In the House of Commons, there is no greater sign of respect than silence. Amid the shouted invective and feigned fury, calm is what comes when people feel there’s reason enough to listen.
So the other day when all sides of the House sat quietly as Bob Rae questioned the foreign affairs minister about the plight of Abousfian Abdelrazik, the unlucky Canadian stranded in Sudan, it was with no small amount of reverence. Rae spoke deliberately in an even tone, laying out the situation in detail before proceeding with a straightforward question free of provocation or insult.
“It’s important to have more than one gear,” he says later of his approach to the daily airing of accusations. “If you start out at a high-pitched rhetorical level, then your indig-nation becomes transparently synthetic. So you start out by asking a question, not necessarily with a huge buildup to it, and then you can get a few jabs in your second or third question. But if you start out at an intensely confrontational level then you’re likely to get an intensely confrontational response and you’re really not much further ahead.”
On the matter of Mr. Abdelrazik, Rae did not get much of a response either way from Lawrence Cannon. But then, having been asked a coherent question, the minister’s lack of a worthy answer was an answer in and of itself.
Bob Rae has not reinvented the spoken word since returning to the House as a Liberal, three decades after he first arrived as an NDP MP. But after a long and varied career, he stands now with a head full of white hair and speaks with the confidence of the experienced. In doing so, he is a reminder that whatever the Commons lacks in poetry, the more practical need right now is for a few individuals willing to approach the proceedings with respectful common sense.
For one thing, Rae does not haphazardly raise his voice, a temptation that consumes many speakers. “When you speak more softly, people have to shut up to listen,” he says. “And that’s the simple reality. It’s a very old trick that one learns.”
For another, he has been at the forefront of a Liberal effort to ask actual questions during each afternoon’s question period, an admirable if so far futile attempt to make the daily ritual into something more than a slander contest. “I think if it becomes too canned, if the line of attack simply becomes too rhetorical, the whole exchange becomes entirely artificial,” Rae says. “So actually having a question’s not a bad idea.”
That this thinking marks a distinct shift in approach says much about the current state of question period. Still, for reasons of substance, emotion, theatre or telling display, it remains the focus of each afternoon in Ottawa—cameras lined up beforehand to capture the combatants entering the House, reporters gathered outside afterward to speak with the victorious, wounded and merely indignant. That hundreds of hours of actual debate go completely unnoticed speaks both to the easy allure of those 45 minutes and the topsy-turvy state in which our politics now finds itself.
“The irony is that really the only moment in the House that any attention is paid to, with very few exceptions, is question period, but your interventions are limited to 30 seconds or so. So that’s a somewhat strange and limiting environment,” Rae says. “When I started out in Parliament, there were many a moment when the House was the occasion of much longer debates. It’s harder to do that now because of the different culture in which we’re working. It’s harder to find moments of eloquence.”