Heckling Demeans the House

Guest Column / Elizabeth May


“I take my responsibility as Speaker very seriously …. I assure you I will not relent in my efforts to improve tone and decorum so that substantive debates are conducted with civility.”

House Speaker Geoff Regan, in correspondence with a concerned citizen, copied to all parties, November 17, 2017


On Nov. 30, 2017, the crescendo of question period heckling finally proved more than Speaker Regan was prepared to tolerate. Heckling violates two of the Standing Orders of parliamentary conduct (SO 16 and 18). Members of Parliament are not to interrupt anyone who is speaking, nor are we to speak disrespectfully. I have hated heckling since long before I entered the chamber as an MP. I vowed never to heckle and not to continue speaking when the heckling around me hit a decibel level that made it impossible to be heard without raising my own voice.

The noise in the chamber is dispiriting. As bad as heckling has been historically, the heckling of a prime minister has never as bad as it has been toward Justin Trudeau. Sometimes, even with my ear piece in, I cannot hear the prime minister’s voice over the roar. When Stephen Harper was prime minister, his replies in QP were usually delivered to a quiet House. On Nov. 30, several clear warnings were issued—and ignored—and then the Speaker named the member and had the Sergeant-at-Arms escort him from the House.

Public revulsion with politics is fairly widespread. Even with a surge in voter turn-out in 2015, the participation levels of the Canadian electorate in elections remain stubbornly low.

Arecent study on heckling by the think tank Samara found that Members of Parliament are also disgusted by heckling. More than half say heckling is a problem, even those who also admit to yelling across the aisle. MPs with more experience in the House tend to support it more than rookies. Half of new MPs favour abolishing heckling, while only 19 per cent of veteran MPs agree.

The Samara study proposed some solutions: reduce the control exercised by party whips over opposition MPs asking questions; extend the amount of time allowed to pose a question (currently limited to 30 seconds); reduce the reading of speeches; and consider seating MPs by region instead of by party.

Reducing the control of party whips over questions should be easy. No rule requires it. Allowing the whips to submit a list to the Speaker of their allotted MPs for QP started innocently enough under Speaker Jeanne Sauvé. She could not see well enough to identify MPs by name (of their ridings) from a distance. She asked the party whips if they would be so kind as to give her a list in advance of which MPs were to ask questions—and in what order. An unintended consequence was that more power was conferred on political parties. The convention was established that whips control who can ask questions.

Control of the party whip over free speech was challenged in the 2011 Parliament by Mark Warawa, Conservative MP for Langley. He had been on the list to make a statement under Standing Order 31. Just before QP, his party whip told him he was not allowed to speak. Warawa raised this as a point of order, complaining that the whip had denied his freedom of speech.

Andrew Scheer, then Speaker, did not rule on what had occurred, but he did clarify that “the right to seek the floor at any time is the right of each individual Member of Parliament and is not dependent on any other member of Parliament.”

What if Speaker Regan ceased to follow the lists? What if, after an opening round for leaders, any and all MPs of all parties could try to catch his eye? Knowing that the Speaker controlled if and when they would get the floor, would they be as likely to break other standing orders on a routine basis?

Similarly, the current rules already prohibit reading speeches—or questions. Resorting to previous practice and only allowing speaking from a base of knowledge would also improve the discourse. As would following Samara’s advice to allow greater flexibility in the amount of time allowed for posing questions. Could we go to 45 seconds?

I think we would see far more respectful behaviour with changes emerging from the Samara report.

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.