Last week Ms Soapbox was introduced to the Legislative Assembly by Liberal MLA, Laurie Blakeman, the oldest (as in longest-serving, not age!) opposition MLA. Ms Blakeman noted that Ms Soapbox was a lawyer but said the House wouldn’t hold that against her. Ms Soapbox stood to receive the “traditional warm welcome” of the Assembly. The MLAs thumped their desks and waved, warming the cockles of Ms Soapbox’s heart!
The Caucus Meeting
When Liberal MLA, Dr David Swann, invited me to attend a Liberal caucus meeting I leapt at the chance. In less than 10 minutes I was booked on the 6 a.m. (groan) Red Arrow motor coach; apparently they’re not called busses any more.
Jonathan, the chief of staff, greeted me at the Legislative Annex and fortified me with muffins that we filched from the snack table reserved for MLAs in Committee.
We settled into the caucus meeting. Party leader Dr Raj Sherman and Jeff, the communications guy, were running late due to an interview with Rutherford. The MLAs and staffers are an animated bunch…so much so that Ms Blakeman (did I mention that she’s the oldest serving opposition MLA) was forced to reel them in with stern looks and threats to confiscate their cell phones. Dutifully we turned our attention to the white board.
The first topic: finalizing questions for Question Period. What are the right questions? Who’s going to ask them? What are the other opposition parties asking? What’s the press interested in today? Who gets the first question, the second, the third?
This is not a trivial exercise. Question Period is an opportunity to hold the government to account but only if the opposition can bring the issue to the public’s attention. The best way to engage the public is to grab a media headline. Hence the questions are phrased in delicious little sound bites that play well in the media. The opposition doesn’t expect a decent answer from the government (although a foot-in-mouth response is always welcome). It’s the question, more than the answer, that’s important.
With question period settled, the meeting turned to other things.
The Tunnel, Library and Cafe
After caucus we entered the eye of the storm—that moment of serenity when MLAs disappear into their offices to do some real work before the tempest hits.
David took me to the Leg through the underground tunnel. Who knew there was a tunnel connecting the Annex to the Leg? An escape route in case disgruntled Albertans storm the ramparts?
We emerged in the rotunda; smack in the middle the Vaisakhi Day celebration marking the 314th anniversary of the foundation of the Sikh community. Music, food, men in turbans, women in sparkling saris, children everywhere. Is every day this exciting at the Leg?
We ducked into the Library, a lovely room with tall windows, dark furniture and old fashioned stacks, but alas, no people. Blame it on the Internet. Then off to lunch at the Leg Cafe where a good-natured bear of a man told us where to find the best pizza in Calgary.
The Visitors Gallery
David dropped me at Security next to the Visitors Gallery. I relinquished my briefcase and purse but they had to prise my cell phone out of my hand. Then it was off to the metal detector. Odd that the metal detector is on the second floor, giving disgruntled Albertans armed with tomatoes free access to the MLAs just outside the Assembly Hall.
I took my place the front row and after Laurie’s delightful introduction, listened while the oldest opposition MLA in the Leg introduced the lady sitting beside me—Dr PearlAnn Reichwein,* a university professor deeply concerned about the changes being inflicted on Alberta’s 26 institutions of higher learning.
Following the introductions, the Assembly moved to the best part of the agenda—Question Period!
Question Period is a blood sport. TV doesn’t do it justice. The opposition parties were in fine form, badgering the government over revoking veterans’ hospital parking passes, delisting generic drugs without providing replacements, the carbon tax (or lack thereof) and insufficient post secondary funding.
The government responded with excuses and platitudes, demonizing the opposition as the “extreme left” and “extreme right”. Meaning that the PCs are the “moderate centre”?
And so it went, the opposition baiting the PCs and thumping their desks in appreciation of each other’s questions, the PC ministers rising one by one, like lumbering bears, trying to defend policy decisions that defy explanation. At one point the opposition gaffawed so loudly that the Speaker scolded everyone. Decorum broke out…for all of 2 minutes. God, I love Question Period.
Reflections on the Red Arrow
Tucked into the back of the motor coach, watching the safety video narrated by my passenger service representative, I reflected on the day.
The PC dynasty is crumbling.**Only a miracle will save it now. The Wildrose will likely form the next government. The big question is whether it will be a minority or majority government.
This is where you come in. Do you want to balance a Wildrose government with a progressive option? Then contact your favourite progressive MLA and find out what you can do to help out now. Ask to meet with caucus. If they truly want to serve Albertans, they’ll find a way to accommodate your request.
*In one of those Casablanca moments (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”) I discovered that PearlAnn was the daughter of a friend I’d met through the Whitemud Citizens for Public Health. Pure serendipity.
**Here’s a great Youtube video that sums up Albertans’ frustration with the PCs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPlo1nNJGyE&sns=em