“There comes a time when what is needed is not just rhetoric, but boots on the ground.”
— W. Baldwin Spencer,
prime minister of Antigua
Much is being made about the fact that the House of Assembly will not reopen until spring.
Many people want to see their elected officials on the job, and they haven’t been in their seats since the fourth session of the 46th General Assembly ended May 31.
Some people dismiss politicians as a shiftless bunch of slackers who, if the House isn’t in session, don’t even bother to show up for work.
But take a look at Hansard, the official record of House proceedings, and you might change your mind about that.
Just how much work is being accomplished in the House?
On May 10, for example, after taking turns standing to congratulate a bantam hockey team, salute a local Lions Club, note a cadet corps’ anniversary, welcome a delegation from Greenland and encourage people to fill out the census, MHAs got down to the people’s business.
Among the exchanges recorded for posterity was this one, in response to a question from the Liberals on Muskrat Falls:
MR. SPEAKER: The honourable the Premier.
SOME HONOURABLE MEMBERS: Hear, hear!
PREMIER KATHY DUNDERDALE: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, we have been dealing with the same series of questions. We are into our sixth or seventh week here in the House of Assembly, Mr. Speaker, and we have been dealing with the same five questions. Mr. Speaker, it does not —
MR. KELVIN PARSONS: (Inaudible).
PREMIER DUNDERDALE: — I hear the House Leader for the Opposition shouting across the way. It does not seem to matter —
MR. KELVIN PARSONS: (Inaudible).
MR. SPEAKER: Order, please!
Do you feel served by this level of political discourse? Does it sound like a fruitful exercise? Opposition MHAs — in short supply — shouting down their opponents; members of the government using strength in numbers to drown out the opposition.
Is this what you want to pay them for? Or would you rather have your MHAs working on the ground, dealing with issues that affect people’s everyday lives and guiding constituents through the maze of bureaucracy to access programs and services?
Is it enough that MHAs are seen to be working — by asking and answering questions in a televised session at the House?
Here’s a meandering soliloquy from May 30, this time from Justice Minister Felix Collins. To be fair, he’s not the only minister guilty of verbosity, but this statement is fairly representative.
And, don’t worry, it’s only an excerpt — the entire statement ran a whopping 2,714 words (and God knows how many minutes):
MR. FELIX COLLINS: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
I am delighted this afternoon to be able to make some soothing comments on the Budget. It seems we are at that stage where they might be needed.
This is a process we go through: Budget debate. My colleague, the Honourable Minister of Finance, has brought down a tremendous Budget. It is called an election-year Budget and we cannot help that, it happens to be an election year. It is a great Budget, filled with great initiatives, and the Opposition continues to criticize us for praising up the Budget. Well, of course we are going to praise the Budget because it has some great initiatives to it. …
Mr. Speaker, the Budget process is a long and complex process, and I came into it when I was first appointed to this portfolio back in October, two years ago. I must say, my experience with Finance was rather limited at that time, but it was baptism by fire, Mr. Speaker, having to work with a budget of $250 million. Let me tell you, it was an eye-opening, exciting, and interesting experience. I learned about such things as zero budgeting, drop balances, lap funding, and re-profiling — words I had never heard before.
Then, at the end of the day, you go and make your presentation before the Finance Minister and the Premier, and for the first occasion, that can be a rather intimidating experience when you are trying to get approval for a $250 million Budget. Especially when you go into that meeting and you try to crack a joke and you get no smiles across the table, then you know you are in for quite an experience. Anyway, it is an experience, really, everybody should be aware of, and everybody should, to some extent, I suppose it would be great if everybody went through it, but that is not possible.
OK, we get it. Budgets are tough. Math is hard.
Do we really want our politicians sitting around the House, occasionally standing to deliver agonizingly long and sometimes near-incoherent ramblings?
House work is vital
Now, I’m not saying we should shut down the legislature. It is crucial that government members be held to account by opposition members, and vice-versa.
What I am saying is that House procedure is due for an overhaul.
Government: cut the bombast. Opposition: stop opposing things for the sake of opposing them.
There is no need for long, windy statements or juvenile heckling. Questions should be short and direct and answers should be focused and factual, not evasive or nonsensical.
Strictly limit the time people are allowed to speak. Set House sessions of a reasonable duration and frequency so legislation can be introduced throughout the year.
Meanwhile, the opposition can keep pressure on the government and the media can keep probing issues on citizens’ behalf.
Frankly, I’m less concerned with what’s not happening when the House is closed and more worried about what’s happening when it’s open.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s
story editor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.