OTTAWA — Disturbing. Disappointing. Harmful. Infuriating.
These are just some of the adjectives used by rookie MPs to describe their first impressions of Canada’s Parliament.
As they begin their summer break, Liberal Justin Trudeau, Conservative Shelly Glover and New Democrat Megan Leslie offer a remarkably similar assessment of the place.
In interviews, all three cited frustration with an environment they described as unnecessarily nasty and counter-productive.
Their first session immediately began with a partisan-fuelled crisis last fall: the government sought to cut off opposition parties’ funding, and the opposition responded by forming a coalition to take power.
A particularly low light they all cited was the daily question period — a 45-minute ritual where opposition MPs read scripted questions, government members reply with rehearsed insults, and the rest of the chamber drowns them out with catcalls and heckles.
Trudeau describes last week’s events as a warning.
While political Ottawa was gripped by a high-stakes confidence showdown between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, the rest of the country was rolling its eyes in indifference.
Trudeau says that if people won’t even pay attention anymore to the potential collapse of the government, it’s a pretty clear sign they’re swearing off politics completely.
“Canadians are tuning us out,” said Trudeau, a first-time Montreal MP.
“Everything we’ve been through this past week — all the election, no election, posturing, fighting. … When even something this big and attention-grabbing just has people go ’Oh, they’re at it again. Why can’t they just make things work?’, it’s really harming our system.
“The more we … try to shout louder than everyone so someone will notice, the more people will turn down the volume and tune us out completely. … They won’t listen when you’re shouting loud anymore — so let’s speak softer.”
Glover, a former police officer from Manitoba, has a few ideas about how to improve elements of the parliamentary experience that she calls “disappointing” and “disturbing.”
She wishes question period could be cancelled altogether.
She also believes more committee meetings should be held behind closed doors, without media present, because politicians spend less time grandstanding and more time working on solutions in the absence of TV cameras.
“I was shocked. We spend an awful lot of time in Ottawa participating in theatre,” Glover said.
“And I call it theatre because much of it is orchestrated — and that’s unfortunate because I could be doing much better work for my constituents on the ground . . . and unfortunately I’m here playing the game of politics.
“I don’t think Canadians sent us here to play this game, just to see who’s going to be in power. That’s what it’s all about.”
Leslie, a Nova Scotia New Democrat, says question period can be more than a partisan slag-fest where politicians’ ultimate goal is to shout and emote their way into a six-second sound bite on the national news.
It should be the time of day, she said, when government is asked to account for its decisions and forced to share information with Canadians.
Last week offered a rare example of question period actually yielding news.
The government used one question about Abousfian Abdelrazik — a man stranded in Sudan on national-security grounds — to make a wisecrack about the NDP’s national-security policy.
But in response to another question from the Liberals, the government ended months of stonewalling and announced Abdelrazik would be allowed into Canada.
Leslie doesn’t even bother paying attention to the daily theatrics anymore. She figures she’ll hear about it later if the exercise actually produces anything useful.
“When I first got here I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” Leslie said.
“The first few weeks of question period I thought my head was going to explode. I thought ’Oh, my goodness, I cannot handle being here. I’m filled with rage and one day — boom! — my head’s just gonna pop off.’
“Now I sit there and write letters to my constituents, and I read articles about issues that I care about. And sometimes I’m, like, ’Oh, jeez, I’m in question period.’ You really develop this ability to tune out the theatre.