I have two favorite television shows: the live-broadcast of Question Period in the Saskatchewan Legislature, and The Bachelor (or Bachelorette).
Both are reality television at its best. They’re dramatic; full of passion, hatred, insecurity, and power struggles. Each seems to bring out the worst in people, despite the fact they are all trying to accomplish good things. In the end, for most of the contestants, the pursuit is futile, and they more or less self-destruct on camera. Pass the popcorn.
Lately though, when watching Question Period in the Leg, I find myself more irritated than entertained. I definitely don’t walk away enlightened or encouraged by what’s happening in the place where the people we elected are making decisions about our lives, our money and our futures.
As much as I loathe the heckling, that’s not my beef. Heckling has been going on since the House opened its doors, and if anything, it’s gotten a bit tamer.
Consider this boisterous exchange in the House in 1980, between Opposition Tory MLA Colin Thatcher, who had just alleged wrongdoing in a government department (imagine that) and NDP MLA Roy Romanow, then Attorney General:
MR. THATCHER: — I’ll say it outside the House; sue me!
MR. ROMANOW: — You say it.
MR. THATCHER: — I’ll say it. You can count on it.
MR. ROMANOW: — You say it outside the House and I want you to tell me . . .
MR. THATCHER: — And I want you to sue me tomorrow. Personally, not the government, personally.
MR. ROMANOW: — …I have been around for 13 years… and I have never seen the kind of despicable performance of an opposition I have seen here tonight in this kind of an operation. Not once! I have never seen, Mr. Chairman, repeated yelling from opposite the floor, as I just did from the Rosthern, trying to shout me down, pure and simple…
Today the heckling persists, but it’s less melodramatic and more vitriolic. I mean, these are grownass adults shouting at each other and generally behaving in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in a Kindergarten classroom, nevermind the workplace, but whatever.
No, my issue is the answers being given in Question Period.
The Legislative Assembly – that place where government happens – has three key functions: Legislative (to make our laws); Financial (to manage and spend our money), and Inquiry.
From the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly website on the purpose of Inquiry:
“In order to effectively examine government activities, the Legislative Assembly must have the opportunity to seek information. The ability of members to ask questions helps form public opinion on numerous issues of importance to the province.”
Question Period is held for 25 minutes in the House every day that the Legislature is in session (there are typically two sessions a year, spring and fall, and they’re about two months each).
During Question Period, members of the Opposition are supposed to ask questions of Ministers regarding their individual portfolios – again, the purpose being to “examine government activities”, “seek information” and “ask questions” on our behalf, so we can form an opinion on “issues of importance to the province.”
The themes of the questions asked by the NDP Opposition in the spring session of 2016 have been fairly consistent: education funding (in 2016), healthcare delivery (in 2016), and fiscal management (you got it, in 2016).
The problem is the answers they received, and by extension, you and I received, from the Government of Saskatchewan.
For the 10 Question Periods that occurred between May 17th and June 6th, 2016, the Hansard reveals the 1990’s NDP government was evoked 42 times as the government’s answer to the problems of 2016.
That’s roughly four times per 25-minute Question Period, or every six minutes in the House, that the Government of Saskatchewan blamed or deflected to the old NDP government, which folded eight and a half years ago, instead of answering questions about their own*.
Let’s consider a few examples.
The second question on Day 1:
Opposition Leader Trent Wotherspoon: “With almost all of Saskatchewan already rated at either high or extreme risk of wildfire, will this government restore the $50 million that’s been cut from wildfire management since 2009?”
Premier Brad Wall: “Well, Mr. Speaker, the manner in which we budget for wildfire management in the province last year and referenced by the member opposite is very similar to what the previous NDP government did in Saskatchewan…”
May 24th, 2016:
NDP MLA Cathy Sproule: “To the minister: when will this government stop burdening the people of Saskatchewan with the costs of their poor management in our Crown corporations?”
Ministry of Crown Corporations Bill Boyd: “Under the NDP rates increased almost every single year that they were in government, with a shrinking population here in the province of Saskatchewan….”
May 30, 2016:
NDP MLA David Forbes: “Why is this government cutting valuable programs for heritage languages instead of cutting their own mismanagement?”
Ministry of Education Bill Boyd: “Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I mentioned, this is a program that is not core to the educational services that are provided by our province. I can advise the members opposite that it was their . . . When they were in government, they closed 176 schools.”
Going back to the Kindergarten classroom I mentioned earlier – can you imagine?
“Johnny, why did you break that window?”
“Because eighteen years ago Hannah’s dad broke a window.”
We know heckling in the House isn’t new, so is this strange pattern of behavior also a historical tradition?
I went back to the spring session of 1990, eight and a half years after the NDP took government away from the Progressive Conservatives. Half-blind from reading all those 2016 Hansards, I simply ran a search for the word “Devine” on each day – in five days I was up to over forty references to the sins of the conservative father.
In 1980, eight and a half years after Allan Blakeney’s NDP took over from Ross Thatcher’s government? Nada. Not so much as a reference to the year before, nevermind the previous government. And in 1989, six years after Devine took the reigns, I couldn’t find any reference to Blakeney or the 1970s.
In other words, the Romanow and Calvert-led NDP milked the anti-Devine train in Question Period for almost twenty years, so the Sask Party government is now returning the favor.
It’s pathetic, and I really expected better of this government, especially by now.
There’s one more factor, however, that I think turned Question Period into Flashback Period in recent decades.
Consider this excerpt from the April 10, 1980 Hansard, a speech made by NDP MLA Paul Mostoway:
“I’m not so sure I want all people to see the kind of despicable performance that can go on in this House thanks to most members opposite…. Consequently, I might have second thoughts if we were going to think in terms of having TV in here because I tell you one thing, if we ever allow TV in this House, not one of you would be elected if we had a provincial election.”
After much foot-dragging and delays, television cameras were finally installed in the Saskatchewan Legislature in 1983, and not long after that, so were the amplified theatrics. The business of the House went from being a crucial component of democracy, to a three-ring circus, all in a desperate bid for a cute clip on the 6’oclock news.
Now that we’ve established that Question Period has devolved into a total farce, I have a question of my own: how do we fix it?
That part, if you ask me, is simple.
Just. Stop. It.
To the fifty-one members of government: just answer the questions, because it’s your job to answer them, and it’s the Opposition’s job to ask them. Further, eighty per cent of the Opposition you’re blustering at have never been in government.
Nicole Saurer was in Grade 1 when the NDP took over in 1992.
Trent Wotherspoon’s voice was just starting to crack.
If that can’t happen, and I say this is in all seriousness – get rid of Question Period, because it is an absolute waste of time and resources. In no way is it coming close to fulfilling its purpose to “effectively examine government activities” (that’d be the government of today, not twenty years ago).
In fact, if it’s going to continue, it should be paid for by the political party, not the taxpayer, because everything that happens in those 25 minutes has nothing to do with their best interests.
Oh, and every day should close with a rose ceremony, then whoever’s left at the end of the session has to get married.
*For the record, I can only find three references in 2016 to the 80s, and two of those were Premier Wall admitting the debt was created by the Devine government.