The Speaker responds to my post “Decorum in Canada’s House of Commons”

As a follow-up to this post, a slightly more formal version of which I distributed to parliamentary leaders via email, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken sent me a reply (on Speaker’s Office letter-head but signed, more simply, as an M.P.) which I am taking the liberty to share:

Dear Mr. Chaplin:

Thank you for your electronic message of February 6, 2007, which I note was also addressed to the Prime Minister’s Office and to the leaders of the opposition parties. In responding to your comments, please know that I speak only for myself and from my particular perspective as Speaker of the House of Commons.

There is no doubt that many observers of televised broadcasts of the daily Question Period would agree that there is a need for improvement in the level of discourse during those tumultuous forty-five minutes. It is no accident that the video clips of House proceedings replayed on network news broadcasts are, almost without exception, recorded during Question Period. In the interest of fairness, however, it is important to remember that Question Period is very much the exception rather than the rule, and that most of the business of the House is transacted in a constructive, respectful manner.

Because of the collegial character of the House of Commons and of the broad privileges enjoyed by its Members, particularly in the area of freedom of expression, no one–not even the Speaker–can act unilaterally to improve the level of discourse during Question Period. Thanks, however, to a growing consensus that such improvement is overdue, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has undertaken to study the rules of the House with a view to proposing changes to this end and has already heard from a number of authorities on parliamentary procedure.

Thank you for your interest in the work of Parliament and for taking the time to write. Please be assured that I take these matters very seriously.

Yours truly,

Peter Milliken, M.P.

As an avid viewer of CPAC – which I tend to have on in the background as I multi-task during the day – I, of course, would know that the House is much calmer during a given day’s other Orders of Business. However, it is precisely because of the use of Question Period coverage by television news that I expressed my concerns regarding decorum. On important issues of the day, which any self-respecting journalist would want to cover, questions and answers ought to be able to be delivered across the floor of the House without the Animal House-like, almost non-stop heckling which is hurled back and forth. It is not such heckling which government or Opposition members should count as “gotcha” moments, if that is really what it is all about, but, rather, the potentially clever way questions are posed and answers skillfully given.

The pen, or at least the well-organized thoughts behind an oral question, is surely mightier than the sword of bombastic yelling – particularly by those who are neither asking the question nor giving the response.

This is neither how students learn things in debating clubs, nor practice them in ‘model parliament’, so I look forward to what the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, to which Mr. Milliken made reference, recommends after its deliberations.

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