It’s been two weeks since the PEI Legislature closed for the summer, and as some distance opens up between the peculiar environment which exists inside the rail and more normal life on the outside, it feels like a good time to reflect on the spring sitting – and political life generally – in all its glory and oddness.
After two full years and five legislative sittings, I feel that I understand my new workplace much better – which is different from saying I am comfortable there.
I arrived as a solitary member from a party that had never been represented in the House before. I fully admit that I felt lost and bewildered for much of the first session, scrambling to figure out what it was all about.
This lack of experience and institutional knowledge was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I was not conditioned by decades of conventional attitudes and behaviours which constrict the place like the chain link fence now circling Province House. A curse because I was perpetually confused about what was going on, and why certain people said certain things in a certain way.
Two years on my level of discomfort and bewilderment have lessened, but with this ease comes concerns that I may be gradually conforming to some of the traditions of a place that is in many ways deeply dysfunctional. I have been accused on occasion of having abandoned my original clear-eyed purity, and of starting to look and sound like everyone else. The Premier himself has accused me of bringing the House into disrepute, and inferred recently that I have turned my back on earlier commitments to call on my “better nature”.
That phrase our Premier used repeatedly, “calling on our better natures,” was one of the things that caused me to have optimism that some of the less attractive traditions of politics – fierce partisanship, confrontation and deceit – might be shunned by this fresh, new leader.
I’m not sure what the Premier has in mind when he uses that phrase, but here is what it means to me. My better nature is grounded in honesty and authenticity; it is aligned to doing better, becoming wiser and behaving with deeper genuineness. It strives to be kind, gentle and truthful at all times, and to be trusting of and open to others. It also means challenging behaviours and people who I feel are not following these principles. Calling on your better nature does not, to me, mean being blindly accepting of others and of allowing overt deceit and manipulation to go unchallenged. Many historical characters for whom I have great respect were fierce in their resolve to stand up to injustice and dishonesty.
On the final morning of the current sitting, we had an intense discussion in our office on what question to ask (I only get to ask questions on one topic each day.) During the sitting we had asked questions of most Ministries, covering a wide array of topics. The discussion that morning was whether or not we should get more “political” and challenge the Premier on what we see as his abandonment of some early promises. After spirited debate and much agonizing in our office, I asked this question:
“Two years ago, there was an air of optimism regarding the Premier’s arrival. He spoke eloquently about openness, transparency and calling on our better natures, and I actually believed that he was committed to practising politics differently. But in light of his refusal to honour the plebiscite, his mishandling of the school review, and his unwillingness to work collaboratively with the opposition parties, I think I speak for many Islanders when I say that this optimism has largely gone. A question to the Premier: how do you plan to regain the trust of Islanders?”
Sometimes a question is asked in the House which is very specific and demands a clear and straight answer; whether or not one is forthcoming varies widely. Sometimes a question – like the one above – is asked to cause discomfort to someone in government. I’d estimate that over 90% of the questions I ask in the House fall into the first category, but after hundreds of attempts to elicit meaningful answers with very limited success, you start to understand why older parties resort to the kinds of questions designed primarily for partisan gain, and to cause distress among government members.
I wish it weren’t this way: I wish question period was more than just cat-calling: I wish it meant treating questions seriously and not repeating the same talking points or providing nonsense answers: I wish it meant not treating the legislature exclusively as a forum for partisan games.
Politics is a treacherous place to live and work, but its importance in all our lives demands that it attract people of the highest integrity and intelligence. The Island is full of people who would make fabulous politicians, and I consider part of my work to be creating an environment where these people would feel welcome and safe.
But I’m nothing else if not realistic: things are always evolving, but rarely change quickly. I and my approach to politics are also changing, but I must be sure that this evolution remains rooted in a commitment to the core values of the party I represent.