if fewer votes were preordained by party lines, debate would become more meaningful, both as an expression of individual views and as a means of influencing others. At once, the individual MP and the House as an institution would become more relevant.

Other reforms could follow, but ironically any change may ultimately depend on the will of MPs who are now so apparently disempowered. “It’s not a matter of us being impotent,” says the NDP’s Paul Dewar. “It’s a matter of us caring enough to do something about it.”

At 5:30 p.m., Feb. 3, the House moves to private members’ business—an hour is set aside each day for the consideration of such bills. In this case, the bill up for discussion is C-507, a proposal of the Bloc’s Josée Beaudoin that would restrict federal spending power along a strict interpretation of the Constitution Act. The Speaker has ruled the bill exceeds the scope of private members’ legislation and absent a royal recommendation­—essen­tially the authorization of the sitting government—it will not be allowed to proceed to a final vote. However unlikely that recommendation, debate is allowed to proceed. What follows then might be considered even more moot than usual.

Conservative Jacques Gourde expounds at length on the government’s economic stimulus as a testament to positive federalism, Liberal Paul Szabo takes the opportunity to promote the benefits of umbilical cord blood preservation. Apparently a national public cord-blood bank would be an initiative worth pursuing, but not—he seems to suggest—something that could be achieved if the restrictions in C-507 were ever made law.

Daniel Paille, the dramatic Bloc frontbencher, rises here to enliven the chamber with a sovereignist cri de coeur. “As long as the people say that they are willing to wait for a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum, we will be here, because we were elected by people who asked us to be here,” he proclaims. As he goes on, a teenage page walks up and down a nearby aisle, getting an early start on the cleanup.

As the clock passes 6 p.m., the visitors’ galleries are entirely empty, save for four police officers. A motion to begin adjournment proceedings is soon thereafter passed. But before the House can conclude with its business, it moves to the so-called “late show”—a sort of postscript to question period that allows members to pursue the government at greater length on issues of particular concern. In this case, the result is a recitation of rote talking points, three Liberals and three Conservatives taking turns to stand and repeat their party lines on employment insurance, crime and Internet access. The Conservatives read theirs from prepared sheets of paper.

It is a wholly surreal half hour. With a motion to adjourn already adopted, the population of the House dwindles to as few as four MPs. As the clock nears 7 p.m., Jean-Claude D’Amours and Conservative Mike Lake are virtually alone, surrounded by hundreds of green and brown chairs, speaking blandishments only for the sake of each other. “This government,” Lake finishes, “will always act in the best interests of consumers, increase competition and increase the uptake of technology on behalf of Canadians when it comes to the Internet.”

With that said, the Speaker announces the House will stand adjourned until the next morning at 10 a.m. A little less than nine hours have by then been committed to the official record. To what end it is difficult to say.