We are not an awful people, but we have an awful politics. How’d that happen? Any chance we can make it better?
We are not an awful people, and we don’t elect unworthy representatives. This doesn’t get said often enough, but your members of Parliament are good people. They are decent men and women who upend quiet lives, endure the indignity of electoral campaigns, leave their loved ones at home and jet weekly to Ottawa. They bring big hearts and steady purpose. They want nothing better than to help their constituents.
Then they get here and bray like jackasses for an hour every day. They hurl vile calumnies, unleavened by wit, across the centre aisle of the Commons. They’re shocked when the other side does the same. In the galleries above, strong men and schoolchildren avert their gaze.
Recent highlights have included an afternoon spent debating whether Pierre Poilievre, the government’s utility infielder, was right to describe carbon taxation as a “tar baby.” On another day, opposition members called 22 times for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to be fired. Probably after, oh I don’t know, the 15th time they could have moved on. A few days before that, the Liberals got tired of baseless Conservative accusations that they’re planning to raise taxes, so the Liberals decided it was their turn to accuse the Conservatives of planning to raise taxes. Also without any basis in truth.
Nor is this daily wallow an accident. It is meticulously planned and rehearsed by hundreds of politicians and their staffers across the parliamentary precinct. They rise before dawn to pore over the headlines and plot the day’s stratagems. Opposition members start bidding at breakfast for a part in the show. Government members meet over lunch to rehearse their evasions and their outrage.
Question period isn’t the root of what ails our politics. But it is most certainly the hub, the swamp, the KICK ME HERE sign where everything we hate about our politics converges every day. The half-truths, the confected fury, the mayfly attention span, the ritual humiliation of the thoughtful or eccentric. And above all, the waste: of time, energy, hope.
So what say we fix it?
This is easier said than done. Most MPs are superstitious about changing question period because they are afraid of giving somebody else an advantage. So sweeping reform is out of the question. But maybe we could inch our way toward sanity, the way we inched our way into this mess, with a series of apparently minor decisions. Anywhere but in Ottawa, my suggested changes would seem small indeed. Together I think they could change the culture of Ottawa. And not a moment too soon.
1. Stop Rushing. Since the mid-1990s, question period has been run by a strict 35-second shot clock. No question may last longer than 35 seconds. No answer may last longer than 35 seconds. The rules of decorum are, to say the least, loosely enforced. But that 35-second rule, boy, they watch that one like hawks.
Here’s a fun experiment: the next time you’re arguing with your spouse, use a stopwatch and forbid everyone from speaking longer than 35 seconds. No, wait. Bad idea. It won’t end well.
The rigid enforcement of the 35-second limit is a relic of the ’90s, when the advent of Reform and the Bloc Québécois produced a five-party Commons. More parties meant less time for everyone in the daily circus. But since 2003 there have been only four parties. That should give everybody more time.
So the first tiny change, the minimal condition of civility, is to increase the time for every question and every answer to 45 seconds. That’s a 29 per cent increase in the time for every intervention. Enough time to calm everyone down.