Monday, March 5, 2007

Question Period = Jerry Springer

Politicians get respect they deserve
Gordon MacFarlane Winnipeg Sun March 5

I am from time to time amused to hear politicians croak about the lack of respect they get and when political scientists and professors ponder as to the cause of this disaffection, I am likewise entertained. Reading about this "puzzling disconnect" between voters and the political process I am reminded of the "expert" who had the elephant step aside so he could identify it by its footprint.

This is not one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.

Federal politics is a rough and tumble game seldom played by innocents. Canadians today are exposed to far more political coverage than ever before and as such see much more of their politicians at work. In simple terms, many have looked and not liked what they saw.

For example, years ago the decision was made to broadcast question period from the House of Commons. A brief glimpse into life on the Hill, each day the House is in session opposition parties are entitled to a 45-minute question period.

Supposedly an opportunity to "seek information from the government" -- Mondays through Thursdays at 2:15 pm (11:15 a.m. Fridays so they can beat the traffic) -- MPs routinely set aside dignity and decorum for a contrived, embarrassing hullabaloo in the green room.

The leader of the opposition, Stephane Dion, usually gets first kick at the cat and no less than three questions to set the tone. Sometimes questions pertain to real, boring government business but if there is so much as a drop of blood in the political water, sarcasm and outrage is the norm. Usually, absent scandal in the junior ranks, the opposition leader will opt to face off with the prime minister.

After Captain Charisma has his say, the other opposition party leaders, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton, get two questions apiece and either address concerns of their own or join in the existing shriek fest. Thereafter, questions are asked in rotation from the three recognized opposition parties.

Question period should be an opportunity for Canadians to see their elected leaders at their best. Sadly, all too often what we see is mock indignation, feigned outrage and clumsy attempts at clever questions. Members from both benches engage in the type of childish behaviour better suited to a Jerry Springer audience than a parliament and Canadians tune out in droves. It is, quite frankly, hard to watch.

While it would be churlish to suggest that the moral timbre of our current parliament is any worse than those of 20, 50, or 100 years ago, there's no doubt we hear a lot more about their misdeeds. Media coverage of politics today is 24/7. Microphones are everywhere and the coverage of any misstep, real or imagined, can be crushing. Still, our leaders in Ottawa play fast and loose with nuanced versions of the truth, counting on the limited attention span of voters to see them clear.

Professional politicians need to understand that we understand; that we see them for who and what they are. Attempts to portray themselves as bastions of integrity and virtue merely offend the intelligence of average voters and widen the chasm between us and them.

Until those seeking high office in Ottawa recognize this and tone down the rhetoric, they will get the respect they deserve.