16 min

A lament for House duty

It's not uncommon to hear complaints about
the state of debate in the Commons these days, but looking into the Commons
during government orders does fill one with a bit of despair. Years of allowing
the standing orders to slide and be undermined are turning debates in the House
to irrelevance.

It's more than just this video going around
the internet showing MP Jonathan Genest-Jourdain apparently dozing off in the chamber after checking his hair. It was also evident in spades when I was in
the chamber this evening waiting for the slightly delayed debate on C-304.

Around the House were listless MPs,
disengaged from the debate. Most were focused on their laptops – one MP had
very conspicuous earphones plugged into his – or their iPads. A couple were
going over paperwork. Nobody was actually paying attention to the debate.

MPs would get up, recite their prepared
speeches (with the exception of Joe Comartin during the C-304 debate, as he
actually gave his speech off the cuff), and as soon as they finished speaking,
they gathered their things and left the
. Every single one of them. How exactly you can debate when you’re
simply exchanging prepared speeches in isolation and then not listening to the
replies or opposing arguments?

To add insult to injury, the parliamentary secretary to the government house leader, Tom Lukiwski, suggested at procedure
and House affairs today that perhaps we stop showing wide shots of the chamber
during times when it’s not really full, because it looks bad. Mind you, we used to show wide shots and reaction shots, way back when they first started televising QP, but eventually we did away with that, keeping cameras trained solely on the MP currently speaking, so as to create this artificial impression
of what actually happens in the chamber. And people wonder why I make a point
of actually attending QP every day in the House?

The thing is, it’s not really difficult to make
debates in the House meaningful. If the Speaker bothered to enforce the
prohibition against prepared speeches, that would be a great start, because
it would force MPs to pay attention to the debates and not simply act as room
meat trying to make quorum, while they fall asleep in the background after they
forgot their iPads to play solitaire on. And another easy – really easy! – fix
would be for the Speaker to abolish the lists of speakers given to him by the
House leaders and whips. Make the MPs compete to speak. (Bonus – when applied
during QP, this would also become a disciplinary tool, where unruly MPs wouldn't be
recognized to speak). Force MPs to actually want to engage with the debate, to
listen to the points being offered before them so that they can rebut, and debate

But of course, that would mean that the
leaders' offices might not have the same level of control over what MPs
say and do in the House. And it might mean that MPs would actually have to pay
attention and think for themselves on their feet. But it might also mean that
we’d get MPs active and engaged and eager to show up to the House rather than
simply be assigned as room meat. And then maybe we wouldn’t have to worry about how
empty the House looks on a wide shot. Which, incidentally, we not only need
more of, but we also need to return to the era of reaction shots and more
camera angles, which might also encourage more MPs to show up and actually pay
attention so that they won’t be embarrassed when they fall asleep acting in
their capacity as room meat.

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