The good ole days

From the annotated standing orders, a historical note on civility in the early days of the House of Commons.

The preservation of order and decorum has been a duty of the Speaker since 1867, but the task was never as difficult as in the early years of Confederation. Speakers in that time were regularly confronted with rude and disorderly conduct which they were unable to control. The throwing of paper, books, and other missiles, including firecrackers in one case, combined with the noises Members made imitating cats, making music and generally being loud, made for a very riotous assembly. It was often suggested, not without some truth, that the root of the problem of order and decorum lay in the basement of the Parliament Building, just below the Chamber, where a much-frequented public saloon plied “intoxicating liquors” to Members seeking “refreshment” during the lengthy evening debates.

With time, and with the closing of the bar, the disorderliness of the formative years slowly disappeared. The early twentieth century House was a much more austere and calm place, although in 1913, during the debate on the naval bill, the House very nearly got out of control. Subsequent occasions of turbulence were infrequent and usually occurred in connection with the imposition of closure. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and the early 1950s, the House was anything but rowdy. Debates were orderly for the most part and Members were attentive to the rules of decorum. Even unparliamentary expressions, which had often been truly objectionable, took on a decidedly tame complexion. It was not until 1956, during the pipeline debate, that the Speaker again had great difficulty preserving order.

The 1960s, with a succession of minority governments, also proved a challenge. When television was introduced to the House in 1977, decorum initially improved, but the subsequent increased use of unparliamentary expressions and displays, together with the inevitable heckling, soon came to make the Speaker’s task more onerous.

Perhaps the worst scene in modern times occurred in 1980 when closure was moved on a motion to establish a committee to study a constitutional resolution. Several Members, angered by the closure motion, stormed the Chair, demanding to be heard. The resulting disorder on the floor of the House led to the entrance, behind the curtains, of members of the protective staff on the orders of the Sergeant-at-Arms. Speakers Jerome, Sauvé, Francis and Bosley all had to contend with scores of language breaches and other violations of order and decorum. The election by secret ballot of Speaker Fraser on September 30, 1986 initially marked a favourable change in the atmosphere in the House; however he soon faced the same challenges as his predecessors regarding decorum. After a number of serious breaches in 1991, the government brought forward a motion expressing concern over the “lack of decorum and civility” in the House. The motion was debated over three sitting days, but did not lead to a marked improvement. In fact, only days after the motion was introduced, a Member was called to the Bar of the House to be reprimanded for grabbing the Mace. Speaker Fraser also appointed a special advisory group of Members to address the broad question of decorum in the House, particularly  language and behaviour that is discriminatory. The group recommended that penalties for indecorous behaviour be increased, but no subsequent action was taken. During their tenures, Speakers Parent and Milliken also had to deal with unparliamentary language and breaches of decorum.

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