Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Heckling a favourite pastime for MLAs

Question period's over-the-top antics amusing

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Ask any 22-year-old about places they like and I doubt their provincial legislature would make the list. But I'm not your average 22-year-old. The Manitoba Legislative Building is, without a doubt, my favourite place.

I remember the first time I walked into the legislature. I was 15 and on a field trip with my Canadian history class. Every room I entered took my breath away, especially the royal blue, horseshoe-shaped chamber. A few months later, I became a member of the Youth Parliament of Manitoba. Now, six years later, I'm still a member. I was elected premier in December of last year. For five days of my winter break, I get to be part of everything our MLAs experience the rest of the year.

As a Free Press journalism intern, I was delighted to shadow our legislature reporters, Bruce Owen and Larry Kusch, earlier this week. In the place that becomes my home-away-from-home each Dec. 26 to 30, it was my privilege to focus critical, journalistic eyes on the professional politicians.

The first thing to note is that we, the Youth Parliament of Manitoba, sit as a coalition rather than government and opposition. So whenever I watch question period, I'm always a little shocked, but amused, by the over-the-top antics of our province's MLAs. Not that we don't get boisterous as well, but when someone stands up to speak at YPM, people actually listen. They don't shout and jeer. We discourage heckling because it detracts from the positive sense of community we aim to build.

But heckling is a favoured pastime for our MLAs. They ask questions, not to hear the answers but to taunt that person while he or she tries to speak above the din. On the day I was there this week, one cabinet minister repeatedly made shushing gestures and sounds when the heckling got to be too ridiculous, which sadly was often. At one point, Speaker George Hickes even had to rise and with a hint of exasperation say, "I'm trying to call for order here."

A mispronounced word will prompt a deafening round of heckles unlike any other. One cabinet minister stumbled over "encapsulate" but the heckling that ensued was nothing compared to the teasing an opposition backbencher got after mispronouncing "boreal" more than once. When he finally got it right, the whole house erupted into applause.

A few years ago at one of YPM's sessions, I completely mispronounced "awry" as I presented a bill, yet one of my fellow ministers at least waited until I sat down to correct me.

But what bothered me most about question period that day was one particular heckle that came from an opposition backbencher. I don't remember the topic, I only remember one voice crying out about all the kids going to Alberta for jobs, anyways. Such pessimism, such ignorance. Maybe that was the case with a few of my peers from my small, rural high school. But among my fellow youth parliamentarians, hundreds whom I've met over the last six years, the thought of fleeing to Alberta never really crosses our minds.

I consider myself fortunate to call Manitoba home and that has much to do with how well this province is governed by our MLAs. So don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to expose their flaws. I want to understand how they work.

It's a process few people my age are aware of, unfortunately.

I couldn't help but be proud when I saw YPM alumnus Bill Blaikie in his element this week. Forty years ago, he might very well have sat in the chair he sits in today.

And for me, Blaikie is like a bridge between past and present or a window to future possibilities.

Our political leaders aren't as removed from our demographic as many young people believe. Hey dudes, they're closer than you think.

Jennifer Pawluk grew up in Teulon, Man. She has a BA (Hon.) in English from the University of Winnipeg and is now studying journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2009 A5

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