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Let’s have a ceasefire in Question Period

The Ottawa Citizen by Nancy Peckford 16 October 2010

As political figures go, Ralph Klein isn’t an obvious poster boy for the Persons Case, celebrated every year on Oct. 18 in honour of the day in 1929 when Canadian women were finally declared persons under the law. But I think he may actually have spoken for many women when he confessed upon retiring four years ago that politics was “a bloodsport” and “a young man’s game.”

The regrettably common characterization has inspired Equal Voice, a multi-partisan national organization working to increase the number of elected women in Canada, to invite all parties in the House of Commons to “elevate the debate” on Tuesday, Oct. 19, in recognition of the historic anniversary.

The dirty, knock ’em down antics of question period have received a lot of attention in recent weeks, with observers from both inside and outside the House commenting on the disservice that such bloodsport does to politics and policy-making in this country.

And if even the battle-toughened Alberta leader eventually felt unfit for the fight, it’s not surprising that many Canadian women judge the tenor and tactics of parliamentary debate distinctly unappealing. Given the persistent under-representation of women in politics (22 per cent in the House of Commons today, and not quite 30 per cent in the Senate), this is a problem.

But not just for women. Nearly two Canadians in three (64.6 per cent) recently told pollster Nick Nanos that they believe improved behaviour in question period would have a positive impact on Parliament.

How could it not?

The shouting, interrupting and hurling of insults renders the atmosphere both childish and belittling, a snake pit that’s as toxic as it is unproductive.

As the most visible face of federal politics for most Canadians outside of Ottawa, the daily exercise is contributing to widespread citizen disenchantment with politicians and government. And the “young man’s game” perception is one that especially resonates with women.

Carolyn Bennett, long-time MP and no shrinking violet, admitted recently on national radio to being knocked off her game due to needless outbursts from her male colleagues when she was asking a question about pregnant women’s access to the H1N1 vaccine. On the same show, former MP Deb Gray, famous for her straight talking, no-nonsense style, characterized the environment as “pathetic” and suggested that MPs start losing a day’s pay for personal attacks and other inappropriate behaviour in the House. And earlier this year, former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan spoke publicly about how difficult it is to recruit and retain women in a confrontational and overly partisan environment.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course: some women can give as good as they get, and surviving the daily barrage merely fuels their fire. Others note that many male MPs demonstrate great restraint in question period and are as discomfited by the invective as their female counterparts. And yet evidence is mounting that the current political culture especially undermines women’s attraction to and experience of elected office.

For these reasons, we’ve invited all MPs to be passionate, to be tough, but to eliminate the distracting and belittling behaviour that has come to define question period. Members of all parties have repeatedly said they want to improve the tone and tenor in the House; by proposing a multi-lateral ceasefire, we’re giving them the chance to show Canadians their commitment to a different kind of debate.

We’re also providing some incentive. Research has found that young people’s early impressions of politics dramatically affect their future political aspirations.

They’re turned off by alienating behaviour that prevents them from imagining themselves in similar roles. So we’ve invited more than 100 potential future parliamentarians to the Hill as witnesses. These youth will get to see, up close and personal, what we hope will be a different kind of question period: one replete with ideas and intelligent debate, and devoid of cheap one-liners and gotcha politics.

With any luck, they’ll leave inspired, invigorated and engaged. They’ll see that it’s possible to reason with passion but still respect one’s colleagues and honour the complexities of an issue. They may even conclude that the overwhelming majority of their MPs are exemplary citizens who care deeply about Canada, its citizens, and even each other.

And if we’re really lucky, some of the best and the brightest, girls as well as boys, might even consider the opportunity to make change through elected office as a truly honourable and attractive prospect — because they can envision themselves sharing their nation-improving ideas, as opposed to humiliating their opponents through catcalls and jeers.

I look forward to that, and to the day when a retiring premier or prime minister remarks with wonder that once upon a time, Canadian politics was considered a young man’s blood sport, but she never experienced that.

Nancy Peckford, the executive director of Equal Voice, grew up in a very politically engaged family where evening meals were characterized by vigorous but respectful debates.