Most members of Parliament think heckling in the House of Commons is a problem. But that doesn’t stop them from heckling themselves, according to a report published this week.
Nine in 10 MPs didn’t even bother responding to the survey.
The report by Samara, a research and advocacy group that studies Canada’s parliament, found that 69 per cent of MPs (or 20 of 29 MPs) said that heckling was a problem; 72 per cent (21 MPs) said they heckled.
Samara conducted the survey last year, when the Conservatives were in power. Only 29 MPs completed the survey, a number that Samara admits is low.
The overall trends match their findings in a similar study with a better response rate in 2011, so Samara is confident it’s in line with Parliamentarians’ feelings at that time.
MPs heckle for a number of reasons, said Samara’s executive director Jane Hilderman. Some say they heckle when they feel an opponent is misrepresenting the facts, or to register their disagreement with whatever is being said and get it entered into the official record.
(In Hansard, the official transcript of Parliamentary proceedings, heckling is often recorded as, “Some hon. Members: Oh, oh!”)
WATCH: Speaker Geoff Regan’s inaugural speech to the House of Commons. He says there will be no heckling – and is immediately heckled
MPs aren’t necessarily aiming for the official transcript though. “This is often for the media newscasts at night so there’s not a quiet tacit approval, instead you hear MPs yelling back,” said Hilderman. “You know that this isn’t a position that there’s consensus on.”
Finally, MPs also heckle to “support their team” or to feel part of the action, she said. She attributes this partly to a frustration among backbench MPs, who aren’t often able to contribute to debates.
“It’s how they feel that they can still contribute.”
Heckling is more than just annoying – it can affect how MPs participate in debates, according to Samara.
“Most MPs said that heckling didn’t affect their propensity to participate and stand up and debate. There was a minority, 20 per cent, that said, ‘Actually, it does change my willingness to participate,’” Hilderman said.
Of the five MPs who said they were less likely to participate due to heckling, four were women.
“That should still be alarming to Parliamentarians, to Canadians. We want a House of Commons where the MPs that we elect can go and do their jobs regardless of who they are or their background,” she said.
Women MPs also tend to report hearing more offensive heckles – comments about weight, age, race and appearance – than men, even if those heckles aren’t necessarily directed at the women. Hilderman isn’t sure why that is.
“Whether that means men just don’t register those heckles and it goes right on by them, whereas women are more astute and remember them later and sort of internalize them, that may be one reason.”
The House isn’t beyond hope, Hilderman said.
“If there’s a chance to change the culture, it’s probably now.”
“Over 50 per cent of the MPs are new, and our research suggests that those new MPs have not made a habit of heckling, it’s actually the veterans who are known to heckle more.”
The Speaker of the House also has a role to play, said Hilderman. He could “name and shame” hecklers or penalize offending MPs.
And Canadians can let their representatives know that they’ve had enough.
“This is a point that Speaker [Geoff] Regan raised right before Christmas, that if Canadians remind MPs that this is not what we’re looking for from our representatives, that will also help the effort to improve the general civility of the House of Commons.”