End of heckling unlikely despite Speaker’s promise, experts say

[Speaker Geoff Regan presides over question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, Feb. 1, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie]

The new Speaker of the House of Commons has promised to crack down on hooting and catcalls in Parliament, but experts say telling the pols to pipe down may not be enough to eliminate heckling.

In late January, new Speaker Geoff Regan rose to his feet to admonish the House for heckling, and was himself heckled as he asked for co-operation from both sides of the aisle.

“This is a crucible of democracy,” he said. “It’s a place where ideas are tested, but the test of an idea is not how loud the applause is or whether it’s a standing ovation, nor is it whether it can withstand rude interruption."

That same day, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May filed an official complaint about heckling during question period.

Lori Lukinuk, an expert on rules of order and proceedings in both the public and private sector, said Canada’s Parliament is much more unruly than the corporate boards or public gatherings she’s seen.

"There’s a certain level of decorum when you’re doing business. You’re trying to get the business of the day done and heckling is not helpful,” she said.

Yet the jeers from the other side may be difficult to silence entirely, she said, because of the size of the national legislative body and the relative lack of speaking opportunities for those outside party leadership.

With 338 seats, Parliament has many more representatives than most other organized meetings.

She said controlling a group of that size would be a challenge even if it weren’t full of the Type A, hard-driving personalities that seem to thrive in politics.

While the daily question period is the correct time for feedback, she said, many of those who are heckling are lesser-known backbenchers who won’t get the chance to speak during the limited available time.

“The job of the Opposition is to challenge, and if they can’t get in front of the mic they’ll do it another way,” she said.

For many politicians, Lukinuk added, heckling can be a way to show their constituents at home that they are getting their position across, even without formal recognition from the legislature.

‘All for show’

A former school board trustee, Lukinuk said she would often watch parliamentary proceedings dealing with education.

“It is all the nonsense and game playing,” she said. “I know it’s not the business of government. That doesn’t really get done in the legislature. It’s all for show.”

There is still much the Speaker can do to cut down on the practice within his current powers, Lukinuk said.

“Generally the chair of a committee is allowed to remove people from an assembly,” she said. “If he started to do that, I expect it would subside quickly.”

Carleton University political science professor Gary Levy, former publisher of the Canadian Parliamentary Review, said heckling is part of the show when it comes to the House of Commons.

“What I have seen doesn’t seem to be as nasty as maybe it was in the last Parliament,” he said. “I think the Speaker may be a little bit too sensitive about it when they’re starting out.”

Levy makes a distinction between the insulting, hateful comments that some politicians have reported, which he said have no place in the legislature, and the less offensive but much more frequent murmurs and heckles that punctuate nearly every sitting.

While Levy agreed that it may be appropriate to limit things like applause, which he noted is banned in Parliament in the United Kingdom, he said there are bigger issues about how time is allocated for debate and how the Speaker recognizes individual politicians to give them the floor.

“They have to separate the minor annoyances from the more fundamental problems we’ve had over the last decade, and heckling is not really a priority,” he said.

This new session is an excellent time for reform, Levy said, and he’s heartened that the new government seems to be considering the issue of the parliamentary process.

While party whips submit lists of the politicians ready to speak on certain issues to the Speaker, Levy said Regan could simply choose to recognize whomever he wants.

“If he did that, he’d have a bit more leverage in not recognizing people who were hecklers,” Levy said.

“He has all the power to do that, just like he has the power to name people and kick them out, but whether he could do that is another matter.”