(Re)Building Behaviour: How the B.C. Chamber Influences Politics, and How B.C. MLAs Want to Change It
Rachel McMillan and Abby Koning are 2021 B.C Legislative Interns.
An opportunity to consider parliamentary (re)design does not come about often, but a global pandemic and an upcoming review of electoral boundaries have presented just such a situation in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. In this article, the authors use a survey of B.C.’s MLAs and interviews with MLAs representing each party in the Assembly to consider whether parliamentarians favour change in the Chamber. The authors ask: if new seats must be added and the Chamber rearranged as a result, would Members of B.C.’s Legislative Assembly be happy to adopt benches, or would they rather find a way to maintain individual desks and chairs? Thinking bigger, is there any desire to incorporate a circular seating plan, randomized seating, or ongoing virtual attendance? What sort of impact would these design changes have on political culture and behaviour in British Columbia? The authors conclude that the current seating arrangement (opposing desks situated two sword-lengths apart) was created at a time when the make-up of legislators was considerably different than it is today and that it may be time to consider whether a modern design would better serve parliamentarians and British Columbians. *
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Charles T. Goodsell was one of the first to contend that parliamentary design should be of interest not only to architects, but to political scientists.1 The sites of political power perpetuate the past, he argued, by “[embodying] deeply-rooted cultural concepts in their form and substance.”2 Further, parliaments condition the future by molding the thoughts and behaviours of the actors within them “in preliminary, subtle and interactive ways.”3 Finally, parliaments manifest the present by articulating the “values and ideas currently extant in political life at the time of [a] building’s construction, remodelling, refinishing, or rearrangement.”4 It is this final function of parliamentary architecture that is of particular significance to our discussion.
An opportunity to rearrange parliamentary chambers does not come about often, but a global pandemic and an upcoming review of electoral boundaries have presented just such a situation in British Columbia. If new seats must be added and the Chamber rearranged as a result, would Members of B.C.’s Legislative Assembly be happy to adopt benches, or would they rather find a way to maintain individual desks and chairs? Thinking bigger, is there any desire to incorporate a circular seating plan, randomized seating, or ongoing virtual attendance? What sort of impact would these design changes have on political culture and behaviour in British Columbia?
To answer these questions, we circulated a survey to the 87 sitting Members of B.C.’s Legislative Assembly. The survey included satisfaction rating scales and open-ended questions to gauge Members’ views on current and potential design features of the Legislative Chamber. The survey was completely anonymous, meaning no identifiable information was collected. A total of 47 Members replied for a response rate of 54 percent. To supplement the survey, we performed qualitative interviews with four MLAs, at least one from each of the represented political parties. Interviews were conducted in a semi-structured fashion with open-ended questions and confidentiality was guaranteed. Expanding on Goodsell’s seminal work, we found that parliamentary design is certainly of interest to architects, political scientists, and elected officials.
“Benches are the answer…”
On the same day Government introduced the Electoral Boundaries Commission Amendment Act, 2021, a bill that could create up to six new seats in B.C.’s Legislative Assembly, Government House Leader Mike Farnworth was asked if and how the Chamber could physically fit six more bodies within its 12 by 18-meter walls. After beaming and thanking the reporter for “making [his] day,” the self-professed “parliamentary geek” responded: “Absolutely, and it’s called benches… Benches are the answer to any issue around that.”
Despite the House Leader’s enthusiasm, our survey suggests most Members do not share the same warm feelings about new furniture. A fair number did take issue with certain features of the current desks and chairs, including their lack of charging ports, their rough edges that snag clothing, their pinching arm rests, and their general size, be it because they are too big or too small. However, nearly half the MLAs who responded indicated that they were satisfied or highly satisfied with individual desks and chairs. In fact, when asked how they would feel if the Chamber were to incorporate benches instead of chairs, nearly half indicated they would be highly dissatisfied with the switch.
Physical footprint, cost, and historical value are all salient factors when deciding on what furniture to include in the Legislative Chamber, but furnishings should also be evaluated for their impact on political culture and behaviour. For example, Goodsell noted that “the nature of furniture provided for individual members can affect their status as legislators.”5 The greatest status, he argued, “is afforded by the individual desk and chair, clearly separate and self-standing.”6 It is possible to see how the public might view legislators with standalone desks as being unique votes and voices, rather than undifferentiated components of a whole. Similarly, individual desks might encourage Members to view themselves as having greater autonomy or authority while still operating within party lines.
