It was a sizable British Columbia political issue that called for a one-size-fits-all solution, says Premier David Eby, who at six foot seven inches is the province’s tallest leader.
The tall and the short needed evening out as matters of perception and fairness, he said.
Eby towers over most people at news conferences but is juxtaposed with Selina Robinson, minister of post-secondary education and future skills, who at four foot 11 inches often needs to stand on boxes to reach the microphone.
The solution: a mechanical podium, which debuted shortly after Eby took office late last year. It can be moved up or down with the flick of a switch to suit the size of the person delivering remarks at a political event.
“You might describe me as an unusually tall person, or disturbingly tall person to some people,” Eby told reporters last week. “My colleague Selina Robinson is a much tinier person and we have a whole range of people in between, so the podium moves up and down to accommodate everybody’s ability to speak.”
The premier said people have expressed surprise — and thanks — as the podium lifts or lowers to accommodate their height.
One such person was Tracy Redies, chief executive officer at Vancouver’s Science World, who joined Eby for a news conference last month where the province announced $20 million to repair the iconic domed building’s leaky roof.
“This pulpit’s amazing,” she said. “The science, the technology.”
Eby said the podium, which has gained the nickname “explodium” at the legislature, is a functional success.
“It’s an important innovation in B.C. where we are never short of innovations or remarkable ways to solve problems,” he chuckled. “When we go to events around the community, it does draw attention from speakers who aren’t used to it, especially when it moves unexpectedly. I think everybody enjoys it. It’s fun and it works.”
But, some concerns about the podium have been raised by the Opposition BC United and a communications expert who suggests the structure reinforces old-school political traditions.
BC United finance critic Peter Milobar said the Opposition has questions about the cost of the podium, but the government hasn’t provided answers.
“We all understand the premier is tall, but the fact we need these extra-wide, telescopic-type podiums just seems to be a potentially expensive thing for the taxpayer,” he said.
Milobar said it appears the podium is more of a political prop used to enhance Eby’s image.
“It’s fair to say I’m not an average-sized person, but I’m not too worried about which podium I’m standing behind to make important political announcements,” he said.
While Eby’s podium is not the biggest news story at the legislature, it symbolizes the stereotyped visual culture of politics,said David Black, a political communications expert at Victoria’s Royal Roads University.
“I think the podium, where you want to adjust for a tall person like David Eby or a shorter person like Selina Robinson, is all about just creating this necessary visual conformity so that no one is stepping on the message,” he said.
B.C.’s development of a podium that fits all sizes is a metaphor for a political culture that is resistant to change, Black said.
“When you break the visual code or political style or tamper with conservative visual culture when it comes to politics, you step on the message,” he said. “It becomes, fairly or not, read as a gaffe, sometimes a career-ending gaffe.”
Former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day was widely criticized more than two decades ago for arriving at a B.C. lakeside news conference riding a Jet Ski, Black said.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama faced fierce criticism for wearing a tan-coloured suit, he said.
“He wore a tan-coloured suit and it was the end of American democracy,” Black said.
But federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s backyard neighbourhood video statements are signs of a politician looking to break visual codes, as was former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s “everyman” appearance, said Black.
“My question is, in some sense, do we need to rethink the language of politics, the visual style of politics, because is it exhausted?” he said. “Is it obsolete? Has it exhausted its reassuring quality?”
Robinson said she’s pleased with the fairness of the podium, especially after years of standing on crates to raise her profile.
“Having a podium that actually fits me is great, and one that fits the premier is great,” she said.
“This is an accessibility piece of furniture and I think it works the way it’s supposed to. It’s recognizing we all come in different shapes and sizes and having furniture that fits us regardless of how tall or small we are is a good thing.”
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press