Around 60 per cent of Canada’s rookie members of parliament see heckling as a problem in the House of Commons, according to a study released by the non-partisan charity Samara.
Delta MP and minister of public services and procurement Carla Qualtrough was one of those rookies when she was elected as part of the Liberal government in 2015.
“It was a very uncomfortable transition for me,” she said. Qualtrough came from a background in law, where there are “very specific rules about conduct,” she said. The legal environment was somewhat constrained, she said, but it lacked the personal attacks she sees in the House of Commons.
“It’s certainly not my preferred environment … to work in,” she said. “And I’m sure a lot of the cohort of newbies two years ago would be of the same opinion.”
Cloverdale-Langley City MP John Aldag, another rookie Liberal who sits at the far end of the Chamber from the Speaker, agrees.
“There are times at our end …, particularly when our side is speaking and ministers are responding to questions, we can’t even hear what’s being said, even with our earpieces in,” Aldag said.
In total, 53 per cent of the MP surveyed saw heckling as a problem. But two-thirds of respondents report they heckle, and 87 per cent of MPs report they have been heckled.
— John Aldag (@jwaldag) November 2, 2017
Samara defines heckling as “calling out in the Chamber of the House of Commons without having the Speaker’s recognition to speak.” By this definition, two out of the three MPs interviewed for this article say they have heckled.
Aldag said he spoke out of turn when someone says something or asks a question that shocks him.
“I may actually speak out loud and say: ‘What? Where is that coming from?’,” he said. “It’s an element of surprise that’s sometimes hard to stifle.”
Langley-Aldergrove MP Mark Warawa also admitted to heckling.
“When a question is not being answered, it’s being dismissed, I’ve called out and said: ‘Answer the question’,” Warawa said. “Or I’ve called out and said: ‘Be honest.’ I’ve also said: ‘That’s not true.’”
These outbursts are most commonly used to respond to perceived untruths, correct false statements and point out partisan rhetoric, according to the report.
There are few roadblocks for a majority government, according to Warawa, part of the Conservative opposition in the current government, “yet the official opposition is to hold the government to account.”
“The official opposition and other opposition parties have a responsibility to ask the government why they are doing what they’re doing,” Warawa said.
“If there is arrogance in their answer, and the answers aren’t answering the question, then they get heckled.”
In this current government, Aldag noted that the Conservatives are the loudest hecklers in the House of Commons. Warawa said the Liberals, as opposition in the 41st parliament, were the most vocal.
Although much of the content of heckling is substantive, about ideas, comments, ethics and political parties, some heckling comes in the form of personal attacks or discrimination.
Warawa, who has been an MP for 13 years, has seen other members of parliament mock the way certain members speak and has seen people use “unparliamentary gestures,” such as the giving the middle finger, during question period. According to the study, 67 per cent of female MPs noticed gender-based heckling in the House of Commons.
Qualtrough hasn’t heard gendered comments, but had noticed that female ministers were heckled more often than their male counterparts in the 42nd parliament. Warawa said he hadn’t noticed this, saying female MPs were often treated with more respect than men during question period.
The report, using research from the University of Toronto, found that over the last century women were statistically more likely than men to be interrupted in the House of Commons.
The majority MPs believe Canadians don’t look favourably on heckling. Aldag, Warawa and Qualtrough — despite differences in party, experience and gender — agreed that Canada’s members of parliament need to keep professionalism in the House of Commons.
“If you knew you had a constituent sitting in the gallery watching … would your behaviour be better? Would you heckle less?” Warawa asked. “The answer probably, if it was honest, would be yes.”
Aldag’s explanation was similar: “I frankly think as parliamentarians, as public figures, we need to reflect on the kind of example we want to set,” he said.
Qualtrough took a look at the students who often come in to the gallery of the House of Commons to watch the debate.
“When … it’s a particularly fiesty day, and you’ve got school kids sitting up in the balconies and you’ve got Canadians watching our behaviour, I don’t think it reflects … how well we work together,” she said.
“I actually think we work together as members of parliament quite well, except sometimes in the House of Commons itself.”