Alberta’s political parties are announcing a long list of people-pleasing policies ahead of an election this spring, but the United Conservative Party threw a curveball on Valentine’s Day by promising to ban MLAs from banging on their desks.It may be a wildcard, but it’s clearly an issue Kenney feels strongly about: Two years ago he visited the Alberta legislature for question period and left complaining about the unholy din during debate. Too much “argy-bargy,” he told reporters.In 2015, he tweeted that Parliament should take a cue from the British rules of decorum and ban applause because “thoughtful debate does not need constant standing ovations.”1/ My modest proposal for Parliamentary reform: stop the applause. Thoughtful debate does not need constant standing ovations.— Jason Kenney (@jkenney) December 3, 2015That’s a popular position because the applause wastes parliamentary time and doesn’t add much to the debate.Kenney should be careful, though, because the British rules aren’t all about encouraging quiet and politeness: Winston Churchill argued passionately for a crowded House that allowed for a conversational, but adversarial, atmosphere. In the U.K., they’re banned from clapping and don’t have desks to thump, but the rules of decorum are more “honoured in the breach than in the observance,” British MPs say.Although the British parliament has strict rules, the building itself was designed to give an urgent, crowded atmosphere. In a speech about rebuilding the British House of Commons after it was bombed at the end of the Second World War, Churchill argued against expanding and modernizing the House. He didn’t want a cavernous legislature that sucked all the passion out of the debates.“Nine-tenths of its debates would be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost-empty or half-empty chamber,” Churchill said.Churchill wanted a claustrophobic and conversational atmosphere, where nearby MPs could engage in informal interruptions rather than “harangues from a rostrum.”Nowadays, the British House of Commons teems with people during big debates and the MPs don’t have desks — and thus, “no lid to bang,” noted Churchill — which means politicians participate with well-timed heckles and cries of “hear, hear” resonate around the chamber.“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Churchill famously said.
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (centre left) as she speaks in the House of Commons in London on January 16, 2019.
MARK DUFFY /
In the Canadian House of Commons, MPs regularly engaged in “desk-banging,” where the lids are lifted and banged up and down, until television cameras were allowed in the chamber in 1977.And, according to the Alberta legislature website, desk-thumping is a Westminster tradition that dates back centuries. Instead of clapping, the member would bang or thump his desk with one hand so the other hand could remain on his sword. In Alberta, the space between the government and the opposition side of the House is still exactly two and a half sword lengths,“ to ensure a peaceable session,” the assembly website says.The cry of “hear, hear” (short for “hear him”) rose in popularity in Westminster parliaments because it could be shouted at the end of a speaker’s statement and not be interruptive. This kind of raucous behaviour in the House constantly comes under criticism but rarely sees any improvement. In fact, MPs seem helpless to stop themselves. A 2016 study by the Samara Centre for Democracy found that 69 per cent of MPs think heckling is a problem, yet 72 per cent of MPs admit to heckling. That Venn diagram necessarily includes some hypocrites.When Kenney announced his opposition to applause in the House in 2015, a journalist tweeted at him that he regularly took part in standing ovations. Kenney was also known for his heckling abilities in Ottawa.“I don’t want to be a stick in the mud. I’m suggesting we change the practice. It wasn’t always thus,” Kenney said.
Conservative MP Jason Kenney rises during Question Period in the House of Commons Wednesday Sept. 21, 2016 in Ottawa.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Like Kenney, many MPs may be stuck in a standoff, where they want the other side to drop their heckles before they drop their own.“Many MPs commented that heckling contributes to Canadians’ perception that politics is irrelevant and dysfunctional,” the Samara study says.The MPs say they heckle to correct the record on controversial topics, to make sure their opposition to a given policy is recorded in Hansard and “to support their team.”Although Churchill would likely be in favour of Kenney’s decorum rules, he may have taken umbrage at one part of his platform: the ban on floor-crossing.In his thoughts on the shape of a legislature building, Churchill said he preferred an oblong shape, so floor-crossers had to switch allegiances in plain view and show that it was an act that “requires serious consideration.”It was an area where Churchill could claim true expertise, having crossed the floor twice in his parliamentary career.• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: stuartxthomson