Day Arrives in Ottawa

Ask a Parliament Hill veteran about Question Period - politician, political aide or reporter - and chances are eyes will roll. Question Period is easy to disparage. It's empty theatre, right? All those cynical non-questions and glib non-answers. All that shouting from the backbenches.

Day Arrives in Ottawa

Ask a Parliament Hill veteran about Question Period - politician, political aide or reporter - and chances are eyes will roll. Question Period is easy to disparage. It's empty theatre, right? All those cynical non-questions and glib non-answers. All that shouting from the backbenches. And the media coverage - nothing but the 30-second sound bite makes it. Correction. Make that 10 seconds. So when the MPs returned to Ottawa from their summer vacations last week, along with two party leaders fresh from byelection victories, the Conservatives' Joe Clark and the Alliance's Stockwell Day, House Speaker Gib Parent spoke for many when he got things started with a jaundiced "Let the games begin." Day echoed that tone in his first exchange with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien by resorting to the old line about seeing "why they call this Question Period and not answer period."

Yet there it sits, 45 minutes of political prime time at the heart of the day's parliamentary business. Even in a week crammed with substance - including Finance Minister Paul Martin's revelation that Ottawa posted a massive $12.3-billion surplus in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, $9.3 billion more than he had predicted in last February's budget - QP style preoccupied the capital last week. Political insiders, overwrought by rumours of a fall election call, viewed the daily faceoffs in the Commons as a series of warm-up bouts for the campaign trail. So Day arrived last week with an air of proper respect for QP tradition - but also a willingness to test its boundaries. His lead-off questions followed a tried-and-true pattern, sticking to the day's news, mostly about gas prices and taxes. Outside the chamber, though, he gambled by sidestepping the time-honoured media scrums in favour of what he promised would be daily post-QP news conferences in a utilitarian basement briefing room. Chrétien quickly labelled Day's chosen venue "the whine cellar."

Liberal MPs dutifully chuckled, but some nonpartisan experts thought Day might be on to something. The scrums are a volatile vehicle for crafting an image. When a politician is on a roll, there is an energy in the House foyer that can occasionally make for good TV. But scrumming is hardly the way to become prime ministerial - a transformation Day must accomplish if he is to be taken seriously by many voters. Day is, after all, most identified so far with his sweat-and-surf photo-ops: in-line skating or swooping up to a news conference on a noisy Wave Runner. (Note to Alliance tacticians: the cottage-owner vote may be alienated beyond salvaging.)

The little room where Day plans to hold court after every QP is a more sedate setting. He stands at a podium with the Canadian and provincial flags lined up behind him. There is none of the neck-craning, jostling feel of a scrum. "It looks like coherent public-policy discussion," said Laura Peck, a consultant with the media-training firm Barry McLoughlin Associates Inc. "He faces the camera square-on. He looks right through the reporters and into people's homes."

That sort of thumbs-up review is unsettling for Liberal strategists now pondering election timing. Sure, Day looked a little stiff at times, but that seemed appropriate for a rookie. Certainly, there is no sign that he will fight against the flow of QP the way the Alliance's predecessor, the Reform party, did after its 1993 election breakthrough. Determined to be different, Reform experimented with seating its leader, Preston Manning, behind the front row and letting lesser lights pose the first question. Those queries often ignored the day's events and stuck doggedly to Reform's core concerns; as a result, unfamiliar MPs asking about bottom-of-mind issues kept Reform from newscasts and front pages. Manning soon reverted to more customary strategy.

An outsider hired to advise Reform on QP tactics after the1997 election, former CBC journalist Denise Rudnicki says Day shows a firm grasp of QP basics: "Ask a question on the news of the day. Ask your toughest question first. Ask one with a who, what, when and why element, so maybe reporters will repeat your question instead of going into the scrum and asking their own." Do all that right and what does it get you? Rudnicki argues the payoff comes less by making a direct impression on voters, than by influencing opinion-makers. "QP is where reporters gain the impressions they filter back to readers and viewers," she contends. Jonathan Rose, a Queen's University political studies professor and author of a recent book on political advertising, agrees that between election campaigns, QP remains crucial. "The strength of the party," Rose says, "will often depend on whether its leader is able to stand up to the rigours of Parliament."

As Chrétien contemplates when to call an election, Day's strength in the House is being closely analyzed. Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini, chairman and CEO of Pollara Inc., says polls that showed the governing party comfortably ahead before Day and Chrétien sparred in the House should be viewed with extreme caution. "We want people to see that little TV clip of Day asking the PM something and the PM responding," Marzolini recently told Maclean's. "Canadians will then contrast and compare." After last week, any hope Liberals had that Canadians would be forming views based on a rookie opposition leader looking badly outmatched by a veteran prime minister appears to be gone.

Clothes Can Make the Politician

Words like "insipid," "hayseed" and "frightened" popped up in one acknowledged expert's analysis of the Question Period faceoff between Jean Chrétien and Stockwell Day. And unlike other pundits, Harry Rosen, Canada's most famous haberdasher, could have hit the mute button during QP and still come to his conclusions.

In fact, his assistant videotaped the session for the busy Rosen, 69, to peruse later at the request of Maclean's. It was not pleasant viewing. Rosen, who oversees a countrywide chain of upscale menswear stores, deplored the suits both Chrétien and Day wore. He did not like their ties. Most of all, and most painfully for a man with his cultivated sense of the colour palette, he disapproved strenuously of the matched white shirts on the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. "They could be wearing little mini-checks that are handsome and neat, stripes, and all manner of colours," Rosen sighed. "But they are frightened of them. White is safe - and insipid - in my view."

The master tailor is disappointed that the athletic Day often resorts to the "wedding-like" combination of a sombre suit and silvery tie when he isn't in workout gear. "He could make much more of what he's got physically," Rosen observed, wondering if Day's ideological conservatism is reflected in his drab taste. Chrétien's cautious ties and navy suits, often double-breasted, also fall short of Rosen's standards. Why not go three-button? "One can age and still project a progressive attitude, which he doesn't," Rosen says. "To me, the way Chrétien dresses is hayseed."

Where might Chrétien and Day look for sartorial enlightenment? Rosen suggests Bill Clinton, who updated presidential style by eschewing Brooks Brother stodginess in favour of Donna Karan soft shoulders. Or, closer to home, how about Gilles Duceppe? Separatist he may be, but Rosen says the Bloc Québécois leader looks "very well put together."

Maclean's October 2, 2000