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Blustering on air

Illustration by Malcolm Jones

In direct competition with the most popular afternoon soaps, it debuted in October 1977 to modest reviews and small audiences. Yet somehow, nearly 40 years later, “Question Period,” live from the House of Commons, is still on the air. The cast has changed completely over the years, but the rhetorical battles over many of the same issues continue. Having watched the parliamentary proceedings through most of their impressive run on our airwaves, sometimes professionally while working on Parliament Hill, other times recreationally (yes, I know, it is a little sad), I consider myself something of an expert on the daily spectacle.

There have been moments of high drama—I just can’t think of any right now—sprinkled in among hours of stultifyingly boring debate that could instantly anesthetize rabid fans of a show such as “This week in paint drying.”

Too harsh? Perhaps. Actually, I am a fan of cameras in the House of Commons. It lets the light into the seat of our government and renders the parliamentary machinations of our democracy open and transparent. Perhaps a tad too transparent.

Some might argue that politics and legislation are a little like hotdogs. We don’t really need to know exactly how they’re made. Yet broadcasting parliament invites average citizens to become more engaged in the electoral process and more informed on the issues of the day. Who can argue with that? Certainly not I. But letting in the light can also illuminate our democratic frailties.

On that first day, Joe Clark, amid the bright lights—and I’m not really referring to his caucus mates—rose in the House as leader of the official opposition, wearing a very bad dark-brown three-piece suit and a tie wide enough to be a spinnaker. Then he fired the first televised zinger across the House at Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, thus inaugurating the partisan descent into theatre, acrimony, grandstanding and the daily quest for the almighty news clip that remains with us to this day.

I know what you’re thinking. Surely the level of debate and witty repartee in question period has improved over the years? Not so much. It’s perfectly clear why no one in 40 years has ever suggested calling it answer period. The prime minister and cabinet ministers seem unwilling or unable to provide meaningful responses to loaded questions lobbed like grenades from the other side.

And the opposition members who pulled the pins in the first place don’t really expect answers. As one who used to write questions for my boss to ask in question period, I know first-hand what the goal was. And no, it wasn’t to advance a certain public policy issue or contribute constructively to the debate on new legislation. Rather, it usually had the twofold objective of embarrassing the government and elevating my member and party. And if we managed to snag a clip on the nightly news, there were high fives and cartwheels in our office.

The only questions ever truly answered are when government backbenchers lob sycophantic softballs to ministers who summarily knock them out of the park. They wax eloquent on just how brilliantly their government is performing, often drowned out by the jeering opposition benches.

But who in their right mind would advocate their removal? (The cameras, I mean, not the MPs.) I’m all for transparency in government. We should know what our politicians are doing. We should be able to see how legislation becomes law and hear debates on the great issues that consume the national interest. But for those voters who inadvertently stumble upon the parliamentary channel while flipping between “Master Chef” and “The Voice,” their reactions typically range from recoiling in disgust to plunging into a coma. Neither is healthy for our democracy.

So let’s challenge our MPs to make us proud when we watch the House of Commons on television. It’s the original reality TV. And if their question period performances don’t improve, we still have the option, every few years, of voting them off the island.


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