With their drawers, shelves, and large worktop, individual desks also imply that the Chamber is a place for work as well as a place for debate. As such, onlookers in the Gallery will often see Members reading through binders of material, jotting down notes, or responding to emails as Question Period or Estimates hum in the background. For better or worse, this arrangement discourages active listening, and potentially communicates to the public and to legislators that their full attention is not necessarily required when seated in the Chamber.
Finally, individual desks have become a tool for both protection and commotion in the Chamber. Solid pieces of furniture provide some element of “psychological protection” to those speaking, and in a setting such as the Chamber, this protection perhaps encourages unparliamentary behaviour like heckling.7 Were Members’ bodies instead ‘exposed’ to colleagues across the aisle, it is possible the increased vulnerability would encourage greater restraint. Instead, the individual desk currently serves as the very instrument that MLAs use to support or disrupt their colleagues. One MLA described desk-banging as “the least desirable aspect of Question Period”; a “violent” ritual that states “what I’m doing to this desk is what I want to be doing to you.” Whether or not this intent is real or perceived, workplace safety might be called into question when the sounds and sights of fists pounding on desks is commonplace.
“A mix of collaboration and confrontation…”
Though the furniture on which they sit may vary, the physical arrangement of Members in B.C.’s Chamber follows closely in the footsteps of its counterpart at Westminster. Government and Opposition parties are arranged in a large rectangle, separated by an aisle but facing each other. The Speaker’s chair and the Table are centred at the head of the room. When asked about their satisfaction with this element of the Chamber, Members of B.C.’s Legislative Assembly were largely split. However, when asked about their satisfaction were the Chamber to incorporate an alternate seating plan, the majority of Members indicated they would be satisfied or highly satisfied with the change.
In their lexicon Parliament, architects Max Cohen de Lara and David Mulder van der Vegt categorized the seating plans of the 193 Member States of the United Nations into five types: opposing benches, horseshoe, circle, semi-circle, and classroom.8 As it stands (or sits), B.C.’s Chamber falls into the opposing benches category. However, when MLAs were asked which of the five seating plans would be their preference, the horseshoe shape received the most support.9 One class of responses seemed to appreciate the arrangement’s ties to the Chamber’s current layout. For example, respondents noted that a horseshoe-style Chamber would “maintain some government/opposition front bench accountability” along with “a central authority.” In contrast, a second group appreciated the horseshoe arrangement’s ability to provide what opposing benches cannot, namely “a departure from hierarchy,” “a more connected design,” and a “less adversarial” environment. A third group entirely thought the horseshoe shape struck the perfect balance, a good “mix of collaboration and confrontation.”
The arrangement of seats in a legislature is perhaps the most studied element of design for its influences on political culture and behaviour. Many parliamentary architects have discussed their intent to instill particular behaviours through the arrangement of seats, and the above comments reflect much of this discourse. The opposing benches style is thought to enforce party discipline and facilitate an atmosphere of confrontation between Government and Opposition. Following the bombings of Westminster in 1941, Winston Churchill insisted that the opposing benches be reconstructed for these very reasons.10 Similarly, when designing the Malaysian Parliament Building in 1965, English architect Ivor Shipley was of the firm belief that “the two-party system which existed should be clearly expressed in architectural terms,” and that the horseshoe plan previously in use in Malaysia “should be abandoned.”11 One B.C. MLA observed that the opposing benches layout “sets a tone of not working together,” and another remarked that it “often places hostility ahead of the need to cooperate.”
