25 November 2019

The Rookies, the House, and the Orchestra Pit #nlpoli

What is reported is seldom what happened even though what happened is far more interesting than the stuff that falls into the orchestra pit.
Events in the House of Assembly are the result of decisions by members of all three parties.  Any analysis that ignores the simple realities of the House or robs the individual members and their parties of their agency is misleading.

The biggest story from the House of Assembly’s latest session was Ches Crosbie’s call last Thursday for his party to hold a vote on his leadership next spring.

There’s no surprise in this.  Political parties usually dump leaders after a failed election and this time will be no exception for both the federal and provincial Conservatives.

The immediate impact of this, aside from what it means for the Conservatives, is that the Liberals will now have an easy ride getting their budget through the House no matter how bad it is.  The Conservatives won’t want to trigger an election in the midst of a leadership change.

And there *will* be a change.  The Ball-led Liberals are weak, and the polling numbers reflect that. Any reasonably competent opposition could unseat them in a general election.  After all, Crosbie’s incompetent crowd came within a hair’s breadth of unseating the Liberals and the Liberals have not gotten better six months later.  So, expect a new Conservative leadership hopeful to emerge after Christmas to lead a reinvigorated blue bunch.

Meanwhile on the Liberal side, Dwight Ball will also face a leadership review vote in the middle of 2020 at the party’s postponed annual conference.  The party executive skipped out the one for 2019 because it was an election year, but it must have a convention in June 2020 according to the party constitution. That’s not to say that party president and Dwight Ball loyalist John Allen isn’t trying to find some way to push the convention off to 2021.  Apparently, there is anxiety over the prospect that Ball wouldn’t survive the mandatory leadership review vote that comes with the next party convention.

But as big as Crosbie’s Thursday announcement and Ball’s situation are for the future of the province – there is that little provincial government financial mess sitting out there unaddressed – that wasn’t what the news media and the local political commentariat were yammering about last week.


They were obsessed with a brief exchange in the House of Assembly on Thursday between finance minister Tom Osborne and opposition member Kevin Parsons. 

D-I-V-O-R-C-E and other unparliamentary words

Osborne had just begun speaking during debate on the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.  He mentioned recent public discussion about decorum in the House and about his time as Speaker.  Osborne mentioned the recent MQO poll and that prompted some heckling from Parsons. 

Osborne gives Parsons the chance to make his comments on the record, which he does.  While the audio isn’t quite as clear as it could be,  you can hear Parsons say something about crossing back and forth across the House while Osborne is speaking.

Parsons repeated much the same thing when given the chance, as recorded by Hansard:  “Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. He said if I wanted to follow him; I told him I wouldn't follow him back and forth across the floor like he does. I'm going to stay where I'm to.”

Osborne takes the floor again and starts down a rejoinder to Parsons’ comments.
I wasn't going to go down this avenue; I was actually going to talk about something else and I'll get back to that. I'll speak about that for a minute.

Because we can get dirty in this House if we want to. That's not my nature. It's not my nature. I can take a political jab. I can throw a political jab. In fact, sometimes I enjoy that, and I've often said that in this House. Mr. Speaker, I know the Member opposite is divorced and I'm not going to go into that, but I'm going to compare crossing the House –
At that point, Parsons said something not caught by the audio recording but clearly strong enough for the Speaker to intervene and remind members to use “temperate language” in the House. 

Parsons tried to raise a point of order, referring to Osborne’s reference to divorce as “disgusting”.  The Speaker rules against a point of order, saying the matter is simply a disagreement between members.

Osborne continued speaking, likening the breakdown in a relationship that leads to divorce to the situation he experienced in his relationship with the Conservative caucus.

Parsons shouted: “My personal business is my personal business, not yours” and after a few seconds more, as the Speaker calls for order, “I'm not listening to that no more.”  With that he, and his colleagues left the chamber as Osborne continued to speak.  The opposition House leader returned to the chamber shortly afterward, asked Osborne to apologize, which he did, without hesitation.

The Orchestra Pit Theory of Political News Coverage

In one sense, the media and popular fixation on this very short incident is nothing more complicated than the Orchestra Pit Theory of political news coverage. Two politicians on a stage.  One announces a cure for cancer.  The other falls into the orchestra pit.  The guy in the pit will get the coverage.

That also explains why the same folks have been equally obsessed with a short confrontation a couple of weeks ago between Gerry Byrne and a couple of opposition members from two different parties.  

CBC’s Anthony Germain did a very good summary of the Byrne spat with New Democrat Jim Dinn over the weekend.  It’s fair and accurate and Germain’s analysis of why Byrne did what he did is as good as one can find.  But as with all the public discussions of events in the House over the past couple of weeks, it leaves out the other players in the little dramas.

This is quite odd. Even at the most basic level of analysis, the controversy was caused not by the comments but by the reaction by the opposition to the comments.  Gerry Byrne may well have engaged in a distraction, but it was the opposition parties that not only got flustered on Thursday but doubled down on the whole matter by holding a joint news conference and then hijacked the House of Assembly for two whole days for nothing. They could have brushed his distraction aside and kept charging.  Instead, they went for it.

