A bastion of desk-thumping — Question Period in Alberta

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There is something refreshing about checking out the Question Period of another Canadian legislature when one gets the chance, to provide a bit of a reality check as to the constant cries of “dysfunction” in whichever assembly we happen to be speaking about.  Not that I’m going to buy into the narrative of the Ottawa Bubble — something that brings to mind Rover from The Prisoner — but cross-comparing Canadian legislatures is a healthy exercise to engage in.

From first impressions, one can say that it’s a lot quieter in the Alberta than in Ottawa.  The level of general din is far reduced, and while there are individual heckles here and there, it didn’t seem to have some of the same braying tone that one finds in Ottawa.  No backbenchers calling “time!” when they think they’re being clever, and very little of the kinds of name-calling that seems to be so common from many MPs on either side of the chamber.

Perhaps the first and most immediate difference is the fact that desk-thumping remains the norm in Alberta.  After all, if you’re going to give the MPs desks, then why not insist that they use them to thump rather than applaud?  What it cuts down on immediately is the constant use of standing ovations that we see in Ottawa, where the opposition parties will give ovations when their leaders are called to speak, and anytime they think they’re making a point even though they’re really not.  It is so self-congratulatory, and maintaining desk-thumping tones that kind of atmosphere down considerably.

The lack of French in the Alberta assembly provides a key insight into the way that debate happens differently, in that there seems to be far less of a conscious playing to the camera.  In Ottawa, what we tend to see are the use of alternating French and English questions designed in such a way as to provide clips for the news on the networks of either language.  Hence, we get a lot of repeated questions, and stilted flow of questions.  Don’t get me wrong — the bilingualism of the Commons is an asset to debate, but the problem is the way in which it’s been handled, and that it’s not integrating the language organically.  Instead, it’s used as a prop to deliver messages in different regions and languages, which makes for lousy debate.

While scripts were used in the Alberta proceedings, the mini-lecterns were thankfully absent.  The one notable use of speaking notes came from Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, who used giant sheets of paper on her desk with either her member’s statement or an entire round of questions on each.  Nobody else seemed to employ those same oversized sheets, and I didn’t see ministers reading from notes or cue cards at all.  That was a change in and of itself.  It made for a less robotic delivery of answers than we find from many of the federal ministers.  That the premier was answering questions throughout the proceedings rather than just in the leader’s round also made for a better debate, and he did on occasion seem to be giving actual answers — something which almost seems novel given the way that Stephen Harper tends to conduct QP.

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The ways in which government backbenchers asked questions was also a marked change from what we see in Ottawa, and primarily, the difference is that they are far less obsequious.  While the first of the government backbench questions was a softball — asking the government about its response to the American decision regarding Keystone XL — there were actual backbench questions that were direct and not designed to elicit government plaudits, such as one on emergency room wait times still being high despite constant government investment in the issue.  I wonder about how that dynamic has come about, whether it’s because there are a lot more government backbenchers in Alberta than there are in Ottawa, that some of them are very established (I remember some of them from my days as a page nearly 20 years ago), and it gives them the freedom to be more independent because their seat is safe and they’re unlikely to get a cabinet post — the kind of dynamic that is more akin to what we see in Westminster.

The way in which the Speaker conducted affairs was also a different tone than we see in Ottawa.  Unlike Speaker Scheer, Speaker Zwozdesky is an experienced parliamentarian of at least twenty years’ service.  When some heckling occurred, he would remind members to have “more respect,” and at the end of QP, said that he would be having a conversation with the house leaders about the noise level (which didn’t seem all that bad from my perspective).  He also provided reminders about procedure at each stage — members’ statements were to be two minutes, the first round of QP was thirty-five seconds to ask and thirty-five seconds to answer, and that in the later round of QP, there were to be no preambles to questions in order to allow as many questions and answers as possible in the time allotted.  In fact, that’s a rule I wouldn’t mind seeing adopted in Ottawa if given a chance.  He would also give notice as to who the member that would be called upon next was, so as to keep the flow going and serve as a reminder that others had questions that they wanted to ask.

Overall, while not judging on the quality of the answers being given, there was certainly a change from some of the antics that I’ve grown accustomed to.  There was little playing to the back benches from certain MPs who fancy themselves to be witty, but conversely, few witty answers being given.  While size and composition of the chambers remains a large contributing factor, there was something refreshing about watching things being done a little differently, and perhaps a reminder that there are some things that Ottawa should return to — like the desk thumping.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

We don’t need MPs in short pants
How are those open nominations going anyway?
Chong’s Reformed Reform Act still misses the main mark
Take heed with Senate transformation proposals
There are no interim first ministers

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

 

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