Reflections on a Quick Visit to Question Period

Yesterday I ducked in to question period at the House of Commons for about 45 minutes. It was my third time there – the first visit was about 10 years ago and the second time was 5 years after that.

House of Commons - pretty much the exact view from my seat yesterday

I realized yesterday that my perspective has changed somewhat in the last decade. Years ago I was a bit more in awe of Parliament and its members than I am now. Having watched the news fairly religiously from the time I was a youngster in rural Alberta, the first time I attended QP was quite thrilling. It was fascinating to see the brightly lit House of Commons in person, as well as the key players in the dance we call Canadian democracy. To those with at least a passing interest in the political process, it can be fun to see the familiar faces and hear the familiar voices, as it was for me, at least at first.

There is a certain element of celebrity in politics that can, at times, elevate the excitement for everyone. This works to the advantage of the skillful politician always mindful of their image, as well as those political followers who like to either adore or despise them.

I still respect the importance of government and the role of the MPs in the parliamentary process – to not appreciate it would be foolhardy; however life experience allows me to see things from a bit of a different angle now.

The Rotunda area - uncharacteristically quiet yesterday

While most everyone in the House seems fairly sincere in their effort to do what they think is best for the country and to genuinely help their constituents, there is still much political posturing and self-serving gamesmanship, which is rather unbecoming if not even embarrassing.

Indeed there will always be shallow by-products of politics, or any public endeavour – human nature demands it, so there is little to be gained by expecting purity of character from anyone, especially from the hungry egos often attracted to the political arena. However, we should still likely expect all elected officials to act with integrity and class, and to abide by certain principles. (An old lyric by Sting comes to mind where he likens politicians to game-show hosts).

For the most part the MPs carried themselves fairly professionally yesterday, yet I still left feeling a bit disillusioned by the process. The theatrics were obvious. Staged questions were asked, and staged answers were given. There was very little in the way of real consideration, as partisanship ran through every thread of discussion and showmanship was the order of the day.

After about 45 minutes I had my fill. Somehow it was refreshing to remove myself from the stuffy and velvety green chamber and walk outside to a beautiful afternoon, hearing kids play and run around on the thick aromatic lawn.

Yesterday at noon - the view from the outside

Despite the rhetoric and the sophistry, the House of Commons remains a fascinating place however. There is a certain buzz in the air as the political perspectives collide with one another on the banks of the Ottawa River, just north of Wellington and Metcalf. Yesterday was no exception. Here is a quick run-down of some other totally random observations for yesterday’s quick visit:

  • Security is everywhere – you have to pass through two airport-like screenings to get to the inner chamber and there are guards all over the place. You are not allowed any cameras or phones in the gallery, which is totally understandable.

  • Defense Minister Peter Mackay looked stressed as he took the predictable heat for what looks like misuse of military assets for personal convenience. Not a good way for the conservatives to start off their majority parliament.

  • The Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet were missing – not sure if it was the fact that it was a Friday, or if several ministers were away on international business, but less than half were in attendance.

  • The House Pages communicate with each other through hand signals, not entirely unlike a baseball manager would to his players.

  • MP Pat Martin from Winnipeg asked the best question and had the most genuine presence in the house. He received a spirited standing ovation from the opposition and could likely be the next leader of the NDP, if he were interested, and if it was decided by merit rather than the politics of politics, as usual.

  • The House is a serious place – there are lots of earnest, tired and even unhappy looking people. (For example Justin Trudeau seemed a bit gaunt and worn out.) After having maneouvered themselves to get there, some of them even in Machiavellian ways, you wonder if the MPS are happy where they have ended up.

  • The demographic has shifted, for the better – while white males over the age of 40 still abound, the make-up of Parliament is becoming more representative of the Canadian population – i.e. younger, with more females and more visible minorities. There are now many MPs well under 40, thanks in part to the recent NDP near sweep of Quebec.

  • MPs from Eastern Canada seem to have a bit more political bite. Excluding Martin from Winnipeg, it seemed to me that those with an east-coast accent delivered the punchiest questions and in some ways were the most effective in opposition.

  • The Environment minister is clearly too concerned with short-sighted economics and not enough with very real and serious issues that affect our whole planet, which, in the long-term certainly includes our economy!

  • House Speaker Andrew Scheer look younger than his 32 years. It is great to see such a pleasant, youthful and soft-spoken person as the Speaker of the House – in some ways he seems out-of-place, but his election will no doubt help stem some of the generational divide in politics.

  • An odd in-congruence – Leaving Parliament Hill and driving quite literally for less than ten minutes (in my case, on an errand) you can easily get the definite sense that the world of politics is, in part, incredibly detached from the day-to-day lives of so many people. Especially those who are living in real poverty. The three-piece suits, the loud voices, the poofy hair, and never-ending hand-shaking is very much of a different sort of world altogether.

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