When I was a child, my parents took me to see question period. I’m told that as we left I turned to them and asked, in earnest, “when’s answer period?”
I was in Ottawa yesterday, so I decided to take a stroll up to the Hill and see if things have changed. On the way I passed Jean ChrÃ©tien, smiling and greeting people on the Sparks Street Mall. I got the sense that he was out in public just to do a friendly meet and greet. Well done, Ottawa.
Once I’d gone uphill, however, everything else went downhill. It won’t surprise you to learn that not only has question period gotten worse, it’s no longer even suitable for children. (Nor is the Hill itself, unfortunately, where one protester has deemed it necessary to erect a large gory photo of a purportedly aborted fetus right beside the centennial flame. My friend’s six-year-old was profoundly disturbed.)
Past security and sitting in the diplomat’s gallery overlooking the House of Commons, it didn’t take me long to pick out my Member of Parliament, Bob Rae, sitting on the front bench to the right of StÃ©phane Dion. As the leader of the opposition began question period with a lame inquiry about someone’s ex-girlfriend, Bob looked bored. His head was down, focused on his blackberry.
Normally I’m disgusted with the prime minister’s dismissive and nasty tone, but I can’t fault him this time. He joked that while he always encourages his caucus to at least introduce him to their dates, the only thing he really cares about regarding their dating lives is that they show up on time for work in the morning. There may be a real issue here somewhere, but it’s hardly the most pressing thing for the opposition to be spending their time on.
Two or three questions in, Bob’s head was still down, now writing a note on a piece of paper. Once done he propped up his head with his hand. Maybe he just gives off unfortunately incorrect signals, but he really looked—as he often did during the campaign—like he wished he was somewhere else. As someone who campaigned to sit in the seat he now occupies, that seemed particularly uncool.
The low point of the hour was not as low as it could have been, but still totally unbecoming of a group of adults. Garth Turner rose to ask the Minister of Finance a question about what he was doing for the 1400 Canadians who had just lost their jobs in the auto sector. As always happens when Garth Turner asks a question, he was ignored by the intended recipient of the question and Peter Van Loan rose to answer instead. Van Loan dismissed Turner, saying that while he felt for the people who had lost their jobs, “there’s one job loss that’s outstanding, and that’s the job loss of the member from Halton who promised that if he ever crossed the floor he’d stand in a by-election.”
“Well speaker,” responded Turner, “I’m not afraid to stand on my feet unlike the Minister of Finance.” The Liberal caucus jumped to its feet to applaud what was admittedly a good comeback, but in so doing just legitimized the valuing of testosterone-fueled snipping over substantive debate. After Turner restated his question, Van Loan stood up again and said that he shouldn’t be asking them questions about work, since Conservative MPs were “a set of Canadians who understand what it is to work, cuz guess what, they show up for work, unlike the Liberal caucus. They don’t know what it is to show up for work, let alone work.” He then read out some statistics about how often Liberal MPs had shown up to vote recently.
The speaker of the house let him finish before rising to point out that referring to the presence or absence of other members is, in fact, out of order. The Conservative MPs responding by jeering and booing the speaker, who slunk back into his chair. These are the alleged adults running our government. If Canadians were forced to watch Question Period, voter turnout would drop below 25%.
Back in my hotel lobby, Elizabeth May was on the cover of The Hill Times. The article profiled Peter Russell, an author (and, judging by his appearance at one of my campaign events in 2006, a Toronto Centre resident) who argues in a new book that the Green Party’s presence as a “serious” party is “solidified,” and that that’s one of the reasons why we’re likely to see a lot of minority governments in the near future. Russell concludes that parties had better figure out how to work together and cooperate more. The alternative is an increasingly cynical electorate that becomes so sick and tired of going to the polls every two years that they, you know, stop going to the polls.
Of course I don’t disagree, but boy have we got a long way to go. Observing “answer period” would be a good start.