A44. One of the first things that visitors to the legislature notice is the bad behaviour of the MLAs. This bad behaviour can be explained, if not excused.
The bad behaviour takes the following forms:
- Interrupting the MLA who is speaking. (This practice is known as “heckling”.)
- A general chorus of noise from one side that drowns out the MLA who is speaking.
- Very evidently not paying attention to the MLA who is speaking. This behaviour can include going in and out of the chamber, walking around inside the chamber, talking to another MLA, focusing on an electronic screen, and reading a newspaper or magazine.
- Insulting another MLA or another party.
- Making statements that are false or at least highly questionable.
- Refusing to answer a question asked by another MLA.
These behaviours would not be tolerated in any other workplace. In almost any other gathering of grown-ups, these behaviours would be considered shockingly rude. But in the legislative chamber, they are routine.
I spent a long time around the legislature. I’m not sure I can fully explain the bad behaviour exhibited there, but I have some ideas about the contributing factors.
The most important reason, in my view, is that all important decisions are made elsewhere. The party caucuses decide what they’re going to do, and then they almost always vote together. An MLA knows how they’re going to vote when they walk in the door at the beginning of the day. That doesn’t mean votes are held quickly. The opposition often has an interest in creating delay. The result is that MLAs are often very bored, and boredom causes bad behaviour.
Another reason for the bad behaviour is the partisanship that pervades the House. Partisanship is the excessive attachment to one’s political party. There is a strong tendency among MLAs to think of one’s own party as always right, and the other parties as always wrong. They must always praise their own leader and their own party; they must always condemn other leaders and other parties. It’s an unhealthy dynamic.
If you put boredom and partisanship together, the conditions for bad behaviour are created.
Not all MLAs act badly, and certainly there is no MLA who acts badly all the time. But unfortunately, bad behaviour is treated by senior MLAs as normal and acceptable, and is even to some extent celebrated within a party caucus. As a result, the well-behaving MLAs tend to sit quietly. They may grimace inwardly at the bad behaviour, but they make no attempt to stop it. If they do, they will be told it’s all part of the normal give-and-take of the legislature.
The bad behaviour will continue until the legislature is a forum for meaningful debate, in which MLAs prepare their arguments carefully, listen attentively to other MLAs’ arguments, and then make up their minds accordingly on how to vote. That is not likely to happen any time soon.