Invisible Cues

I was saying to Dan the other day how much I enjoyed Question Period and how, strangely, it made me proud to be a Canadian. Seeing the opposition hammer away and hammer away at the new Prime Minister gave me the (perhaps irrational) sense that our democracy was working, that our politicians were (somewhat) skilled. After all, consider how well George Bush would do if, every day, he had to face across the aisle the harsh and probing questions of leading Democrats. I suspect he'd fold up like a paper bag.

But it's the mechanics of Question Period that intrigue me. I know that there's a formula on how the questions get divvied up among the opposition, and I know that the opposition plans out in advance what questions to ask, and I know that each answered question gets a follow-up, but how does the governmet plan its responses.

Consider a typical question period in the House of Commons. Interim Leader of the Opposition Grant Hill stands up and asks a question, including the phrase, "I ask the Prime Minister...". The speaker then says, "The Right Honourable Prime Minister", and the prime minister stands up and responds. But, occasionally, somebody else will stand up (in the case I was watching, the Government House Leader), and I have yet to hear the speaker say, "The Right Honourable-- no, wait, the Government House-- no, wait! The Honourable Member for Kicking Horse Pass! Yeah, him!"

It's a dance. There are invisible cues that allow specific ministers or members to stand up and answer a question instead of the Prime Minister. Or, occasionally, the Prime Minister will stand up and answer the question instead of the Minister. And the Speaker, who has to recognize these individuals before they stand up, never gets it wrong. I'd love to know what's going on behind the cameras to make this work.

From politics to the economy, we live in an era where we can't stand around in a grocery store and see the prices rising (a far cry from the 1970s; thank heavens' for that), but inflation is still around, sneaking past you like a burglar. Companies hide it by repackaging some goods and surreptitiously including less for the same dollar spent, or introducing new goods with new features and using that as an excuse to change the price.

Consider Gillette's Mach 3 razor. After almost two decades of slicing and dicing and making Julianne fries out of my face, I've finally settled on this product as my best shave, despite the fact that the blades were a ludicrously expensive $11 for a set of four. You know, I remember when the Sensor Excel blades could be bought for about $8 for a set of five, but you see what Gilette did? Add a blade and a marketing campaign, and they come forward with a new product that extracts more money from my wallet.

The new product did, at least, give me a good shave, but now Gillette has come out with its Mach 3 Turbo, which includes a fancy new look and a extra strip of lubricant (which couldn't cost more than a few pennies), and a set of four blades now goes for $13. This new feature has not enhanced my shaving experience. Fortunately, Gillette has marked down the old Turbo-less Mach 3s to $9, saving me money for my good shave, but Gillette needs only to end production of the old Mach 3s to move old Mach 3 users onto the more expensive product. Sneaky...

Interestingly enough, there appear to be some price controls still in effect on the market. Did you notice that the price of milk went up this month? Here in Waterloo Region, four-litres worth of milk sells for $4.09 in Sobeys, Loblaws, Food Basics and all the competing supermarkets. It used to be $3.89. The milk hasn't been given a lubricating strip or been rebranded Milk Turbo, either. I know of no milk shortage in Canada, but the price is still up 30 cents (update: 20 cents. James needs to learn how to add without coffee), without comment. Coincidentally, the price of milk rose on the day Dalton McGuinty's increase to the minimum wage took effect.

Moreover, the price of milk had been stable for years. Dan pointed out to me that milk was $3.89 for a long time and, before that, was $3.09. The last time the price of milk rose? About the same time the minimum wage rose for the last time (under Bob Rae, on the eve of Mike Harris' election in 1995).

Are there laws controlling the price of milk and other necessities of life (bread and eggs)? Or do the supermarkets and milk, egg and bread producers voluntarily price their products at a percentage of the minimum wage, in order to forestall the government from intervening on behalf of the poor? You can only imagine the hue and cry throughout society if volatile milk, egg and bread prices became a problem.

But all of these things are happening under our noses, and it intrigues me to see the gears of society at work. What are the invisible cues? How do these decisions get made?

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