Mackenzie Grisdale is a 2010-2011 Parliamentary Intern. The following is adapted from her final paper for the programme, called “MP, Interrupted: Heckling in the House of Commons.” The work has also been presented at the 2011 conference of the Canadian Political Science Association as well as the first annual Jean-Pierre Gaboury Symposium at the Institute on Governance.
Heckling has never been explicitly studied in the context of the Canadian House of Commons. Yet it’s a force, to be sure, and it is certainly topical from the vantage point of this 41st Parliament.
I sent an anonymous survey to all MPs near the end of the 40th Parliament, received 60 responses (though none from the Bloc Quebecois or the independents), and then supplemented the data using interviews with current and former MPs who all agreed to be named.
The surveys showed that heckles encompass a range of topics, a minority of which run against the values enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As the chart “Content of heckles” indicates, most of the heckling in the House of Commons deals with the heckled MP’s idea, comment or question. Much less frequent, but still notable, were heckles involving MPs’ appearance, gender, age, race, sexuality, and religion.
The heckles that MPs said resonated the most were personal attacks. Often, MPs were reluctant even to divulge examples of heckles they recalled, while some would refer vaguely to “racism and sexism” or “homophobic” remarks. However, specific examples of personal attacks include a comment from a male Conservative MP who recalls heckles “Targeting a Conservative’s religious beliefs” and “Labelling a rural MP from the prairies a redneck.” Another MP noted that heckles sometimes touch on physical disability as well.
One female Conservative MP heard someone yell at her, “That was dumber than you look.” This MP raised other points as well: “Personal attacks like ‘idiot, liar, stupid, chicken’ and heckling about gender (usually aimed at women by women), for example alleging the women are puppets, stooges, robots under the direction of men [are] particularly offensive.”
The language toward women can also turn vulgar. In an interview I conducted with the Hon. Sheila Copps, the former MP recalled being called a ‘slut.’ A female NDP MP wrote about a time when she heard a Liberal frontbench MP stand up to speak only to be called a ‘c*nt’ by a government backbencher.
Overall, even though heckles concerning an MP’s party, idea or ideology are most common, the data show that racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and other discriminatory sentiments were certainly part of the 40th Parliament.
Later this week we’ll have another post on Mackenzie Grisdale’s research on heckling. The next topic will be the impact of heckling on the work of an MP.