When silence is golden

Ballooning blabbermouths in the Canadian House of Commons

Ballooning blabbermouths in the Canadian House of Commons

Now that the more rigorous aspects of Statistics Canada’s data collection functions are effectively hobbled, the nation awaits with breathless anticipation the arrival of alternatives. The more whimsical, it seems, the better.

Here comes one, courtesy of Samara, which bills itself as “a non-partisan charitable organization that works to improve political participation in Canada.” The happy collective with a staff of six takes its name from “the winged ‘helicopter’ seed that falls from the maple tree. A samara is a symbol of Canada, and a reminder that from small seeds, big ideas can grow.”

Like this one: “Canada’s House of Commons is really a House of Words – almost 8 million in 2012. But when it comes to debate on the floor of the Commons, some MPs have much more to say than others. What do 200,000 words, 70,000 words or 1000 words look like?”

Samara is glad you asked, because “thanks to several famous Canadian books, a bookshelf helps us visualize the differences. . .We’ve included the most talkative MPs, the least talkative, the leaders of the political parties and a few cabinet ministers.”

The group’s research, just released, shows that oratorily. . .um. . .speaking, New Democratic members are more verbose, by several magnitudes of order, than their political rivals. (The exception is Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who never met a podium she couldn’t crash).

The top prize goes to NDipper Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster) who uttered a grand total of 226,027 words during the 129 days the Commons sat last year. According to Samara, that’s roughly equivalent to reading out loud Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”.

On the opposite end of the of the lip-flapping scale, Tory MP Keith Ashfield (Fredericton) issued a mere 922 bon mots, which is about the same number that fill the Robert Service poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. (To be fair, Mr. Ashfield had been ill and, therefore, absent from the House last fall).

Other works of literary art various MPs might have recited in place of the greenhouse gases they actually issued include: Conrad Black’s “A Matter of Principle” (Liberal Kevin Lamoureux, Winnipeg North, 222,451 words); Ken Dryden’s “The Game” (Conservative Kellie Leitch, Simcoe-Grey, 120,835); Will Ferguson’s “419” (New Democrat Jack Harris, St. John’s East, 113,819); Rick Mercer’s “A Nation  Worth Ranting About” (New Democratic Leader Thomas Mulcair, Outremont, 44,498); and Kim Thuy’s “Ru” (Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Calgary Southwest, 26,758).

The research is intriguing. But is it instructive?

Surely, the quantity of speech is less important than the quality. When Mr. Mulcair inveighs against the sitting government’s policies for penal reform, do we afford him equal stature to Deputy House Leader Tom Lukiwski (who once spoke for six straight hours at committee) telling colleagues that television broadcasts of empty seats in the House “doesn’t look good for Parliament”?

In fact, the annals of democratic assemblies are littered with the spoken nonsense of their members. Business Insider reports, for example, that Senator Strom Thurmond (South Carolina) delivered what still remains the longest monologue in U.S. history. “In filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957,” the news source says, “Thurmond began speaking at 8:54 p.m. on August 28, 1957, and did not stop until 9:12 p.m. on the 29th. . .That rhetorical marathon took a lot of preparation. Here are some of the details, according to the Associated Press:

“Thurmond took a steam bath earlier in the day to rid his body of excess liquid. This avoided the potential for any ‘accidents’ in the chamber. He went to the floor armed with cough drops and malted milk tablets. He allowed others to make short remarks and ask questions during his time, allowing him to sneak off to the cloakroom to gobble a sandwich. He had his aide wait in the cloakroom with a pail when he was about to step down from the dais in case of an emergency evacuation.”

All of which may only suggest that verbal diarrhea is just one more bodily function best performed in private.

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