Updated June 10th, 2012
Some time ago, I was watching news coverage of the issues facing the government over the voting and campaigning irregularities that took place during last spring's election. On camera during the debate was Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Tim Uppal. Surrounding him in the camera shot was....no one. The people that cost Canadians hundreds of thousands of dollars a year are just too busy to show up for debates and Question Period in the House. I think that we all knew that was the case but the way the video camera framed the shot was most disagreeable, particularly in light of the fact that the House was debating the issue of voting.
Here’s a video showing the empty seats that I’m talking about with an added bonus showing an NDP MP busy preening himself in his cell phone during a debate:
I wonder how many other empty seats there were in the House that were out of the camera shot during the debate on ending the long-gun registry. I also wonder how many other MPs were playing with their taxpayer-funded Blackberrys, catching a quick cat nap or adjusting their toupees?
The absence of MPs in the House during debates got me thinking. I wondered how many MPs show up for those all important House of Commons votes? You know, the ones where the government foists its pressing agenda on unsuspecting Canadian voters?
Fortunately, the data on voting in the House is readily available on the Parliament of Canada website. Not only can you see how many MPs were present for voting, you can also see how individual MPs voted on every Bill or motion.
I looked at the voting data from the 41st Parliament which convened on June 2nd, 2011. To refresh your memories, there are currently 308 MPs; 165 Conservatives, 102 New Democrats, 35 Liberals, 4 Bloc Quebecois, one Green and one Independent Conservative. Since the opening of the 41st Parliament, there have been 275 votes up to June 7th, 2012 (the last record date). For the purposes of this posting, since there are often multiple opportunities for MPs to vote on a given day, I picked only one since generally, the same number of MPs were present for all of the votes in a day (although that is not always the case). In total, the House has sat for 67 days when votes were cast by MPs.
Here are the results in chronological order:
Over the 275 votes during the 41st Parliament, on average, 31 MPs or 10.1 percent of the 308 have been absent from the House. Absenteeism ranges from a low of 1.9 percent on May 29th, 2012 (it was much higher for another vote on that same date) to a high of 23.1 percent on November 3rd, 2011. Thus far, out of the 67 days that votes were cast, the absentee rate has exceeded 12 percent on 19 occasions or on 28 percent of the votes taken.
Now let's look at the trend of absenteeism as shown on this graph:
You will notice that the trend quite clearly shows that absenteeism has increased as the 41st Parliament grinds on. Absenteeism was quite low in the early days of the latest incarnation of the Harper Government but it has steadily climbed to the point where, since the 41st Parliament began, the average absentee rate is 10.3 percent. By comparison, during the early part of the 41st Parliament, the average absentee rate was only 6.3 percent for the month of June and the partial month of September 2011. Apparently, the thrill of sitting in Parliament and actually doing what Canadian taxpayers their representatives in Ottawa to do, wore thin very quickly. It would appear that legislative lethargy set in very quickly.
You will notice that I have also included a column that lists the Bills, Motions or Government business that was being voted on. It is really surprising to see when Members are absent; Bill C-18 (the Wheat Board Act), Bill C-6 (the back-to-work legislation for Canada's Post Office) are two bills that were particularly hard-hit with Bill C-6 seeing absenteeism as high as 20.8 percent on June 23rd, 2011. Even the recent back-to-work legislation for Air Canada on March 13th, 2012 saw 36 MPs absent (11.7 percent). Despite Minister Lisa Raitt's assertion that continued service from Air Canada was critical to prevent the collapse of the Canadian economy, only 155 out of 165 Conservatives bothered to show up to vote on the all important legislation that was going to prevent Canada from slipping into another recession. The only time that almost all MPs were present (there were only 6 absentees) was on May 29th, 2012 when 302 MPs were present to vote CN rail workers back to the job. That said, you will notice on the chart that, on the same date, there were 26 absentees for the vote on Bill C-31. It certainly looks like the Party Whips were busy for at least part of that day!
What I find particularly galling about this data is that Mr. Harper and Mr. Uppal insist that Canada needs another 30 MPs, swelling the already overpopulated House to 338 Members. Rather than realigning (read gerrymandering) riding boundaries to better represent the populations of rapidly growing provinces like Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, the Harper government is using Bill C-20 to add additional MPs. Tim Uppal estimates that the additional 30 MPs will cost Canadian taxpayers an additional $11.5 million for each election and $14.8 million per year in operations costs for the House of Commons. The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation estimates that 30 more MPs will cost an additional $18.2 million per year...and that's forever!
Mr. Harper. Rather than adding new Members to the House of Commons, your government should spend some time and energy into finding out why absenteeism among MPs of all political parties is so high. Perhaps it would be wiser to fix the problem that exists rather than adding to it. As well, it does seem more than a bit odd that you are proposing to add nearly the same number of seats to the House as the average rate of absenteeism, doesn't it? Perhaps it really is the only way to get 300 MPs to put in an appearance in the House on a regular basis.