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Question period was not always tedious

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MONTREAL -- So Nathan Cullen wants to improve the level of civility in the Canadian House of Commons. Cullen, the NDP House leader, who himself was involved in a near dust-up in the chamber in December, is of the opinion the level of customary courtesy in the Commons has taken a tumble in the last little while. So strongly does he feel about the issue that the young New Democrat has established a web page to promote his cause.

Although all Canadians wish Cullen well in that regard, many of us hope he might also examine a way to make parliamentary proceedings less stifling. Consider the daily question period, for example.

What was once an opportunity to demonstrate one's oratory and debating skills has of late been reduced to little more than a series of choreographed photo ops for the evening news. In particular, the current prime minister, with his eyes riveted on the Speaker, routinely ignores his daily interlocutors by turning his back to them while responding. This is a relatively recent occurrence in the rich history of parliamentary debate in Canada, with the end result being habitually a bland, emotionless reply from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Most of Harper's ministers mimic the same approach.

With all the memorable exchanges with Lady Astor, and many others over the years, it's hard to imagine the eloquent and feisty Winston Churchill conducting himself in such an insipid fashion.

It's worth noting question period in the Canadian Commons was not always such a tedious exercise. As a political junkie at a relatively young age, I frequently sat in the parliamentary galleries during the Pearson-Diefenbaker years of the 1960s. Most of their nose-to-nose exchanges were unforgettable to say the least. Diefenbaker, "his eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air," was certainly the more colourful of the two, but Pearson also had his moments. The intensity of parliamentary debates only increased when the Commons proceedings were first broadcast in October of 1977. Later, in 1979, when the CBC was given permission to carry the debates live, the irrefutable mastery of Pierre Trudeau in the chamber became increasingly evident. Trudeau, who rarely turned his back on anyone in public discourse, dominated the House until he retired in 1984. Bob Rae, the current federal Liberal leader but who sat with the NDP in the early 1980s, has frequently commented that you thought twice before taking on Trudeau in the daily question period.

I still occasionally watch the parliamentary broadcasts but they are no longer the same. Members regularly read their questions, as Justin Trudeau did most recently, and cabinet ministers frequently do the same with their put-together answers. Gone are the days when the Speaker would gently reprimand an MP for following "his notes too closely." No one really seems to know how to debate properly, Bob Rae being perhaps the exception. More revealing, very few even look particularly happy being there.

Instead, for my political fix nowadays, I watch the weekly Prime Minister's questions from Westminster in London (www.parliament.uk). In many respects, it reminds me of the way the Canadian Parliament used to function.

In London, Prime Minister's questions takes place every Wednesday when David Cameron makes himself available for 30 minutes to answer members' queries. The half-hour session is well-anticipated with MPs, some seated, some standing, filling the House of Commons. The government and opposition benches are considerably closer than those in Canada, which only adds to the electricity in the rather small chamber.

The most striking part of PMQs is the exchanges between the leader of the Opposition and the prime minister who are, according to early tradition, only "two swords and one inch apart." Facing each other from their respective 'despatch boxes,' the two attempt to outclass each other with their debating prowess. The colourful happening is, compared to Ottawa, sharp, informative and entertaining.

Members from all sides of the House give the impression they truly enjoy being present.

Nathan Cullen might also note what I note: Generally speaking, Westminster MPs are more civil in their behaviour. This is possibly because of the fact that, unlike Ottawa, the television camera may be focused at any time on a member in the chamber and not only when he or she is speaking. You will, for instance, quite often see the reaction of the prime minister when the leader of the Opposition is addressing him. It's a well-administered feature Cullen himself could choose to investigate.

Robert N. Wilkins is a Montreal historian and freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J6

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