Opinion

Please Advise! I'm the Speaker, Not Parliament's Babysitter

If anyone can help turn petulant crybabies into dignified MPs, it's totally Steve Burgess.

By Steve Burgess 30 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous columns here.

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Photo of 'L'affaire Calandra' by Press Progress.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a Ph.D in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

I am at my wit's end. Every day I am forced to deal with a room full of unruly children. They don't listen to me -- it seems my authority means nothing. A bunch of kids in short pants are running rampant while I sit in the middle like a glorified babysitter. They don't pay me enough to do this job, but I can't go on strike. I'm non-union -- there's only one of me.

What to do?

Sincerely,

The Honourable Andrew Scheer
Speaker of the House
Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Dear Mr. The Honourable,

It's so easy for outsiders to judge, isn't it? Smug, childless types who see some little tyrant going berserk in a supermarket check-out line because Mom won't buy him a Snickers bar -- we're so sure we could do better. We'd keep that punk in line. And if we were Speaker of the House, we'd show discipline. We'd get Conservative MP Paul Calandra to treat Question Period with respect instead of spouting non-sequiturs about Israel. We'd soon have those childish, hooting, heckling MPs in check. We'd restore dignity to Canadian politics.

Sure. The problematic word there is "restore." There is considerable argument over whether parliaments and congresses have ever been anything other than houses of ill-repute, here or elsewhere. Certainly those who say the problem has lately become worse must deal with the example of Representative Preston Brooks, who in 1856 beat Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate. There's never been a whole lot of respectful behaviour in the halls of governance.

But having said that, Mr. Speaker, you have not done much of a job. When you made your statement in reply to Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair's criticism, you proclaimed that as far as you're concerned non-answers are a non-problem, repeating a previous Speaker's little joke: "That is why it's called Question Period, not Answer Period." Very true. That's also why it's called "cynical bullshit," not "responsible governance."

A chance for change

We long ago realized that we can't really expect much from Question Period other than gamesmanship, heckling, and schoolyard taunts. But L'affaire Calandra has at least thrown a spotlight on the issue and that provides you, Mr. Speaker, with a chance to make changes. One approach would be to use your powers to force politicians to treat each other with dignity and respect, and coerce government ministers to provide serious answers to serious questions. After that, you can stop people from mentioning Hitler in online comment threads, achieve consensus on proper toilet paper installation, and convince Justin Trudeau and Ezra Levant to hug it out.

But failing all that -- as you surely must -- why not make Question Period a truly useful source of information? When an opposition MP asks a question about, say, our activities in Iraq, why not suggest that government members reply with tasty recipes or home repair tips? This time of year, a lot of us are being driven crazy by swarms of fruit flies in the kitchen. What if Paul Calandra had answered Thomas Mulcair with a list of handy suggestions for dealing with these infestations? He'd be a hero instead of a pariah, and people would once again realize that Canadian politicians can play a helpful role in our lives, even as they avoid accountability like eight-year-olds avoid Brussels sprouts.

Recently, NDP MP Charmaine Borg opened up even more Commons possibilities with her offer to mention any name in the House in exchange for a $50 contribution. Even better, Borg offered to say "Resistance is futile" for $1,000, the price reflecting her canny assessment of Star Trek fanaticism. (Too bad Quebec Liberal candidate Michel Picard was defeated in 2011 -- he'd have battled Borg. Maybe MP/astronaut Marc Garneau could handle this threat?) Borg's innovative approach could see MPs follow the example of English Premier League soccer teams or even NASCAR drivers and cover themselves with advertising. It might even help voters understand each party's platform. When a Conservative MP rises to speak in the House wearing a shirt that shows off the Pennzoil logo, it could go a long way toward clarifying the official government position.

Elsewhere, in democracy...

There are places in the world where democracy is having a good month. Massive turnout in Scotland's recent independence referendum showed what can happen when the populace is truly engaged, and unlike me, most voters probably focused on deeper issues than the potential loss of Ginger Spice's wardrobe.

Meanwhile, courageous protesters have flooded the streets of Hong Kong, fighting to keep what modest portion of democracy Beijing has allowed them. Hong Kong has more political freedom than mainland China, and unrestricted web access too. Ordinarily, I am opposed to the kind of censorship employed by the Chinese government, which bans websites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter in mainland China. But in this case, I am almost sad to know that YouTube is still available in Hong Kong. I would hate to have those valiant Hong Kong residents see videos of Paul Calandra in Question Period and think, "This is what we're risking our necks for?" They might just put down the signs and go home.  [Tyee]

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