Skip to main content
opinion

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks, with members of the Canadian ice hockey team from the 1972 Summit Series in the background, in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 22.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

In the days before Parliament’s return, the press was filled with reporting and analysis with a distinct wrestling-announcer vibe to it. “A fall brawl looming in Parliament,” one headline leered. “It’s about to get louder,” announced another. The first day headlines continued the trend: “Liberals and NDP waste no time in attacking Poilievre.” On the other hand, “Poilievre goes after Liberals.” Wait, wait – is that … Elizabeth May’s entrance music?

Of course, all that rubbing of hands with glee at the bloodsport to come should not be taken to suggest any lessening of concern with the lack of civility in Parliament. This is a traditional lament from the two groups most responsible for it, the media and members of Parliament. The CBC interviewed several MPs from all parties over the weekend who furrowed their brows at the partisanship and “combative language” in Parliament. “Why are we going to let an adult heckle another adult?” said one Conservative MP.

I can think of a hundred things wrong with Parliament, and heckling wouldn’t even make the list. Nor, for that matter, would incivility, at least between MPs. We pay politicians for much the same reason we pay wrestlers, to act out a relatively harmless pantomime of combat for the rest of us. Parliament exists as a forum, with all of its quaint rules and customs, not to deny social conflict but to contain and channel it, to express our antagonisms in stylized form.

Mind you, it would be easier to defend all the stagery that goes on in Parliament, the phoney outrage and shaking of jowls, the moronic slogans and practiced taunts (“I’ll take no lessons from the member opposite on” is a favourite) if it were actually about something – if there were anything actually at stake. But Parliament has become so irrelevant, and members of Parliament so impotent, that it is impossible to escape the impression that, if you will, the show is all for show. They fight, not for any difference it will make to anybody, but to give themselves something to do.

People who have no sense of purpose or meaning in life, there is much sociological evidence to suggest, are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour. The person with meaningful work, and the sense of pride and place in society that goes with it, will be less inclined to act out: it would be beneath his dignity. But the person whose daily life is one long series of humiliations, arbitrary errands and demeaning rituals designed with no point in mind but to erase any lingering sense of independence or human agency, will soon lose whatever self-respect they may once have had – though the person who actively seeks out such a life may be presumed not to have had a great deal of it in the first place.

Such is the life of the average MP. They cannot vote except as the whips (was ever a job more aptly named?) tell them. They cannot speak but the lines that are written for them. They can debate motions, but in the certain knowledge that no one is listening and no one’s mind will be changed. They can ask questions of government ministers, but they know they will never get answers.

They can move amendments to legislation, but only those the party has approved. They can put forward private member’s bills, knowing that, in almost every case, they will never pass. They are obliged to pretend, all day every day, year in and year out, that everything their party says or does is brilliant and everything the party opposite says or does is at best dangerous and at worst malevolent.

And at every burp their party leader emits in the House, they are required to jump to their feet, applauding maniacally. Who wouldn’t start braying like a jackass in such circumstances? That’s exactly how they are treated.

If we want better-behaved MPs, in short, we need to stop lecturing them about decorum and start giving them meaningful work to do. If the House of Commons had real powers – to hold ministers to account, to give legislation the close scrutiny it deserves, and to decide the fate of governments; if members of Parliament had real independence – to vote as their conscience or their constituents advise, to speak what was on their minds, to act as genuine legislators, rather than merely standing up and sitting down when they’re told; if the whole thing had some actual significance, and MPs some legitimate role, then and only then might we expect the conduct in the House to improve.

Until then, let’s get rrrrrrready to rrrrrumble!