Skipping question period is not the answer
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/04/2022 (341 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CAN we really blame Premier Heather Stefanson for dodging three recent question periods? Which of us would choose to attend a place where we would be taunted and belittled?
Sadly, the important democratic tradition of question period occasionally descends into a fracas where the “honourable members” stoop to hollering and jeering of a type that would get school children sentenced to a timeout in the principal’s office.
Take, for example, the ruckus in the legislature on April 13 when the provincial budget was tabled. The heckling got so bad that Speaker Myrna Driedger was ignored as she called for order and repeatedly urged the MLAs to stop bickering. She might as well have told the wind to stop blowing.
“Democracy will only happen if all of us respect each other in here and bring forward our ideas carefully and listen to them carefully,” she reminded them. The MLAs then heckled the Speaker.
“I’m stunned that I hear somebody heckling when I’m trying to deliver this message here,” Driedger said.
Please ponder the import of this: people whom voters have entrusted to seats of privilege in Manitoba’s august legislative chamber were deriding the Speaker who is trying to stop their boorish behaviour.
It’s true the ill will that periodically tarnishes such exchanges is not unique to Manitoba’s legislature. In democratic governments around the world, elected members disparage each other in ways that are well outside the boundaries of respectful debate. It’s the nature of oppositional politics.
Should the premier, or anyone, have to put with it? Or when the Opposition goes low, is she justified in taking the high road out of there, scheduling press conferences at convenient times to let her escape the ordeal of question period?
Actually, yes, as a leader, the premier should have to attend question period. It’s an important part of her job. And an implication of her decision to avoid those crucial legislative sessions is that her colleagues must take the flak in her stead. Her empty chair means the hostile questions are inflicted on Stefanson stand-ins such as Deputy Premier Cliff Cullen and Health Minister Audrey Gordon.
Also, Stefanson’s government gives as bad as it gets, which rules out any lofty notions she is dodging question period as a role model who’s disinclined to engage in disrespectful verbal attacks.
Question period is a commendable concept, in theory. Opposition MLAs are permitted to hold the government to account, and are supposed to get serious answers to serious questions.
Ha! In reality, the questions are often devised by party strategists and loaded with scripted soundbites designed to grab media attention. The principle aim is to shame the government and thereby influence electors, which reduces question period to a forum for permanent electioneering.
For its part, the PC government tries to foil the Opposition’s shots with empty eloquence that dodges direct questions, often resorting to blaming current problems on the previous NDP government, a strategy that increasingly wears thin since it’s been six years since the NDP was in power.
A certain amount of gamesmanship is inevitable in the rough-and-tumble world of oppositional politics, but the process goes too far when it includes yelling, interruptions and personal insults. If the MLAs would be embarrassed to have their children and grandchildren watching from the visitors’ gallery, that’s an indication our elected representatives need to act more like grown-ups.
When the Speaker herself gets heckled, that’s over the line. The Rules of Manitoba Assembly give the Speaker power to discipline MLAs who interrupt or use “disrespectful or offensive language.” It’s up to Driedger to use her power to enforce a minimum level of decorum.
In Australia, the Parliamentary Speaker can tell naughty MPs to leave the House and sit for an hour in something they call the “sin bin” so they can reflect on their bad behaviour. Their Speaker once sent three MPs to the penalty box in one session.
In Canada, Peter Milliken, a retired Liberal MP who was Speaker for 10 years, has said evicting badly behaved members isn’t a deterrent because they could then get the attention they crave by holding a press conference outside the chamber. He favours hitting them in the wallet by docking them a day’s pay and expenses, such as travel and dinner.
If the Speaker would enforce better behavior from Manitoba MLAs, it might attract a better quality of political candidates. There are many reasons Manitobans of considerable competency won’t let their names stand for office — including the financial impacts of leaving the private sector and a reluctance to endure the social-media attacks people in public life inevitably face — but one factor must surely be that they’re repelled by the goading and ridiculing that is commonplace within the bearpit of the Manitoba legislature.
If we want the best and brightest to serve in Manitoba’s elected chamber, the Speaker can help by using her power to ensure a respectful workplace.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.