"We are assembled before Thee," the Speaker of the House began, to seek "Thy will...for the honour of Thy name and for the welfare of all our people."
With that awkward bit of piety, the daily business of Manitoba's elected leaders commenced. Stragglers trickled in to their seats as routine business was dispensed with. Guests in the public gallery were introduced. On the day I attended, visitors included the ambassador of Mexico and elementary students whose teachers saw fit to subject young minds to the inanity that would follow.
Then it was game time. With three blustery references to broken promises and one to nose-stretching, the Tory leader of the opposition, Brian Pallister, opened the floodgates of poor form. The NDP premier Greg Selinger and pretty much everyone else who spoke were swept up in the half-hour tide of heckles, jeers, sneers, guffaws, and insults known as question period.
Welcome to the real world dear fifth-graders in the gallery. Except it isn't the real world. How many people routinely call other people liars to their face in front of groups of children?
But this was a typical day at the Leg--undoubtedly similar to typical Question Periods across the country. It happened to be a Wednesday in May in Winnipeg. Following a lunch meeting nearby, someone suggested we attend question period because matters of interest to us were to be raised.
I had witnessed question period in Ottawa but never in my home province. I pretty much knew what to expect but I still found it jarring. The full, live version is much worse than the clips shown on the news. With the audio feed heard on the news, Question Period is often an undecipherable blur of unpleasant noise.
But as popular as it is to deride politicians, we live in a democracy and that means we the people are ultimately responsible. And, evidently, it is we who will need to stop the antics because our politicians don't seem to have a prayer of doing it on their own.
I don't believe Manitoba's MLAs are really as nasty as they appear in question period. While both sides accuse the other of essentially wanting to eviscerate the economy and destroy the province, my skepticism does not run quite that deep. Both sides hold views I consider misguided, and the allure of power is potent, but I still believe elected leaders care about "the welfare of all (their) people."
How then does it happen that they regularly abandon their best instincts? How have they become addicted to animosity?
The issue is not just decorum in question period. Good conduct during that session would represent a general focus on the good of the people over partisan showmanship. It would demonstrate concern for the functionality of government.
Critical issues were raised that Wednesday: a massive hydropower expansion, ER wait times, sexual assaults on minors. But it felt like the questions and answers were as much about scoring political points in front of the cameras as making Manitoba better. It was hard to pick the genuine sincerity out of the pettiness. The common refrain of "shame" seemed to aptly sum up the whole thing.
It's time for we Manitobans to send a collective directive to our leaders.
Why can't the premier and the leader of the opposition demand that their MLAs refrain from heckling, name-calling, inane repetition and unnecessarily charged language? That would at least bring them up to the level of civility expected in any fifth grade classroom.
Maybe we can turn question period into something worthy of the attendance of our province's young people and the invocation of spiritual honour.
A version of this article first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.
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