This is the second-part of a two-part post from 2010-2011 Parliamentary Intern, Mackenzie Grisdale. 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.
My data suggest heckling is an important factor in the extent to which MPs participate in the House. Over a third (36.7%) of MPs indicated that heckling caused them to reduce their participation at least occasionally. By contrast, only 13.3% of MPs indicated that heckling sometimes caused them to increase their participation in the business of the House.
Those in the latter group made comments including, “It fuels me to focus and push back -- to make my point even more emphatically,” and “I speak in a louder, sharper voice because of the noise -- which is neither necessary (due to microphone placement) or beneficial.”
The MPs who said heckling discourages them from participating painted a different picture. Some comments include: “Disrespect demotivates,” “I turn my earpiece off and also escape to the lounge whenever possible,” “I usually attend Question Period, debates etc. but choose to just tune out the discussion and work on constituent emails, letters etc,” “I find I lose my concentration,” and “Why participate in Q+A or in debate if someone just disregards your position and tries to belittle you.”
The comments of MPs who said heckling had no effect on their participation in the House are also noteworthy. One MP wrote that heckling “helps my ability to speak at times (in the riding) when some folks disagree and are yelling negatives your way.” Another said, “I find it discouraging.” One MP even uses heckling to assess her speeches. She wrote, “I am of the opinion that if they heckle I'm getting to them and making valid points.”
MPs also noted more conspicuous effects of heckling. Several pointed out that the noise makes it difficult to concentrate. One NDP MP described “a private member's statement that I made that was completely drowned out by heckles made in reference to another party's private member's statement... An indication of the level of volume was …the request by the Hansard office for the text of my statement as they could barely hear it.” In such cases, heckling presents a very practical challenge to the business of the House.
On the other hand, the Hon. Sheila Copps indicated in her interview with me that heckling can reveal something about an MP’s character, or cause an MP to go off-script (rare in this era of prepared speeches). She referenced both the occasion when an MP called her a ‘slut’ in a heckle, as well as the Hon. Peter Mackay’s alleged heckle calling the Hon. Belinda Stronach a ‘dog’ to suggest that heckling can be a way for MPs to “divulge this underlying current of sexism that runs through their thinking…I think what it is is [heckles] end up getting to the core of somebody’s beliefs, as opposed to whatever the mild question of the day is. It kind of pierces through the cloud.”
Copps’ views, I must note, are nearly unique among the data I collected.