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Legislatures in B.C. and Alberta are sounding more like a playground

If politicians wonder why the public often disparages them, often pays little heed to what goes on in the legislatures of this country, they need look no further than the goings-on this week in the legislatures of B.C. and Alberta.

While most British Columbians were at work trying to grind out a living, their elected officials in Victoria were arguing over what the Opposition could call ministers of the Crown. The Liberals had taken to referring to them in derogatory terms during Question Period, directing their queries to, among others, the "minister of job loss" "minister of intimidation" and "minister of gridlock."

Speaker Darryl Plecas, who angered his former Liberal colleagues by taking the job and consequently giving the NDP-Green Party coalition even greater stability, has been trying to bring a new standard of decorum to the precincts. He informed the Opposition that he would not tolerate the use of these terms in the framing of their questions.

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This prompted Liberal house leader Mike de Jong, now a candidate for the leadership of his party, to get up and deliver a sombre rebuke to the Speaker, effectively saying that this type of name-calling was in the finest tradition of the Westminster rules that govern the legislature. He insisted on his party's right to continue it.

"Regrettably, this Speaker believes he is going to assume the role of rewriting the parliamentary rules and parliamentary convention," Mr. de Jong would later say. He called the Speaker's ruling around unparliamentary language, in this instance, a "dangerous precedent" that effectively infringed on free speech.

It's undoubtedly true that this type of juvenile invective has been allowed in the B.C. legislature for years. And the NDP was as guilty of it as the Liberals are today. But so what? That shouldn't preclude a new Speaker from trying to impose a new measure of restraint in the legislature, should it?

The B.C. legislature, in particular, has been the scene of some of the most sorrowful displays of conduct witnessed in the country. It gained the nickname "The Zoo" for a reason.

It could reasonably be argued that past Speakers did a poor job in reining in some of the most regrettable behaviour we've witnessed among politicians.

What's wrong with the Speaker trying to bring in a new level of respect? What's wrong with him asking grown adults to act like grown adults, instead of petulant children?

Think about it: while many people in B.C. are worried about how they're going to pay the next month's rent, or make the next mortgage payment, their legislators are fighting over the right to call each other names.

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It's ridiculous.

In Alberta, meantime, Premier Rachel Notley was being attacked for responding to a fairly condescending question by Alberta Party MLA Greg Clark by thanking him for "mansplaining" the issue to her. (Mansplaining is a term used to describe the way some men lecture women about their knowledge of a particular matter).

Mr. Clark took great umbrage to this, and demanded the Speaker make Ms. Notley apologize and withdraw the comment.

Mr. Clark said the Premier was accusing him of sexism. In fact, what she was accusing him of was being arrogant and patronizing. That doesn't always connote sexism.

The Speaker took a day to consider the whole matter and found that he didn't find the use of "mansplaining" in this instance to be unparliamentary. However, he cautioned: "Tone can be as disrespectful as are certain singular words."

And that was the end of the issue, at least for now.

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Perhaps the Speakers in B.C. and Alberta could rule on how insulting it is for our elected officials to be using up precious time in our houses of Parliament arguing about such inane, irrelevant matters.

That is the true affront here – to the public, to those who voted in good conscious to put people in our capitals to debate substantive issues and not fight over the right to hurl childish epithets at one another.

Politicians often lament the sorry state of our democracy, represented by abysmally low voter turnout numbers. Well, this week politicians in two provinces showed why that is.

Who can get excited about politics when this is the kind of stuff our officials are arguing about?

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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