Asking on repeat may not make for great TV. But it is effective.
If you watched Monday’s BC Question Period, you may have thought you were watching a video on repeat.
One by one, opposition BC Liberals stood up and asked the same question: condo owners (several were mentioned by name and community) are facing an urgent crisis with skyrocketing strata insurance rates; what will the government do to offer immediate assistance?
Why ask the same question again and again? Because it works.
It’s not the topic that makes it effective, although it’s an important one. Nobody – including the NDP government – doubts the strata insurance crisis is a serious issue, with some stratas looking at stomach-turning 800% increases. (I’m a condo owner myself, and can assure you: this is very real, and very terrifying.)
For its part, the provincial government has introduced legislation that will increase transparency and close loopholes, and address some long-term structural issues. Worthy goals, but cold comfort for strata corporations staring down possible bankruptcies today.
You might ask why the same point (whether you agree with it or not) can’t be made in one or two questions, and then move onto something else?
Again, because it works.
Just two weeks ago, the BC Liberals used the same approach, asking Premier John Horgan over and over about a looming deadline that, unaddressed, would have forced, by law, companies to fire laid-off employees.
It was another urgent subject, and ended happily (the government extended the deadline, if a little peevishly). The BC Liberals were delighted when some of the facts in the Premier’s answers seemed to change, and he seemed to fluster, even if only slightly.
Ministerial media and Question Period training hammers in the importance of sticking to safe, battle-tested messaging. Acknowledge the question, then pivot to safe, established messages, regardless of the actual question. You may not like it, but this is true of all parties and all governments. (You also see it in professional sports: “We just have to take it one game at a time,” etc.)
Why does this require training? Because for most people – especially extroverted politicians – their instinct is the exact opposite. Chances are, your natural tendency is to fill the void – to keep talking, and say more. Human nature abhors a vacuum.
Combine that with an adversarial setting like Question Period, and the temptation to try and win the day can be almost irresistible.
Asking the same question over and over is more than just trying to force the issue. It works optically, too. All things being equal (partisans on all sides can skip to the next paragraph), a neutral observer witnessing someone ask the same question on repeat will naturally assume they’re not getting good or honest answers – even if only subconsciously.
It’s not easy for this or any opposition to gain traction in the media. They don’t control the agenda, can’t make big spending announcements, and are often frustrated in attempts to compel ministers to actually answer the substance of questions. Not for nothing is it said the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. (I have my doubts, but the cliché stands.)
Asking the same question over and over (and over and over) is one of the rare instances where the deck is stacked the other way. And given that it demonstrably moved the needle two weeks ago, legislature watchers should expect to see this technique again.
And again, and again.
Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca