Democracy in the raw
Work in Progress by Ivan Morgan
There was a story in last week’s Telegram about a high school civics class that sat in the House of Assembly gallery for Question Period. When you get to my age you have seen these stories pop up regularly, the basic theme is students appalled by behaviour of politicians in the legislature.
I have a bit of a problem with the “well behaved kids watch childish MHAs” schtick.
I was around the legislature for a long time. I was a legislative reporter, and then I worked for an opposition party. Part of that job was to listen to every minute of debate in the House of Assembly. Year in and year out.
I am here to tell you, decorum is a big issue. It always has been. Recently there have been efforts made to improve it, but it’s slow going. Sure, young people saw a lot of yelling and name calling, but that’s not the whole story.
Students are often not told MHAs behave that way because they can. They are free. They can act as they please, say (within the rules of the House) what they please, and react to others as they please. They are, in fact, their own bosses (until an election when we are). They all abide only by rules they have all agreed to.
I have seen school children sitting quietly in the House, presided over by a teacher who could discipline any unruly child. They have no say in how they behave. They are told (or taught) to sit still and be quiet. Respect authority. They are under control. MHAs are not.
In the American presidential system, the President and his cabinet can surround themselves with “yes” people and, outside of the media, never hear a word of criticism.
Our system is very different. Government MHAs certainly surround themselves with flatterers, but they must sit in the House and be told off, lambasted, and criticized by the opposition. It’s the opposition’s sworn duty to hold government to account. Is it pretty? No. Is it constructive? Not always. Is it a place for high school students? Not if they don’t understand.
Think it through. Imagine if you had to regularly sit in a room where a bunch of people who want your job got to hoot and holler at you. Imagine if your shortcomings, mistakes, and efforts were regularly, and loudly, questioned. To your face. My guess is you wouldn’t like it. Government doesn’t like it either, but that’s too bad.
The men and women in government will style themselves as authoritative, respectable, trustworthy, knowledgeable, and worthy of the power they hold. I have seen successive governments start to believe their own press and convince themselves they are the only ones who should hold power.
Government would like nothing more than a well-behaved opposition sitting quietly and respectfully, eyes forward, hands folded on their desks. Like those nice high school students in the gallery.
Not going to happen.
Opposition members will try and cut government down to size. That’s, in any case, the theory. In practice it often devolves into loud, boorish, and stupid behaviour with hoots and hollering from both sides.
People, school kids included, who watch a raucous Question Period need to understand what they are seeing. They are seeing democracy in action. They are seeing people enjoying their freedom of expression. They are seeing a large group of elected officials not getting along. They are seeing people trying to bring truth to power.
Want to see politicians sitting quietly and respectfully? The Communist Party of China recently had its twice a decade congress. Some 2,000 officials from across China come together to sit quietly and respectfully. Not one of them would dare defy the now President-for-life Xi Jinping. Not twice in any case. They all act just how Chairman Xi wants them to.
Democracy isn’t like that. It’ s noisy, messy and imperfect.
If it’s perfect order you want, check out Vladmir Putin. Sass him back and see where it gets you.