The scorn heaped on Byrne’s shoulders in public has come almost entirely from a combination of partisans (whose simplistic views are understandable), some reporters who are either naïve or partisan themselves and not aware of what they are revealing, and a few others whose comments are equally superficial because they are pushing some agenda of their own. Understanding what is going on isn’t important to them.  

But if you look at what has been happening, a much more interesting picture emerges than the one that essentially relies on a level pf prudery that even caricatures of Victorians would find absurd.

Politics and the House of Assembly

The House of Assembly is many things at the same time.  One of them is a place of confrontation and struggle. The subject may be issues of public concern or bits of legislation, but the struggle is, at its heart, about who currently has political power and who wants to wield it after the next election.  People are supposed to compete, in other words.  They aren’t supposed to get along or, at least not appear to get along.

The parties in the House are supposed to try to make the others look bad and themselves look good.  They struggle for media attention, which sends messages to their own supporters, potential supporters and the people who support other parties.  Sometimes the issues at the heart of a dispute are very serious.  Other times, they are not so serious or the fight that appears to be about one thing is really about another.

Byrne’s actions were an understandable performance in precisely such an environment.  He deployed his considerable experience to shift the opposition off their questions and he did so without breaking a sweat.  It was remarkably easy and even if we allow that Jim Dinn may have gotten flustered in the moment on a Thursday afternoon, his colleagues were not all universally flustered for the better part of a week.  They *chose* to be outraged and to put on a performance of faux indignation and posturing.  They deliberately hijacked the House of Assembly for two days.  They only relented once their exercise ran out of gas.  They’d proved their point and carrying on served no purpose.

The same is true of the bit of theatre last Thursday.  The opposition were looking for a way to flex their parliamentary muscles.  They had one plan but when that proved to be unworkable, they needed something else.  And so, Kevin Parsons stepped in to heckle Tom Osborne on a point that still gets under Osborne’s skin. He got a bit of a reaction but a distinctly Osbornian gentle tap.  It then fell to Parsons to take a dive like the best Italian footballer.

If Parsons had reacted sensibly, then the opposition would not have had favourable news coverage heading into a weekend party conference where the knives were likely to be out for their leader.  As it is, the little stunt masked Ches Crosbie’s announcement neatly.

There’s no accident both little bits of Punch-and-Judy drama appeared on the last day of the week.  There’s also no accident that they appeared in a session that has very little in the way of substantial legislation over which the opposition could take a stand against the government and not look like a bunch of amateur shit-heels in the process.

A Collection of Rookies and Noobs

What we should take notice of, however, is that when a very important and potentially politically lucrative issue flopped into the opposition parties’ laps, they ignored it in favour of some superficial posturing. That may reflect the inexperience that is present throughout the House.  Seventy eight percent (78%) of those sitting in the House have been elected since 2015, with the bulk of them coming along either in the recent general election or in the year before that.  Two members of the House date from 1996 and another two were first elected in the 2007 general election.  The remaining five, including Dwight Ball, came along in 2011. 

Three points to note. First, Ball’s biography, by the way, misrepresents his own parliamentary record.  It leaves out his defeat in the 2007 general election and makes it appear he has been in the house four years longer than he has been.  Second, while he was elected provincially in 2015, Gerry Byrne went to the House of Commons in a by-election in 1996.  That makes him one of the more experienced members of the House.  Likewise, thirdly, Siobhan Coady was first elected to the federal parliament in 2008.  Which gives her more experience than her record of election to the provincial House suggests. 

Those numbers don’t materially change the point that more than three quarters of the people sitting in the House are still learning their craft.  Almost half the members of the House are so new as to be classified somewhere between noob and rookie.  None of them apparently have any other experience in a setting like the House that gives them the ability to manage its daily goings on. This is evident from the extensive reliance on scripted remarks both in questions and answers. Even the Speaker, who has been around both the provincial and federal parliaments for 30 years must keep his script at hand and reads from it every day to stay on track.  The Government House Leader is the same.

When caught off script, as in Gerry Byrne’s rejoinder, Jim Dinn seemed to be thrown off completely and uncertain what to do. He could not rely on his debating skills – through lack of experience, he seems to lack any ability to think on his feet – and so he tried a procedural point.  Dinn buggered that up by calling it the wrong thing – he was trying for a point of order, not a question of privilege – and that only added to the confusion that spread across both sides of the House.

The following Monday, the Speaker found there was a prima facie question of privilege in Byrne’s behaviour and accepted the motion put forward by the Opposition House Leader.  Unfortunately, the OHL had not given the explanation of what it was from the previous Thursday that qualified as a matter of privilege. The Speaker made the wrong ruling, in other words, and so, the House was set off on a two day journey to distraction that ended ultimately when someone engineered a quiet and speedy resolution to the whole affair.

In a House that is dominated by inexperienced people learning their business, mistakes are bound to happen. That undoubtedly only adds to the frustration people in such a situation are feeling individually.  Whatever problems the individual caucuses may be experiencing internally, only makes that more difficult.  The Liberals, for example, are missing their experienced House leader, these days, for one thing. The opposition Conservatives are suffering from weak leadership and the NDP are 100% noob.

All of that has an impact on how well the House does its business. It also has an impact on what gets discussed outside of the House, both by the design of the members and by the choices made by commentators and reporters.  As always, though, what is reported is seldom what is happening even though what is actually happening is far more interesting than the stuff that falls into the orchestra pit.