By ALLISON RIDGWAY
Special to the RJRC
Even on a relatively quiet day, the goings on in Ontario’s legislative chamber remind me of what the Colosseum must have been like. While the public watches from the stands, political parties armed with words and wit rather than fists and swords fight gladiatorial battles in a bid to survive.
As it turned out, Feb. 24, 2015 was anything but quiet.
I was at Queen’s Park with classmates from my political reporting class (Journalism in the Political Arena – JRN509) and we knew we were in for a show before we sat down in the legislative chamber’s press gallery section to watch question period. Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government had unveiled Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum the previous day, and the Tories had lots to say about it, as did the group gathering outside the legislature to protest the curriculum changes. Going into the session, the premier was also on the defensive over the Sudbury by-election scandal. A varied group of masters, third and fourth-year students from Ryerson’s School of Journalism, most of us had never been to Queen’s Park before and the prospect of witnessing these battles was exciting.
The day’s headline news item came about 10 minutes into question period, when Tory MPP Monte McNaughton went after Wynne about the new sex-ed curriculum. A day earlier, McNaughton had questioned the premier’s authority to change the curriculum: “It’s not the Premier of Ontario’s job, especially Kathleen Wynne, to tell parents what’s age-appropriate for their children,” he said.
“What is it that especially disqualifies me for the job that I’m doing?” Wynne responded. “Is it that I’m a woman? Is it that I’m a mother? Is it that I have a master’s of education? Is it that I was a school council chair? Is it that I was the minister of education? What is it exactly that the member opposite thinks disqualifies me from doing the job that I’m doing? What is that?”
Liberal MPPs gave her a standing ovation.
For a politics junkie like myself, seeing the politicians I read about each day in live – and very dramatic – action was exhilarating.
“They tear strips off each other in legislature everyday, but it was our good fortune to see a particularly raucous question period,” says April Lindgren, who teaches the political reporting course. Lindgren covered Queen’s Park from 1999 to 2007, reporting on the final years of Mike Harris’ Conservative government and then on the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty.
She said reporting on politics matters because the decisions made in the legislature have a real impact on people’s lives: “Going to Queen’s Park is one way of…showing students how interesting and exciting and daunting and challenging and – most of all – important it is to tell the stories of our political institutions,” she said.
Question Period was all of those things. It was also, however, surprisingly frustrating. One of the first things I noticed was just how noisy and at times disorganized it seemed, and how difficult it was to hear MPPs over the boos, hisses and unintelligible remarks circulating in the chamber. I never assumed that politicians hold hands and break into spontaneous rounds of Kumbaya during question period, but for some reason I always imagined they had a bit more decorum – that they respected their constituents enough to take their positions more seriously.
I wasn’t the only one who thought this.
“I was surprised at how the politicians treated each other and how none of them seemed to really be paying attention to whoever was speaking,” said fellow third-year journalism student Latifa Abdin. “It was not at all what I expected.”
As question period drew to a close, my eyes drifted up to the public gallery where a group of elementary students filled the seats, some with their heads in their hands, others looking puzzled. One little boy sprawled in his hard wooden seat staring up at the ceiling, thoroughly disengaged. If university journalism students were frustrated by the scene unfolding before them, what would these children take away from the experience? What did they think of these adults – our elected leaders – who interrupt, yell at and insult one another? What would be their opinion of Canada’s democratic system?
What was mine?
We left the chamber early to secure our spot during the media scrums. On the way, I peeked out a window to check on the anti sex-ed curriculum protest. The crowd, neon signs whipping in the wind, had grown in size and volume, and people were chanting, “We say no.”
We weren’t allowed to participate in the actual scrums but we did meet with the premier in her boardroom. It was smaller than I’d expected but as we sat down, I couldn’t help but imagine what important decisions had been made at the table in front of me.
I’d seen Wynne speak in 2013 at Toronto’s Hospital For Sick Children when she announced her government’s $100-million investment into brain research. I’d been impressed at how she addressed the large crowd. I was impressed again by her quick but thoughtful answers to our questions about stories we were working on for class, a series on Canada’s low youth voter turnout.
“Serious journalism is such an important part process,” Wynne told us at the end of our mini press conference. “I’m glad that you’re in the course and I hope that you find ways to work in the field.”
We had our first chance to participate in a Queen’s Park scrum when we met Ontario’s second most powerful politician, Deputy Premier Deb Matthews. We took turns, giving each other a chance to ask questions. Apparently that was a bit of a novelty: “This was the nicest scrum ever,” Matthews observed, laughing, when it was over.
We met with members of the press gallery over lunch and afterwards I spoke with CBC TV and radio reporter Mike Crawley about what it’s like to work every day in the heart of Ontario’s political realm. While Crawley has won awards for his breaking news stories, including investigation into the 2011 eHealth controversy, he pointed to the daily stories about Queen’s Park as the work that he thinks really matters.
Crawley’s typical day starts with a morning press conference around 9 a.m., followed by question period at 10:30 a.m. and scrums to gather information for his stories and those of his CBC colleagues. He spends afternoons pulling together quotes for the day’s stories and filing his TV report by 4:30 p.m. so it can be vetted before airing.
“My guiding principle is: what is the thing that matters most, that has the biggest impact on the lives of the largest number of people?” he told me.
Winding my way through the corridors of Queen’s Park that afternoon, I again saw those children from the public gallery. I thought back to Crawley’s determination to bring readers the news that matters most to them, of his commitment to making Ontario’s legislature accessible to the public and holding the MPPs who go to work there responsible.
Then I reconsidered my earlier opinion. It’s easy to feel frustrated with the daily antics in in the legislature – with the yelling and posturing and hot air. But looking beyond that is what producing good political journalism is about. I want to be one of those reporters – like Crawley – who sorts through the muck and mess of Ontario politics to provide people with information they need about their government. I want to inspire that bored little boy sitting in the public gallery to pay attention to Canadian politics.
Allison Ridgway is a third-year student in Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.