Conversely, seating arrangements like the horseshoe or circle are thought to encourage consensus. In the Northwest Territories, the circular Caucus Room and Chamber were designed to “facilitate consensus-building, collaboration, and working together as a minority-led collective,” as well as reflect “the way in which Aboriginal groups traditionally make decisions in their own communities.”12 This design likely plays a role in debate that “is generally more respectful and less puerile than in most partisan Legislatures.”13 As many MLAs noted, it is also no mistake that the Simon Fraser University Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, the only facility in Canada purpose-built to forge relationships and advance dialogue, utilizes a circular seating plan. One MLA remarked that this function of rounded layouts is now reflected in schools: “As we [have grown] in our knowledge of how to help kids be successful and be cooperative, lines and rows of desks quickly became circles or U-shape[s], so that there was no kid at the front, no kid at the back. There wasn’t a visible hierarchy.” Though the rectangular marble walls in B.C.’s Chamber do pose a challenge to the implementation of a rounded seating plan, other jurisdictions have skirted this issue by switching the focal point of the room. For example, South Africa’s National Council of Provinces switched their Chamber “from portrait straight to landscape-curved” in an effort to “[symbolize] the government’s intention to embed a new parliamentary culture.”14
As Goodsell notes, a rounded layout “does not, of course, prevent bitter disagreement, acrimonious debate, and chamber deadlock; but it does not assume stalemated acrimony as being the main purpose of parliamentary life.”15 In a similar vein, introducing a new parliamentary seating plan does not guarantee that a change in behaviour will follow. For instance, Shipley’s best efforts to secure a two-party system in Malaysia did not materialize. Until 2018, Malaysia was led by a coalition government.16
“Two and a half sword lengths and all that…”
Though the seats and shapes that Members find themselves in might impact political culture and behaviour, so too does the distance between Members of opposing parties. The distance across the floor between the Government and Opposition benches in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom is meant to be the equivalent of two sword lengths, a tradition that dates back to when Members carried swords and needed a reminder to “seek resolutions by peaceful means.”17 The custom, eloquently described as “two and a half sword lengths and all that” by one survey respondent, was later adopted by the physical and political architects of B.C.’s Chamber. Over time, the seats in British Columbia’s Chamber have come together to accommodate an ever-increasing number of representatives, meaning MLAs at one end are no longer separated by the traditional distance. According to one Member, the loss of two sword-length’s separation has made it possible to hear commentary across the aisle that would otherwise have passed unnoticed. As such, the Member notes, the end of the Chamber where seats come together is often embroiled in more conflict during Question Period.
But what if the distance between Government and Opposition were to shrink from two sword lengths to two centimeters? This has been the case in Iceland since 1916, where the seats for private members are assigned by lottery. When asked how they would feel if Government and Opposition Members sat amongst each other, Members of B.C.’s Legislative Assembly provided a decisive, and perhaps unsurprising, response: 74 percent indicated they would be dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied with seat neighbours from another caucus. Though in the minority, one MLA remarked that being surrounded by “colleagues but not teammates” would provide some healthy discomfort. Having “teammates behind and beside [you]” provides a level of protection, they argued, that ultimately does not contribute to healthy debate.
Research has shown that who you are sitting beside or across from, as well as the distance between you, does have an impact on political behaviour. For example, in Iceland, researchers have found that two MPs from different parties will vote 0.5 to 1 percent more similarly when seated next to each other compared to MPs from different parties who sit apart. This effect on the MPs sitting together disappears when they are moved apart in later years.18 While this may not translate to votes crossing the aisle in the British Columbian context, it is at least foreseeable that being in closer physical proximity to Members of the opposite team could open lines of communication and reduce heckling.
“…As we plan to shift back to normal”
It is important to acknowledge that at the same time we were surveying and interviewing MLAs, the physical Chamber was not being used in its traditional capacity. With the pandemic came a shift to virtual life, and the hybrid model that has been in use for months has become the new routine. Morden even described British Columbia as “[t]he closest thing to a pandemic virtual parliament in Canada.”19 Though we are over a year into the pandemic and the Speaker is still having to remind Members to unmute their microphones, the question remains as to whether a permanent transition to the hybrid model will be in the B.C. Legislative Assembly’s future “as we plan to shift back to normal.”
When asked about their general level of satisfaction with the current hybrid model, over three quarters of respondents indicated that they were satisfied or highly satisfied. While satisfaction might be high in the midst of the pandemic (when no one has much choice in the matter), we wondered how the level of satisfaction with the hybrid model might change post-pandemic. When asked if there was anything about the hybrid model that they would like to maintain beyond the pandemic, a large majority of respondents indicated that they appreciate some aspects and wanted to see those aspects carried into the future. Fifty-three per cent of respondents wanted to keep the hybrid model as it is now, and 23 per cent suggested keeping parts of the hybrid model but not to the extent that it is currently used. The last 23 per cent signified that they would not like any part of the hybrid model to remain after a full return to in-person life is deemed safe.
