I have been watching Question Period at Queen’s Park everyday since November. So far, here’s what I’ve learned:
It is the job of the Speaker, Steve Peters, to coax and cajole his fellow Members of Provincial Parliament into behaviour worthy of their elected positions and the matters they bring before the House. Fellow TVO producer Hilary Clark wrote a great post about Peters’ attempts to improve decorum. His is a difficult job. Peter Tabuns, NDP MPP for the riding of Toronto Danforth, likened it to “wrangling a room full of stray cats.” The one hundred and six Members of the Provincial Parliament can be testy, impatient, childish, and downright nasty. Yet, despite it all, Peters does his job with a smile on his face. Like a paternal figure, his patience at times appears bottomless and yet it clearly has limits. He is able to defuse tense situations with a joke, he even chuckles at himself from time to time, but he is not afraid to bring down the whip, don’t forget he kicked two Conservative MPPs out of the legislature in November. Norm Miller, the Progressive Conservative MPP for the riding of Parry Sound – Muskoka, called Steve Peters “the best Speaker I’ve ever experienced.” He’s got a tough job and he does it well.
It is not just the issues that the third party and the official opposition choose to ask questions about that differ; it’s also how they ask those questions. The two parties approach Question Period with a distinctly different game plan. The PCs use a broad brush, asking sweepingly general questions. They often fire questions at the Liberals like a shotgun fires buckshot, as if hoping to hit something, anything that might hurt the Liberals in the eyes of Ontario voters. For example, take Elizabeth Witmer’s line of questioning during Thursday’s Question Period. She opened Thursday’s session with a question about Premier McGuinty and his criticisms of the G-20 Summit costs, she then segued into the “billion-dollar eHealth scandal”, the “greedy” $3-billion HST , which led to a reference about unchecked spending and OLG executives, back to the HST, then McGuinty’s alleged smear campaign against Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, the Ombudsman's unreleased report on waste at the Hamilton Niagara LHIN, and, finally, once again, she returned to the HST. Andrea Horwath and the NDP, on the other hand, seem to prefer stats, figures, quotes, and the true life stories of, as they put it, “real Ontarians”. For example, during Thursday’s Question Period, Horwath stood up and quoted letters sent to her office, letters from Ontarians unanimously opposed to the HST. First she quoted a letter from Deena Moggach and then one from Jim McLeod… and then Wayne Ellis, Rick Snowdon, Alice Cupa, Richard Halifax, Wayne Moore, and Keith Grant, and that was just one line of questioning. Different parties, different styles. Which one do you think is more effective?
And finally, despite their diametrically opposing views, the name-calling, the vitriol that they bring to nearly every question period, I get the feeling that the Members of Provincial Parliament actually like one another. You can see them reluctantly laughing at their adversaries' jibes, witticisms, and creativity. From time to time you catch glimpses of them crossing the floor to talk to each other. Mind you, they are most likely discussing business and not socializing per say, but they frequently do so with a visible cordiality. According to NDP MPP Peter Tabuns, “there are people who are liked and people who are despised on both sides of the aisle”. Bob Bailey, PC MPP for Sarnia-Lambton, says it’s easy to like people across party lines because they all spend so much time together socializing at functions and working on all-party committees. I get the feeling it’s also because they know their time is, potentially, quite limited. As elected officials they have little or no control over how long they’ll actually be working together. They’re all in the same boat, so to speak. Their time together is fleeting.
Watch the show, this Sunday at 4:30 PM. Or watch it online here at tvo.org/civics101. After this week our show is on hiatus but we’ll back in the Fall.
Queen’s Park This Week, is a half hour summary of Question Period that is assembled using clips from the Queen's Park legislative assembly proceedings. The program summarizes the primary issues and discussions that have occupied the provincial legislature over the course of the week, and allow Ontarians to obtain a kind of "executive summary" of the proceedings every week that the house is in session.