Some MPs are warning the high-stress, high-stakes environment of politics coupled with relentless work schedules and bouts of politically motivated marathon voting and debating sessions are one day going to kill someone.
Winnipeg MP Kevin Lamoureux, who has been an MP for nine years and served as the Liberal’s deputy house leader since the last election, says all parties should figure out a better way for opposition parties to make themselves effective than triggering 30-hour voting marathons like one that occurred in March.
“I believe it’s only a question of time before someone will in fact die from it,” Lamoureux says. “It’s insane and completely irresponsible.”
Lamoureux has been an elected politician for 25 of the last 29 years, mostly in the Manitoba legislature, and spent all but the last four in opposition. He says he knows the frustration of opposition parties trying to keep a majority government from ramming through controversial bills but that no other workplace would tolerate forcing people to be awake for that long.
He says he knows at least one MP, whom he wouldn’t name, whose health prevented him from participating. Others resorted to wearing diapers to help get them through the night.
Outgoing MP Tony Clement, who was a high-ranking Conservative until he got caught e-mailing and texting explicit digital images of himself last fall, says nobody knows better than he does how the pressures of political life can contribute to making bad decisions.
“I know no one is going to get out the tissue-box for politicians,” says Clement. “But people are going to commit suicide. People are going to die before their time. People are going to make horrendous personal mistakes and I can obviously speak from personal experience on that one.”
For Clement, it’s much more than just overnight voting. It’s the “near-constant online harassment and online judgment,” the non-stop hours of work, constant travel, high-stress decisions and the anxiety that comes from knowing how tenuous your job is.
Clement points to a recent British Medical Journal survey of United Kingdom MPs that found more than one-third suffered from at least one mental-health problem, compared to about one-quarter of the British population as a whole. Anxiety and depression were the most common. He says he would expect similar results if Canadian MPs were surveyed.
Clement says pressure to get re-elected and partisanship mean any time one party raises an idea such as eliminating Friday sittings or limiting evening sittings to make work-life balance easier, MPs in other parties scorn it, so nothing ever changes.
Both Clement and Lamoureux say the overnight votes should stop but that taking them away would require giving opposition parties some other way to get in the government’s face when a controversial issue has arisen.
The March voting marathon — 30 hours of consecutive votes on 257 motions to oppose government spending plans — was done so the Conservatives could express their displeasure with the government’s refusal to continue a House of Commons committee probe of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
It was the third time in the current term of Parliament that MPs were up all night for votes. A relatively easy 12-hour session took place in June 2018 when the Conservatives were protesting the cost of the carbon tax. A 21-hour voting marathon took place in March 2018 when the Conservatives wanted to get the Liberals to let Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national-security adviser testify at a committee about the invitation given to a convicted terrorist for a reception during Trudeau’s trip to India.
In the previous Parliament, the NDP and Liberals forced 22 hours of voting on the Conservative government’s budget bill to express displeasure over changes to environmental laws.
Clement says he isn’t sure what the answer is. Lamoureux says governments could be forced to introduce legislation by certain deadlines to ensure a minimum amount of debating time, and opposition parties could be given a way to delay bills for a period of time.
He also believes there should be a parallel Commons chamber created to allow additional debating time for private member’s bills, which would add some heft to the influence non-cabinet ministers have in Parliament.
Private member’s bills are from MPs who are not in cabinet but there is less time in the schedule for debating them. Many die on the vine, simply never reaching final votes. In this Parliament only 10 of 269 private member’s bills passed. In the last Parliament, 19 of 458 private member’s bills got through.
Liberal Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has a young child, says overnight votes are rare but that evening votes, which keep MPs with young families at work long into the evening, are also problematic. He said moving votes to the daytime would go a long way to encouraging a better balance. It also could encourage more young people, a more diverse population, to seek election.
He says the best time for this to be addressed is at the start of the next Parliament after the election, when the routine is to debate the rules that govern house procedures.