Bittner and Thomas describe how, at the federal level, “[t]here seems to be some concern that anything that takes MPs away from the Chamber is uniformly bad, despite no clear explanation of why this is perceived to be problematic.”20 Similarly, the respondents of our survey who were opposed to maintaining any part of the hybrid model post-pandemic provided little explanation as to why it should be discontinued. Bittner and Thomas cite critics of the federal virtual model that argue it creates a “feeble” or “fake Parliament.”21 In the B.C. context, one Member took issue with the hybrid model allowing Members to read from their computer screens, calling into question the level of engagement or quality of debate when looking at one’s colleague through a screen. Another MLA stated that “[p]ersonal interaction is very important to the quality of governance.” It is difficult to express exactly what is lost without face-to-face interaction, but there is something to be said about missing the humanity of politics. Representing this in an Estimates debate, Premier John Horgan commented that Members having only met and interacted with each other online “does not lead to collegiality,” but rather “leads to misunderstanding and distrust.”22 Loss of direct and frequent access to one’s fellow Members also leads to a loss of informal discussions, meaning Members are prevented from canvassing a wide range of issues that cannot be raised through formal channels but are nonetheless important to their work. Last, though certainly not least, some Members may simply be experiencing the widespread feeling of “Zoom fatigue.”
On the other hand, however, Bittner and Thomas argue that allowing for the continuation of virtual voting could be a significant benefit to representatives who are working parents or who must travel comparatively long distances to attend in person.23 Many Members of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly appear to agree on both fronts. Eight respondents specifically mentioned the importance of maintaining a hybrid model for the benefits it provides to working parents, and nine referenced the ease of the travel burden – and carbon emissions from travel – for those in ridings that are farther away. Simply saving time and costs was enough to sway others. There was also a general sentiment among hybrid supporters that maintaining the hybrid model would foster diversity.
Although in many ways the hybrid model mirrors the traditional procedures in the Chamber, some practices have not been maintained through the change, including Members’ ability to heckle. The microphones of Members who participate virtually are muted when they have not been called upon to speak. Those who are physically present in the Chamber are able to interject as normal, under the watchful eye of the Speaker of course, but they account for less than half of the Members on any given day. One MLA described heckling as “simply part of Question Period…part of the energy in the room.” So what happens when we lose out on some of this energy? For some respndents, this change may not be a bad thing. In a 2021 survey of 800 British Columbians, there was “wide support” for initiatives promoting respectful behaviour within the Legislative Assembly.24 In the same survey, 57 per cent of respondents supported establishing an all-party parliamentary committee to examine parliamentary decorum, including heckling. For Question Period in particular, 41 per cent of respondents wanted to eliminate clapping, 55 per cent wanted to eliminate the banging of desks, and 63 per cent wanted to eliminate heckling. At least for Members joining online, these changes have been realized.
Many of the Members who signified that the hybrid model was, at least in part, something they would be open to continuing highlighted the importance of choice; when hybrid is no longer necessary during a pandemic, Members should have the opportunity to decide whether or not they go back to work in the office full time, they argued. Some respondents raised the option of the virtual model for specific kinds of gatherings, such as meeting in committees or gathering to vote. Others suggested working from home a few days a week or a few weeks per session. On the surface, providing Members the opportunity to pick the model that best suits the variables in their own lives seems to be a fair approach. However, what remains to be seen is the extent to which people’s perceptions of these choices, both the public and the Members themselves, impact political behaviour or value judgements more broadly. Like the critiques levied at the federal level, some Members or portions of the public might view those who choose to participate virtually more often as weakening Parliament. As working in person signifies going back to normal, will this form of participation be valued more? Will those Members who work from home for any variety of reasons be disadvantaged or left out of opportunities for informal interaction? In each aspect of Chamber design that we have discussed, we have looked at the potential implications of these design aspects on political behaviour, but these same design changes can communicate or foster certain values.
Our interest in this topic sprouted from a practical question: if the number of MLAs in the Chamber is expanded, what changes will be made to accommodate their presence? However, the most interesting topics of discussion often bring up more questions than they do answers. Through our initial research we looked at potential design changes and the possibility that these changes will influence political behavior; but these same design changes can communicate, or even instill, particular values. What values would Members of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly like to see represented in their parliamentary workplace, and what might they be ready to leave behind? Separate desks and chairs promote individualism and put a barrier between individuals and their fellow legislators. The ‘opposing benches’ style of seating and the two sword lengths promote competition and antagonism. The habit of Members sitting strictly among members of their own party encourages a mentality of us versus them. Alternatively, sitting side-by-side in benches with no desk as a shield, intermingled with colleagues in the shape of a horseshoe, semi-circle, or circle might promote the values of consensus and collaboration. In the case of the hybrid model, Members who advocated for its continuation voiced the importance of values such as diversity, work-life balance, and accessibility. If a decrease in heckling or an increase of overall civility is something MLAs or the public value, the hybrid model may also lend itself to this.
