“The practice of discouraging the reading of speeches is of British derivation,” the official guide to House of Commons procedure explains, “and was intended to maintain the cut and thrust of debate, which depends upon successive speakers addressing to some extent in their speeches the arguments put forward by previous speakers.” This standard for spontaneous rhetoric has long since passed—but the ability to speak freely, as opposed to merely stand and read, is still what defines the House’s best orators. To be able to ask a question, listen to the response and react appropriately is, within the ornate walls of this House of Commons, a rare gift. And so it is perhaps the first thing one notices when Bob Rae rises to participate in debate or question period.
Not merely because of the white hair does the Liberal foreign affairs critic speak with a certain gravitas. He is a veteran of this stuff, having served for a total of six years in Ottawa and another 13 in the Ontario legislature, sitting with two different parties and in both opposition and government. He understands one cannot always yell, one must be able to speak softly—even if only to make one’s subsequent screams that much more effective. He can ask a simple question without seeming weak. He can express outrage without seeming hysterical. He can, with the proper phrasing and the right cadence, compel the room to his attention like few other figures in this Parliament.
But perhaps most redeeming is his ability, unlike so many of the opposition’s other interrogators, to improvise in the midst of so much sound and fury. “I did not know,” Rae quipped the other day in response to government heckles, “250 knuckles grazing the floor could make so much noise.” This might not have been the stuff of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it was certainly not poetry, but it was, in its own way, eloquence.