Various New Democrats took turns—one rising to deliver a speech, then others rising to ask that person rhetorical questions—lamenting legislation that would govern the sharing of passenger information with American authorities for flights that travel over the United States. Eventually, a few Liberals joined the discussion. Not until 11:25 a.m., in response to a speech from Liberal MP Joe Volpe, did anyone from the government engage the debate.
For about 20 minutes, a sizable group in the south gallery brought spectator attendance to approximately 11. Later, a number of schoolchildren stopped by. One young man, perhaps 12 years old, joined the New Democrats in clapping as Peter Stoffer called on the House to “kill” the bill in question. Otherwise, the gallery was rarely home to more than a few visitors at any one time. Those who do stop by over the course of a normal sitting day tend to regard the proceedings as one might a museum exhibit.
But only by attending in person can one get any sense of this scene. In the interests of objectivity, TV cameras and still photographers are restricted from broadcasting images of anything but the head and torso of the individual speaking at any given time. Though a backbencher was recently spotted napping in the background of one shot, this mostly hides the peripheral goings on. Still, to mask the fact that speeches are often given in the company of hundreds of empty chairs, MPs are sometimes recruited to sit near the person speaking, to fill out the camera frame.
On the floor of the House that day, the number of MPs eventually dipped to about a dozen. When Liberal Martha Hall Findlay rose to deliver a speech, the entirety of the Conservative presence in the chamber was three MPs. Before she had finished, that was down to two. For all of this—and for much of the day—the press gallery was entirely empty.
As if to address this scene directly, the NDP’s Peter Julian stood to plead for attention. “It is important,” he said, “for all members to speak to Bill C-42 because, even though it has not received a lot of media attention and journalists have not been writing the kinds of articles they should be writing about its implications, it does have implications for the average Canadian from coast to coast to coast.”
In many ways, the scene in the House reflects modern practicalities. Since the proceedings are televised, attendance is not necessary to follow what is said. MPs have myriad other responsibilities they must attend to, from committee work to dealing with the concerns of constituents. In the beginning, House debates were covered extensively in the popular media. Up until the mid-1980s, the Canadian Press kept a reporter in the House for the duration of each sitting day. But those days are gone and, besides, despite the impressive decor—carved sandstone and wood, chandeliers and stained glass—a lack of wireless Internet access makes the chamber something less than a modern workplace for reporters.
But the sight of the ornate room sitting mostly empty, an MP on his or her feet pontificating into the abyss, speaks as well to the undeniable obscurity of the institution at this point in history. Because the debates don’t matter, the press doesn’t cover them and because the press doesn’t cover them, the debates don’t matter. Instead of covering the exchanges that occur each day in the House, the evening political shows prefer to assemble their own panels of MPs to exchange shouted talking points.
The system itself seems to be fading, maybe even fraying. According to figures compiled by Ned Franks, the Queen’s University professor and parliamentary scholar, the number of sitting days for the House has gradually declined over the last half century, from highs of 163 days per year decades ago to a low of just 105 days per year between 2004 and 2008 (a period that included three federal elections). After being prorogued to start the year, the House sat for 119 days in 2010. And even those figures may flatter more modern Parliaments, Franks figures, because of how rarely the House now sits through the evening and how many MPs travel to and from their ridings on Fridays and Mondays.
How effectively that diminishing time is used is questionable. Between 1963 and 1968, Lester B. Pearson’s minority governments introduced 285 bills and passed 245 (86 per cent) of those into law. Since Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, just 117 of 279 government bills (42 per cent) have been so successful. While the government regularly complains of opposition obstruction, the opposition accuses the government of wilful delay. When Parliament is prorogued or dissolved, all government bills that have not been passed into law are terminated and must be reintroduced when business resumes. In the last five years, Parliament has been prorogued at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request three times and dissolved once.
Meanwhile, recent governments have taken to loading legislative measures into the annual budget that are then not properly considered by the House. Last year’s bill topped out at 883 pages, including measures related to Canada Post, credit unions, environmental regulation and the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. As Franks has written, such omnibus bills “subvert and evade the normal principles of parliamentary review of legislation” as they are rushed through the House and Senate. “I don’t subscribe to the theory of the decline of Parliament,” he says, “but I will say that, in many ways, it has been abused in recent years.”