Monday, February 23, 2004

Question Period makes Liberal MLAs look foolish

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - I admire MLAs. They work hard, they're committed and they sacrifice a huge amount to serve.
Maybe that's why I get so worked up when I see them behaving badly. Like Mike Hunter, Rob Nijjar, Randy Hawes and Jeff Bray.
When this session started, and those four MLAs got the chance to stand up in Question Period and ask the premier or any cabinet minister a question on behalf of their constituents, they blew it.
Question Period is only 15 minutes a day. It's precious time, when backbenchers stand on equal footing with the big guys, and the reporters - and some TV viewers - are paying close attention.
So what did they want to know, this quartet? They're bright; they represent Nanaimo, Vancouver, Mission, and Victoria respectively. You would expect insightful questions, a reflection of what people who live in their communities really want to know about the government's direction.
Instead you got posturing.
On Feb. 12 Hawes and Bray had their moment, and used it to ask Finance Minister Gary Collins to respond to on a budget commentary from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a leftish alternative to the Fraser Institute. On Feb. 16, Nijjar had the spotlight, able to ask any question on behalf of his community. He asked Collins to reflect on the same CCPA budget commentary.
On Feb. 17, Hunter had his chance to ask questions on behalf of the people of Nanaimo. He asked Economic Development Minister John Les to comment on the same CCPA budget commentary.
I accept that the Liberals are looking for ways to paint Carole James as fiscally irresponsible. Lord knows, based on the last NDP government's track record, that's a genuine concern for voters.
And I accept that the NDP government's decision to award $200,000 in grants to the CCPA in the last days before the election looks dubious, and makes the association an easy target.
I'm even willing to accept the fact that Liberal MLAs kept picking away at the CCPA report in the so-called debate on the budget. Some day MLAs may actually offer their real insights and analysis in even routine debates, but the reality is that for now debates are generally a political performance. The Liberals want to convince people that the New Democrats are tax-and-spend wastrels. The CCPA proposals include a range of tax and fee increases. By claiming those are the New Democrat positions, the Liberals hope to convince voters that it's true or force NDP leader Carole James to offer more specifics.
But Question Period should be special. Traditionally, the opposition grills the government. But with the two-person NDP opposition limited to one set of questions each, Liberal backbenchers have had a chance to represent their constituents.
I don't expect them to try and embarrass ministers; but there is every reason to expect them to raise important local issues, and to push for answers and results.
And the best the quartet can do is asked repetitive, silly questions.
It's not just this issue.
Liberal MLAs regularly embarrass themselves with scripted softball questions that could be roughly summarized as "Could the minister tell us what a great job he's doing?" They virtually never follow up, or press for more detail
I don't want to be seen as critical of the MLAs. They are all working harder for their communities than I ever have, and accomplishing more. I accept their assurances that they are pressing hard for their communities behind the scenes. And they certainly have a role in helping the government's PR efforts.
But some of the crueler people in the Press gallery describe their daily Question Period efforts as "stooge questions."
They're right. And the MLAs deserve better, as do the people they represent.
Ultimately, the Liberals would also find that some real, effective public representation from backbenchers would help reverse the party's long slide in the opinion polls.
Footnote: The Liberals have engineered Question Period as a showcase for the competence of cabinet ministers and the government. In the process, they've made their backbench MLAs - many facing tough re-election battles - look like people who have no idea what's important to their communities. It's inaccurate and unfair.

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