A Grade 6 class has taken Alberta’s top politicians to task for childish behaviour, but opposition politicians say it’s the Speaker who needs to sit in the corner.
A letter made public this week from Innisfail Middle School informed the legislature that the students will no longer attend question period after watching repeated displays of rudeness, name-calling and offensive language.
The school, in the letter dated last November, said while all parties were at fault, students were particularly appalled over the behaviour of two of Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet ministers.
It says their jaws dropped during a Nov. 5 visit when Alberta Service Minister Doug Griffiths mocked the Opposition Wildrose for its “ability to suck and blow.”
And they wondered why it was okay for Jobs Minister Thomas Lukaszuk to challenge the Wildrose to a fistfight.
“It’s been bugging us for over a year, a couple of trips now. And we just felt like someone should say something,” school principal Jay Steeves said in an interview Wednesday.
He said they knew they had a problem when they held a mock parliament and one of the students wanted to emulate Lukaszuk.
“One of the kids, and he was saying it facetiously, but he wanted to be the guy who goes outside and starts the fight,” said Steeves.
“You’re trying to promote a certain way and then that’s the behaviour we see among adults.”
Lukaszuk said message received.
“I say mea culpa,” said Lukaszuk. “The behaviour in the chamber is out of control some times, and I’m part of it.”
Lukaszuk said he would accept any invitation to the school to explain his role and the role of question period in a democracy and to hear concerns and comments firsthand.
“When you’re sitting there in a heated debate, sometimes things slip out. I probably could have used a better reference. I’ll watch myself closer next time.”
The letter, copied to all party leaders, didn’t come to light until this week, when Speaker Gene Zwozdesky referred to it in the house while chiding politicians for unruly behaviour.
Zwozdesky himself has been criticized by opposition members for holding too tight a rein on cross-aisle heckling during debate.
Some say while outrageous comments and falsehoods are not acceptable, the normal back-and-forth between partisan opponents, even if it gets noisy at times, exemplifies a robust democracy.
“The importance is we protect the freedom of speech of members,” said NDP Brian Mason.
Mason said some of the frustration stems from Zwozdesky’s inconsistency: cracking down on minor squabbling while letting slide major violations, such as those cited in the school letter.
“He should call [out] those members specifically and not blame the whole assembly,” said Mason.
Wildrose MLA Kerry Towle attended Innisfail Middle School as a child and now represents the riding. She said while politicians can all do better, respect breeds respect.
“Sometimes that [heated] decorum in the house gets elevated because we’re often treated like children (by the Speaker),” said Towle.
Liberal House Leader Laurie Blakeman said Zwozdesky is confusing the legislature with a schoolroom.
“We are there to vigorously debate public policy. And I think we’d all be a little upset if you look down to the assembly floor and everybody was sitting there quiet as a mouse with their hands folded in their laps,” said Blakeman.
“If a classroom is unhappy because the assembly is not behaving like a classroom, I would expect the Speaker to be explaining why it’s not a classroom rather than turning on our leaders and our members in the assembly and admonishing us that we all should be quiet and be good.”
Steeves was asked if he would take the class back if specifically invited for a make-good visit.
“Honestly, if it was as unproductive as the pieces we’ve seen over the last couple of years, I don’t know why we’d go back.”