22 October 2014

I often agree with Rick Mercer. This time I don't.

Update:  I posted this literally seconds before I heard about the shootings.  If you are coming here for information about the shootings on parliament hill, there is none here.  My original title was misleading in this context. I have since changed it.

I suppose I should begin with some disclosure.  I have long enjoyed Rick Mercer.  How could I not love the man who wrote this in defence of our troops?  And that is merely one thing he has done for his troops.  I for one am extremely grateful for the work he has done for the men and women in uniform.  And, I should also add, I usually find him funny.  I mean "usually" as an honest compliment: I have never met anyone who is always funny, and usually is about as good as it gets.

And now I will continue with some more disclosure: The Speaker of the House of Commons in Ottawa is a relative of mine.  I won't say exactly how, as it is the wish of my wife that I do not identify us or my family too particularly in this blog.  We- the Speaker and I- haven't exchanged Christmas cards, and the last time I saw him was about a decade ago at a funeral.  I believe we said hello to each other.  The time we saw each other previously was another funeral.  We said hello that time as well.  I didn't attend his wedding, nor he mine.  I found out he was Speaker of the House in the newspaper.  Off the top of my head I can't name his children.  He is family, but "close" is not the word I would use to describe our relationship.

It is common these to note that the journalism on shows like the Daily Show or Last Week Tonight or the Colbert Report is often of a higher calibre than the 'real' journalists.  Rick Mercer and the show he started on- This Hour Has Twenty Two Minutes- predates these shows by years.  Unfortunately, while I have found his show to be hilarious from time to time, I do not look to it for 'news' nor do I think he escapes the usual problem of the news, which boils down to the Dunning Kruger effect.  For those who want the short version: Dunning and Kruger found that when people only know a little on a subject they tend to speak with more authority than when they know a lot.  The reason behind this is simple: when one only knows a little, it is easy to imagine that one knows everything, but when one takes the time to really learn a subject, one quickly learns that they are only scratching the surface.  To put it in an even shorter way, I need only quote Alexander Pope: "It is with narrow-souled people as with narrow necked bottles: the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out." I watch Mercer for entertainment, not information.

Unfortunately, I am about to comment on something Mercer said, something which I believe was wrong, which brings to me the heavy weight of Brandolini's principle.  Sadly, it can't be helped, so here goes:  Mercer recently used one of his popular rants to attack the role of speaker in general and specifically my relative.  To put Mercer's rant into context, here are two videos showing the incident that inspired Mr. Mercer's rant.  If you can stomach it, the first is question period in Parliament.

The tl;dr version:  "How long will our troops be in Iraq?" "What is your position on Israel?"  "You answer me!' "No, you answer me!" etc ad nauseum.  Meanwhile the other members stand and cheer their member like the first one to stop clapping will be taken out back and shot.  That, I am sad to say, is what passes as political discourse in my country, and it has been for years.  I remember when I first started watching question period, which was shortly before I stopped watching question period, and seeing Brian Mulroney at work.  He was a slippery little weasel. "Mr. Mulroney, what is your position on X?" "Are you asking me what my position is on X? How dare you." "That is not an answer."  "Are you suggesting I haven't answered your question? How dare you."   I believe- don't quote me- that a member may only ask a question a limited number of times- or within a certain time limit- before the next person has a chance to speak.  So, if you want to dodge a question for a few minutes, you're good to go.  Dodging has become a standard practice performed by all parties. Some people are better at it than others.  The Conservative in the above video is lousy at it.

So Mulcair questioned the Speaker, who is a member of the Conservative Caucus, about his neutrality and why he hasn't forced the Conservative member to answer the question.  The Speaker took time to issue a ruling on himself (I honestly don't know how or why that would be allowed) and the Speaker delivered his ruling the next day.

The video title says the Speaker Chastises Mulcair, but I didn't quite see it that way. It was more like he was chastising all the members of the House for their low standard of behavior.  He further says that it is not his job to make people answer questions, but to maintain order and decorum in the House.  He cites precedent, in particular from Speaker Milliken, who was the previous speaker,  the longest running speaker of the House and a Liberal.  Keep that in mind: This Speaker's ruling was based on precedent and cites it copiously.   The conclusion is that he does not have the power to change his function: parliament alone has the power to do that.

Enter Rick.

It's funnier when the laugh track is added.

First, what I agree with:  300 methheads is a fair description of Parliament.

Second, what I am not sure of:  Mercer says, contrary to what Scheer says and backs up with precedent, that it is the Speaker's role to make sure questions are answered and has been since the 1890's.  I would have liked to have heard him cite something to show that is the case, if it is indeed the case.

Third, what I disagree with: Getting rid of the Speaker is a terrible idea.  The speaker is there to maintain some semblance of order.  He keeps track of who's turn it is to speak, keeps track of how long they may speak.  The Speaker rules on questions of procedure (as he did in this case).  Do I think these guys can take care of it themselves without someone handling it for them?  Go back to the first video.  The only real answer  is an resounding no.  Without a Speaker or some kind of referee, parliament would go from near chaos to absolute.

Fourthly, the guts of the matter: if I were to meet with Mr. Mercer, I would ask him a serious question about the position he outlines in his rant.  I would ask Mercer to define his terms starting with the one at the heart of his rant: If Mercer believes that the speaker should force the members of parliament to answer questions, then what is an 'answer'?

The question may sound facetious, but I am serious. Deciding what an answer is, and if the answer's given in parliament meet those parameters would be the speaker's role.  I honestly have no idea how that would be achieved.  While I don't think anyone could seriously claim that any question was answered in the first video, once you get away from "not answering" and into "attempting an answer" or "sort of answering" we run into murky waters.  Consider an example: A member asks what they believe is a yes or no question.  The other member answers "maybe" or "it depends".  The questioner believes his question has not been answered, but the responder believes it has.  The Speaker is to rule: what should he say?

Here's another example: Let's say someone answers some of the question.  Let's put a number to it and say that a member answers fifty per cent of a question.  Is that an answer? If no, then at what percentage is an answer given: eighty? Ninety? or is one hundred per cent alone sufficient?  And how can the Speaker tell when a question is fully answered- which he must since he is to rule on it?  Or let's say someone who didn't know very much attempts to answer the question and gets it wrong. Is that an answer?  Or if someone lies, is that an answer? And if not, than how is the Speaker to know?  Must the Speaker now be a universal genius who knows all the answers so he may rule on them?

Fifthly, I would rather have a bag of flour with a happy face on it for Prime Minister, but that's another matter entirely.

As I said earlier, I realize fully that the responses given in the first video in no way constitute answers, and I am frankly embarrassed and have been for decades by the behaviour of our politicians, but forcing the Speaker to rule on whether or not an answer has been given would be, in my opinion, a short and ready route to even greater chaos.  Rick Mercer, I am sad to say, has proven himself in this case to be no better than our regular journalists, which is a polite way of saying he's incompetent at news, though he is usually good at humour.   Rants are fun to write and fun to hear, but one should take the time and trouble of thinking it through first.  And everyone should take them with a grain of salt, not as sound political commentary.


Anonymous said...

Rick Mercer is morally depraved and cannot be trusted on any topic. He is funny, but in a comic tragedy way.

Bear said...

I disagree. I would rather engage his arguments with my own rather than dismiss him entirely. In my life I have never met a man who was entirely right, but I have never met one who is entirely wrong either.