Decorum? Who needs it?

Bob Wakeham
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Even way back when, a mere 40 years ago, a time I first ventured into the House of Assembly press gallery to gaze with a certain amount of naiveté and perhaps intimidation upon the honourable members, there would be calls, especially at the beginning of a new session, for improvement in the "decorum" of the proceedings.

And I would wonder to myself (never aloud, being the resident rookie with not enough time under my belt to offer an opinion) why there seemed to be this exaggerated and needless emphasis placed on politeness when in excess of 40 or so men and women (well, all men for quite a while) had been placed together in a confined space to debate the living and working conditions of half a million people.

But it was always in the air, this call for congeniality, this demand for sanitized debate, this clamouring to clean up the House, as it were, from the Smallwood, Moores and Peckford eras right through to the Wells, Tobin, Grimes, Williams and Dunderdale tenures, these complaints about nastiness in the legislature, how the MHAs should be ashamed of themselves, especially when there were school children in the public galleries.

"Just look at the kind of example we are setting for those youngsters, our future politicians and leaders, Mr. Speaker," came the sanctimonious sermon from what was usually the government side of the House.

First of all, we can probably dismiss out of hand the idea that children are influenced one way or the other when forced by their school's administration to drag their little arses into the House of Assembly (in this age of the indoor kid, with limited knowledge of outdoor activities like kick the can and spotlight, the arses seem to be getting bigger).

With the exception perhaps of the odd precocious type, a member of the hard-to-take 12 going on 20 crowd, taking their exposure to democracy in the most serious of teacher-pet ways, most of the students these days are iPodding or texting, and can't wait to get down to the Confederation Building cafeteria for a plate of gravy-dosed fries and a Diet Coke.

In any case, there's always been that constant call - especially, as I say, in the first days of any session - that says that rambunctious debate should be frowned upon, that heckling is definitely out of order, that politicians should be nicer to one another.

But I always found it odd in 1972, and have so ever since, why such a big deal is made about "decorum."

What's wrong with a bit of passion, some acrimony, some fire in the bellies, even a slice of occasional meanness?

After all, these are politicians, one side striving to stay in power at all costs, the rest seeking power at all costs. Sometimes, it's just the nature of the beast that less than gracious collisions occur.

And how impossibly dull would it be, anyway, if amiability was the order of the day, if a love-in was on the agenda?

Leader of the Opposition: Mr. Speaker, I have a question for that most honourable of leaders in this House of Assembly, the premier. And may I say, just in passing, for the record, at the risk of sounding sexist, Mr. Speaker, how lovely the premier looks today. And I'd also like to preface my question with an acknowledgement that the premier has a lot on her plate, and if she requires a week or two to research and rehearse her answer, that's just hunky-dory with me and my colleagues. Mr. Speaker, I'd never want her job, a job she performs with great aplomb. She's honest and straightforward, Mr. Speaker. But I have to ask a question because that's why I'm here, Mr. Speaker, and because it's the most important issue facing Newfoundlanders today. Mr. Speaker, could I politely inquire of the premier if she has any idea what the weather will be like in Newfoundland this spring?

Premier: Mr. Speaker, I wish to thank the honourable the leader of the opposition for his question, and for giving me nine months notice of what he was going to ask. Common courtesy, Mr. Speaker, and I appreciate it. And I know he's only doing his job, Mr. Speaker, asking me such tough questions, and a grand job he's doing. And, if I may say so, at the risk of sounding sexist myself, Mr. Speaker, that the leader of the opposition is looking awfully dapper himself today. Reminds me a bit of The Man from Glad, Mr. Speaker. As to his thought-provoking question, it is one, as he noted, that weighs heavy on the minds of every Newfoundlander and Labradorian, Mr. Speaker. And I wish to politely tell him I'm going to check with that meteorologist fella over at the CBC, the guy who flipped the most pancakes there a couple of weeks back, and also see what the weather girls at NTV have to say as well, and I'll get back to him.

Now there have been times in the legislature when things got a bit out of hand: Bill Smallwood taking a poke at Bill Marshall after the Tory MHA implied Smallwood's mother might be a slum landlord; Harold Collins shoving Roger Simmons up against a wall after the Liberal member wondered whether the then-fisheries minister was in need of a few more prescription drugs; Ray Baird throwing a piece of ice from his water glass at Leo Barry, hitting the then Liberal leader in the side of the head - the legislature's own "ice storm."

And there was the moment of infamy - the late Bob Benson swore to me this was true - when George Wilson, under his breath, used a profanity usually associated with female genitalia to describe Steve Neary (it rhymes with a word meaning a small Newfoundland boat).

Talk about un-parliamentary language. My goodness gracious, Mr. Speaker might have said, if only his sensitive ears had picked up what Benson and others had heard).

But those were among the extremes. For the most part, we're talking about nasty exchanges or heckling or teasing when politicians refer to reforming legislative conduct. And it's all part of the game, I would argue.

If politicians require niceties and wish to listen to the quiet, perhaps they should join a silence-is-golden monastery or convent on some faraway mountain top, and contemplate the meaning of life for the remainder of their boring days.

There was, I must admit, a spirited and angry exchange between Kathy Dunderdale and Lorraine Michael on Tuesday. And I, for one, applauded.

Give it to 'er, ladies.

The legislature ain't for wimps.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: Assembly press, Confederation Building, The Man Newfoundlander and Labradorian CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Ken Collis
    March 10, 2012 - 11:46

    You hit the nail on the head. They all strive for POWER, not strive to help!!!

  • willy
    March 10, 2012 - 09:03

    Bob reminded me of the time I attended the "Trade School" in 1966 and a single person got "paid" by the govt a grand total of $ 3.00 per week. This amount used to cover my "chips, gravy, dressing and coke" at the Confederation Building cafeteria. Thanks for the bringing back the fond memories Bob and yes I agree with your comments.