Inside Stephen Harper's political theatre

There’s theatre in an actual theatre.

And then there’s theatre out in the “real world”.

In both cases, the operative principle for all involved is the well-known “suspension of disbelief”. Everyone acts as if things are “normal”, even though everyone knows that it ain’t so.

I just passed through a strange, disconcerting theatrical experience of the latter sort, in Kelowna.

On January 28th, I had my chance to speak before the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel.

The experience was most definitely one of political theatre of the most tightly scripted kind. No improv here, no muddling of lines. This was one serious play, written by one serious playwright – Prime Minister Stephen Harper, aided and abetted by his production team in Ottawa and, no doubt, corporate sponsors in distant capitals around the world.

As I looked around the room on that day, and watched the various players slipping into position – the audiovisual people, the clerks, the panellists, the two prominently situated Enbridge representatives, and of course the 25 or 30 presenters and their guests (one only per presenter) in the block I was part of – I had this overwhelming impression that we were all acting on a stage.

The day’s proceedings were so strictly blocked out that I almost felt like I had stumbled into some sort of secular monastery (co-ed, mind you!) in which every act of the day was organized according to a rigid ritualistic plan.

It was not exactly pleasant. But it was fascinating.

At times, it was eerie.

Take, for example, the response to presentations. My presentation looked at the structural issues that have produced the wholly unsatisfactory process the Panel hearings represent. When I was done….dead silence.

Not normal.

I was followed by eloquent remarks from Michael Jessen, a distinguished environmentalist with a track record stretching back 40 years – a founder of the Recycling Council of BC, president of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation for 8 years, and recycling coordinator for the Regional District of the North Kootenays for a decade. He finished his remarks, and…..dead silence.

Definitely not normal.

His presentation was followed by a spirited and thoroughly entertaining as well as challenging commentary by Neil Cadger, a theatre professor from UBC-Okanagan. He was full of humour, thought-provoking throw-away lines, and some serious moral injunctions. He ended….and once again, dead silence.

I was told afterwards by a friend that one of the waiting presenters, carried away by a surge of normal sentiments, began to clap after one of the presentations. He clapped his hands together 3 or 4 times, and then paused, realizing he was the only one in the room making any noise. He received an admonishing look from one of the staffers…and then he stopped, embarrassed by his eruption of spontaneous feeling.

The ritual moved on.
Another touch: I was the first presenter in the room to speak on that day (two were piped in via a very skookum audio relay first – it was eerie how clear voices arose from invisible speakers). I was invited to do begin by the panel chair, biologist Sheila Leggett, with the faintest of frosty smiles. When I finished – in dead silence – Michael Jessen was invited by the panel member to Ms. Leggett’s left, geologist Hans Matthews, as a result of some pre-arranged signal – again with that same fleeting smile. And when Michael was done and duly thanked, the panel member to Ms. Leggett’s right, lawyer Ken Bateman – again, without a glance to right or left – asked Neil Cadger to present.

It was a tightly choreographed dance. Everyone was right on their marks, speaking on cue, responding in careful, precise movements and words – the way it’s done in  professional theatre companies. After the first three speakers were done, we were instructed to stand down, and the names of the next three were called out, and they were invited to come to the three seats we had  vacated. While that was happening, I, Michael and Neil shook hands, almost in relief – a gesture of humanity in this very cold, very contained setting. Staffers buzzed around. One young woman took a picture. It seemed close to the way people really are.

I left the hearing room shortly afterwards. There were several members of the media – TV, radio (public and private) and newspaper – waiting in the hall outside, eager to evaporate the pall of the hearing and have us come alive in real human dialogue.

I recall my conversations with the various journalists – most of whom seemed to be under 40, and so very concerned about these hearings – seemed like a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to talk in real ways, to real people who answered – and in some cases commented themselves. It was stark contrast to the stultifying and artificial atmosphere in the hearing chamber.

Even before we had gone into that  room, both I and my “guest” – retired McGill biologist Hugh Tyson – had been briefed twice over on what to do and how to behave. We were enjoined to be polite, calm and avoid strong language or any semblance of an outburst. The on-line instructions reiterated the same mantra: “If a presenter or his/her guest disrupts the hearing, both will be asked to leave and the presenter will forfeit the opportunity to present their oral statement.”

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