Could Congress Learn From Our Rowdy Neighbors Up North?
The marble halls of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Christina Bellantoni.
OTTAWA, Canada | It’s not every day you hear politicians bicker about which party is being “mollycoddled.”
Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to get a tour of Parliament Hill in Canada’s capital, and sit in on a contentious daily Question Period session.
You may have heard about this phenomenon, also part of regular order in Great Britain. Basically lawmakers berate their opposition and trade insults, and the party out of power can challenge the government, all in the spirit of a grand political debate.
In Canada, it lasts roughly an hour. There’s a lot of shouting, and political observers I spoke with before the visit apologized in advance for the rancor and told me they aren’t huge fans.
But after witnessing the practice in person, I think it’s sort of awesome.
The Toronto Star’s senior political reporter Susan Delacourt generously let me shadow her Monday as she made her way through the ornate hallways and esteemed archways.
Right: Canadian political journalists crowd around televisions to watch the end of “Question Period” before lawmakers come out for a scrum.
As we settled into our spots in the gallery above members, and as I marveled at the paired seatings at ornate desks with green velvet chairs, Delacourt tweeted:
— Susan Delacourt (@SusanDelacourt) June 10, 2013
She whispered to me, “Watch, I’ll tweet this and they will start looking up.”
Sure enough, members, or “MPs,” as she calls them, shifted their gazes from their iPads, multiple BlackBerries and even a stack of thank you cards to peer at us in the gallery above.
This was a big day for Parliament. The previous week, a member of the Conservative party bolted with complaints Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office was treating MPs like “trained seals.” The newly minted independent from Alberta had already been moved on the seating chart, squished between the Liberals and the NDP.
But that wasn’t what had MPs hot under the collar. It wasn’t even the financial scandal involving Sen. Mike Duffy, a major story in Ottawa for weeks, though NDP leaders did poke at their rivals about the latest developments.
The topic of the day for the minority parties? “Domestic snooping.”
As our own headlines in the United States were dominated by the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the NDP and Liberal MPs were in an uproar.
One demanded: “Are conservatives monitoring the phone and email messages of Canadians? Yes or no!”
National Defense Minister Peter Mackay defended the government, saying there is “rigorous oversight” and told critics that the program is both legal and regularly scrutinized.
There was grumbling, there was laughing, there was hissing. There was shouting:
“They can’t get their story straight!”
“How many more scandals are conservatives going to inflict on Canadians,” roared MP Peter Julian of the NDP.
Yes, it was a little uncivilized. Unlike our Congressional debates, no one was calling anyone his or her “dear friend.”
But it was honest. Politics can be bloodsport, and the MPs definitely don’t feel the need to pretty it up with niceties.
Also refreshing? These lawmakers acknowledge their politics, rather than pretend they aren’t the driving force behind everything.
MP James Moore bellowed that heading into the 2015 campaign, his Conservative party is proud to say it’s created 1 million new jobs and has fostered the lowest taxes in 50 years. While the opposition, he charged, was all rhetoric, no action.
You can watch video highlights from Monday’s Question Period.
Maybe I enjoyed the session because some barbs just sound better in French. But I can’t help thinking how much better our politics might be here, if people would just talk face to face.
Think about it. The day’s activities on Capitol Hill involve typically lawmaker after lawmaker giving a soliloquy. They might get peppered with questions from the press on occasion, but they aren’t talking with each other. They frequently are speaking to the C-SPAN cameras on a floor that might boast a handful of lawmakers on a busy day.
The closest thing the United States Senate gets to a true debate materialized Wednesday on the floor ahead of votes on amendments to the comprehensive immigration bill. In most cases, lawmakers often deliver a rebuttal speech, one that was pre-written and doesn’t take much of what was said previously into account.
During the daylong session, Sens. John Cornyn and John McCain, both Republicans, traded questions, calling each other “gentlemen” all the while.
There was no shouting, no accusations of corruption. It was all quite reserved.
“Will my colleague yield for a question,” piped in Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
They proceeded to politely but pointedly query each other about costs of border security, and Schumer admitted, “No one says that the Gang of Eight bill is exactly right,” while defending the bipartisan plan he and seven others crafted for months.
Sen. Orrin Hatch delivered an impassioned plea to keep politics out of the bill’s shaping.
“There are a lot of people on this side who would like to vote for a final bill,” Hatch said.
But he warned both sides need to clearly avoid any sort of amnesty in the bill, and implored that amendments be carefully considered. “I want immigration reform to succeed. If this is going to be a political exercise, count me out.”
If someone was there to answer him, they kept their mouth shut.
Before long, Sen. Rob Portman took to the floor. To speak to an empty chamber. When he paused to turn the page of his pre-printed speech, you could almost hear a pin drop.