Monday, October 11, 2010

How China Sees Us

Here's a story I wrote for the Chinese news service Xinhua on the move to bring civility to Question Period. While still maintaining an authoritarian and very centralized regime, the Chinese do value politeness:

Canadian politicians vote to bring civility back to political debate

Mark Bourrie

OTTAWA, (Oct. 8), Xinhua—Canadian politicians, frustrated with the decline in manners in their House of Commons, have passed a motion requiring members of parliament to find ways of improving the quality of debate in the Canadian legislature.
Much of the criticism of parliamentary debate focuses on “Question Period,” a 45-minute session in which members of opposition parties ask government ministers about the administration of their departments. Through the national media, millions of Canadians follow Question Period each day, and the debates make up the bulk of Canadian political coverage.
In recent years, Question Period has, critics say, become nothing more than political grandstanding, with opposition MPs asking politically-loaded questions and ministers replying with answers that rarely address important issues. During the session, the debate is often drowned out by heckling and shouting by MPs.
A recent survey conducted for the Public Policy Forum, a private organization that seeks ways of improving government, found two-thirds of Canadians believe Question Period is a forum for MPs to "grandstand" for the media and score "cheap political points."
The poll also found a majority of Canadians think less of this country's system of government because of what they see and hear in the daily session.
Earlier this week, a motion to reform Question Period, moved by Michael Chong, a member of the governing Conservative Party, was passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 235 to 44. The motion orders a parliamentary committee to study various options and propose changes to reform Question Period, and to complete this task within six months.
According to a recent public opinion poll, Canadians overwhelmingly disapprove of the behavior of government and opposition MPs during Question Period.
“During the election, I promised to reconnect Canadians with the democratic institutions that belong to us all,” Chong told reporters. He added, “Question Period reform is a first, but important, step toward the reform of Parliament.”
“This motion proves that you can build bi-partisan consensus and get things done for all Canadians,” he said.
Glen Pearson an opposition Liberal MP, seconded Chong’s motion, calling Question Period the “most shameful 45 minutes in any parliamentary day.”
Chong’s motion calls for giving the Speaker, who chairs debate in the House of Commons, more powers to discipline disruptive MPs. The time limit for questions and answers would be expanded from 35 seconds so that the exchanges could be more substantive.
And the Prime Minister, who usually attends the session four days a week and answers, on average, six questions, would only be expected to be present one day a week, where he would take questions during the entire 45 minute session.
The motion had the support of MPs from three parties: the governing Conservatives, and opposition Liberals and New Democrats. It was opposed by the Bloc Quebecois, a party that advocates the separation of the province of Quebec from Canada.
"This is a victory for Canadian democracy," Chong said after the vote. "Canadians have indicated they want to see reforms to Parliament. This is the first step, a small but important step toward parliamentary reform. So I'm thrilled."
Chong said he believes the Canadian people have lost faith in parliament because of the spectacle of MPs shouting and insulting each other every day. He says only about half of Canadian adults bother to vote because they have lost faith in the system.
"I think the reason for that is the behavior and the dysfunctionality that they see in the House of Commons is not something that they approve of. So they want us to fix this dysfunctionality."