Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cool it!

When you watch the House of Assembly, or any other Legislature for that matter, you have to remember that you are watching a piece of theater.

Not all the time - some debates really are for the benefit of the other members. But most times the show is for the benefit of the cameras and the media and Question Period is at the center of it. It provides the most interesting drama because it's short, compact and conflict-driven.

For the media, it's the highlight of the House day - they show up for the sitting, watch QP, do their scrums with the MHAs afterwards and then, as often as not, head out to cover other stories.

I'm not saying that anything would change if the media devoted more time to covering other parts of the House operations. I doubt it would. But because the media attention is concentrated to that time, MHAs have every incentive to make the best of it.

One thing that's important to understand is that it's called Question Period and not Answer Period for a reason. A well-prepared Opposition will ask questions with the point of just getting the question on the record; whether they receive an answer or not is besides the point. Just getting the question out can be enough because they know a well-prepared minister will never get pinned down.

It's a game and when it's well played, it's really something to watch. If you ever get the opportunity, watch the Prime Minister's Question Period on Friday nights on CPAC. Prime Minister Blair stands up in the the mother of Parliaments and takes on questions from all comers. It is a true display of dazzling parliamentary virtuosity; he's cool, collected, informed and informative and dances like a master.

Part of the game is the emotional tone. Around here the Opposition acts outraged that they even have to raise whatever question they are asking and the Government acts outraged that the Opposition has the nerve to bring up something so inconsequential and irrelevant.

Sometimes they do vary the tone and veer into wildly different areas like umbrage, self-righteousness or they act affronted, aggrieved, incensed, infuriated, injured, insulted, scandalized, shocked or indignant

But most of the time it's just outrage and that constant diet of outrage can be wearying at times. It would be more interesting if the folks in the House could come up with something else but outrage is where they're comfortable, it's what they can do, so it's how they perform.

Most times it's just feigned - the Opposition *acts* outraged and the Government members respond in kind.

Then there are other times when the House becomes a well and true rat's nest of intense negative emotions, when members lose control and their cool and all sides get into things that they shouldn't.

There are some Opposition members who are masters at baiting Ministers and, especially, the Premier. They know just what buttons to push and just how to needle to make their victim spin out of control.

The game for the Oppostion is to make their victim lose control; the game for the victim is to stay cool and never lose control.

One of the giants of this game, on the victim side anyway, was the Rt Hon. Herb Gray. When the Opposition would ask him a question, he'd get up slowly and just start talking so the "Gray fog" descended upon the chamber obscuring everything, especially the issue at hand.

He never lost his cool and never become upset; he was a master of the game.

You only have to watch a couple of QP's of the local House to see that Premier Williams can be easily provoked into a high-speed top-like spin. And since his definition of what constitutes a "personal attack" is so broad (anything he's not keen to hear), it makes him especially vulnerable to provocation.

So when Premier Williams loses his temper and challenges a member to "repeat his comments outside" (more likely to see pigs flying overhead) and says "I'll sue your ass off", he has thrown up the white flag, announced to the world that he's lost control and that he's lost the argument too; he's given up the fight.

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