Inside the Belly of the Beast
by Darren Stewart
On Parliament Hill, everybody's favourite part of the day is Question Period. As every good Canadian should know, each day at 2:15 the House Of Commons opens its doors for the unwashed and unruly public to sit in theatre style bleachers and listen to the opposition grill the governing party. For some it is a common passtime, like a trip to a favourite bar or lunch spot. For others it is a tourist attraction or that adolescent field trip that gets you out of social studies.
Everybody in the audience gets a little earphone that translates the proceedings into either English or French. Many spectators point and whisper when the Prime Minister takes his seat. The room is vast, colourful and bustling.
Question period is like a 45-minute stand-up comedy routine filled with melodramatic pomp. It typically consists of our members of parliament tossing the important issues of the day back and forth in bouts of repartee with occasional veiled insults, jokes, theatrical gags and ugly verbal assaults. If I knew that it was going to be this bombastic, I probably would have been paying closer attention to federal politics over the years. Here youíll find the political equivalent of hockey goons, homerun hitters, wiry and wily gymnasts and crass loudmouths shouting at the ref. Of course, there's also a serious vibe of tradition and ceremony that goes with everything in the house, which adds an interesting edge.
Everybody gets half a minute to develop an investigative question directed at a particular MP, usually a cabinet minister. And then the appropriate person from the governing party responds. Some MPís offer a quick-fire and seemingly unscripted response, while others rely too heavily on cue cards. Some use deadpan delivery while others shout emphatically and slam their fists on their ledger.
Here the camera is always running, and political careers are made and broken.
The events are sent in a live bilingual transmission all over Canada on the Parliamentary Channel. This would be my first opportunity to see question period live, and I sat in the press box behind the speakerís chair. Being there live offers advantages to the keen eyed spectator.
The MPís interactions outside the spotlight are often interesting: who whispers conspiratorially with who, which backbencher or members of the smaller parties offer enthusiastic responses-shouting and waving their arms-to events the fore of the action, who gets an important dispatch brought to them by a page during the course of action, who takes the opportunity for a midafternoon snooze, who is scratching their ass or picking their nose.
As it happened, I was lucky: my first day in the House of Commons was also Stockwell Dayís first-as well, it was Joe Clark's first day back after a his more obscure years as a leader without a seat. So I witnessed an event of (albeit minor) historical importance. At 2:15 a hush fell over the packed room. There, below the press box, was Chretien and all his merry bunch, grinning in anticipation.
At the opposite door appeared a tense and red-faced Joe Clark, flanked by two party associates. There was the face so popular with merciless political cartoonists over the past few years. There, above him in the VIP seats, was Catherine Clark, his very attractive blonde daughter. The Clark family could keep a very eclectic scrapbook of media clippings.
Joe Clark linked arms with his two associates and slowly walked down the centre aisle.
Remarkably the entire Liberal party started chanting "JOE... JOE... JOE... JOE..."
They must have rehearsed it.
Paul Martin-grinning like a maniac-pumped his fist like he was in the crowd at an Arsenio Hall show. Joe Clark, beet-red face, struggled to maintain composure. It was one of the more surreal moments of my life. (At this stage an unidentified reporter sitting next to me wrote "Joe Clark: theatrical entrance" on his little pad of paper. I don't know what he used that note for later).
When the House Speaker swore Joe in, the room erupted with cheers and jeers. There were celebratory handshakes, pats on the back and jovial niceties. Clark met Chretien in the centre of the aisle for a handshake and a few private words (given the mood, I was hoping for a bear hug...) which prompted another great cheer from the Liberals, while Clarks Tories, at the far end of the room, quietly smiled and clapped for their returned leader.
Then everybody retook their place as Mr. Day came to the door with two Alliance
members. Another hush hit the room. As Day, the new opposition
leader walked down the aisle the Liberals, as well as
the other parties, provided a polite patter of applause.
Chretien and Martin shook Dayís hand cordially. Mr. Day's
time in the spotlight would come later.
Darren Stewart is a left-handed writer from Victoria
B.C. After he's through working as Ottawa Bureau Chief
he plans to either take up knife throwing or become a
rock star. He wears large sunglasses that are bent. He
is proud of his quirks and hopes that you are too. He
has so far escaped physical injury in writing this column
and is threatened with such infrequently.