Question period heckling has greater impact on women MPs: survey

Canada Politics

[Canada’s International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, Dec. 7 , 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie]

Seven in 10 MPs feel that heckling has become a significant problem in the House of Commons, and that women politicians are disproportionately impacted by the practice, according to a survey with a low response rate.

Women MPs reported that they were more likely to hear comments about their appearance, gender, age or language, and were more likely to report being heckled “frequently.” In addition, 20 per cent of respondents — especially those who identified as female — said that heckling negatively impacted their job performance and reduced their willingness to participate in question period.

Said one respondent: “I believe that heckling is a symptom of the deep democratic malaise at the heart of our parliamentary institutions.”

“Although most heckles fell into categories focused on party or ideology, the fact that MPs reported hearing heckles about appearance, gender, religion and language is alarming to us because those don’t belong in a respectful workplace,” said Jane Hilderman, executive director of Samara Canada, the firm that conducted the survey. “There are women who recognized that heckling can also enliven the debate, so you have a range of perspectives. But more women than men said that heckling was affecting not only their performance when they stand to speak but their decision to participate at all.”

The survey, which was conducted between April and May of 2015, polled MPs for their views on the frequency, content and effect of heckling during question period. Of the 305 MPs sitting at the time, 29 responded. Of those, 69 per cent said they believed heckling to be a problem in the House of Commons, despite the fact that 72 per cent admitted to heckling other speakers occasionally. Alternatively, 23 per cent of respondents said they believed heckling was good for politics and that it enlivened proceedings.

The survey outlined the reasons MPs justified heckling during question period, including the need to correct omissions and point out partisan rhetoric, the desire to have their opposition noted or potentially covered by the media, and as a way to show support for their party and colleagues.

Respondents overwhelmingly identified Conservative backbenchers as the worst offenders, with 90 per cent agreeing that men heckled more than women. The MPs who participated in the anonymous survey were primarily from the New Democratic Party (52 per cent), with Conservatives, Liberals and Greens representing 28, 14 and 7 per cent of respondents, respectively.

The report also offered several recommendations for improving civility in the House, including mandating the Speaker to name and shame hecklers, impose fines or rule out of order comments or questions that contravene House guidelines. Current Speaker Geoff Regan promised in his first address in December that he would not tolerate heckling or “unparliamentary behavior.” However, the Speaker alone can do little to change a long-ingrained culture of incivility.

“I don’t think we are going to move towards zero heckling. Heckles can enrich the debate if they are witty,” Hilderman said. “It’s more about making sure that heckling adds to the debate by bringing information forward instead of just trying to disrupt and distract and possibly hurt another by offending them personally.”

“We want a House of Commons that people of all backgrounds and personality types can enter and participate in, rather than one where only those with the thickest skin [can survive],” she added.

MPs return to Parliament on Monday.