As Goodsell notes, “unless fire or wartime destruction intervene, long-used legislative houses and chambers are lovingly preserved as testaments to a venerable past.”25 This dedication to the past was echoed by several other respondents, many of whom requested simply: “please don’t change it.” However, we believe British Columbia is being presented with a real opportunity to evaluate and adjust the values physically embodied in the Legislative Chamber. The Chamber was designed and constructed at a time when most British Columbians could not dream of occupying one of its seats, let alone vote for those who could. Given that the Chamber has not changed significantly since that time, it follows that the space is unable to accommodate the needs of those with diverse abilities and identities. Several MLAs recognized this and expressed a desire to adjust accordingly. In their words, “the building and its interior design need to adapt and change to reflect the body of people we serve,” and if other design changes accompany the addition of seats, this might just be possible.
“All fine architectural values are human values, else not valuables.”
Frank Loyd Wright
* This article was researched and written when the chamber was not operating at full capacity.
1 Charles Goodsell, “The Architecture of Parliaments: Legislative Houses and Political Culture,” British Journal of Political Science, vol. 18, no. 3, 1988, 287.
2 Ibid, 288.
5 Ibid, 296.
7 Ibid, 298.
8 David Mulder van der Vegt, Max Cohen de Lara, Parliament, XML: Amsterdam, 2016.
9 The survey asked “Which style of seating plan is your preference and why?” and required a write-in response. In cases where respondents indicated multiple options as their preference, all were included in the tally to determine which option had the most overall support. If a respondent gave any indication that one of the options they listed was preferred over another they listed, only the primary preference was included in the tally.
10 Leanne-Marie McCarthy-Cotter, Matthew Flinders, Tom Healey, “Design and Space in Parliament,” in Exploring Parliament, ed. Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Louise Thompson, Oxford University Press: New York, 2018, 54.
11 Ivor Shipley, “The Parliament Building of Malaysia,” Journal of the Parliaments of the Commonwealth, vol. 46, 1965, 177-81.
12 Don Couturier, “The Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building: Honouring our Past and Embracing our Future,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 37, no. 1, 2014. http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?param=218&art=1570
13 Tim Mercer, “Consensus Government in the Northwest Territories: Westminster with a Northern ‘Twist,’” Canadian Study of Parliament Group Studies of Provincial and Territorial Legislatures, 2014, 9. http://cspg-gcep.ca/pdf/CSPG_NWT_Legislature-e.pdf
14 John Parkinson, “Assemblies II,” in Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance, Oxford University Press, 2012, 81.
15 Charles Goodsell, “Architectural Power,” in What Political Science Can Learn from the Humanities, ed. R. A. W. Rhodes, S. Hodgett, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, 213.
16 “Better politics by design; Parliamentary chambers.” The Economist, vol. 432, no. 9153, 27 July 2019, p. 52.
17 Robert Marleau, Camille Montpetit, “The Physical and Administrative Setting,” in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, McGraw-Hill: Montreal, 2000, 234.
18 Donghee Jo, Matt Lowe, “Social interactions of lawmakers and the partisan divide: A natural experiment in Iceland,” Working Paper, 2020. http://www.dongheejo.com/assets/pdf/PCH.pdf
19 Mike Morden, “Canadian Parliaments Respond to COVID-19,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 43, no. 3, 2020. http://www.revparlcan.ca/en/canadian-parliaments-respond-to-covid-19/.
20 Amanda Bittner and Melanee Thomas, ”Making a Bad Thing Worse: Parenting MPs and the Pandemic,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, vol. 43, no.3, 2020. http://www.revparlcan.ca/en/making-a-bad-thing-worse-parenting-mps-and-the-pandemic/.
22 British Columbia, Official Report of Debates of the Legislative Assembly (Hansard), 42nd Parl, 2nd Sess, (15 June 2021).
24 Mario Canseco, “British Columbians Want Data Access and Decorum in Legislature,” Research Co., last modified January 29, 2021. https://researchco.ca/2021/01/29/bcpoli-plecas-proposals/.
25 Goodsell, 1988, 291.