01.26.2015 06:32 PM

In Tuesday’s Sun: abolish Question Period!

Parliament is back in session, and so too Question Period.

Nobody would dispute that the former is a crucial part of the way in which we govern ourselves.  But the latter? It’s more than irrelevant – it is arguably harmful to our democracy.

To suggest such a thing is heretical, of course. Since Parliament’s return on Monday, we have been subjected to the usual back-in-session news coverage and opinion columns about who said what in Question Period, who scored and who didn’t. We have been told, implicitly or explicitly, that QP (as it is known) is vitally important.

But is it? In an era of declining voter participation, in a time of pervasive cynicism about our politicians and our democratic institutions, a fair case could be made out that QP now does more harm than good.

It was not always thus. Before the advent of television cameras in the Commons chamber, it is fair to say that QP played an important role in holding the government of the day to account. But after television arrived in 1977, QP rapidly devolved into what former Prime Minister John Turner famously called “bullshit theatre.”

Over the years, multiple public opinion surveys have been commissioned to examine why fewer citizens are voting, and why so many of them are disenchanted with the political process.  The results are always the same, with the histrionics in QP always ranking high on the list. Puerile and idiotic behavior – along with the inevitable posturing and pontificating – has turned the electorate away in sizeable numbers.

A fairly recent Nanos poll for Policy Options, for instance, was quite clear: only ten per cent of Canadians – one in ten! – said they were satisfied with the way things were done in the House of Commons; two thirds of them, meanwhile, wanted to see vastly improved behaviour there.  Said the respected polling firm: “An overwhelming majority thinks the House of Commons would be more effective if MPs had more free votes in the House and were more polite in Question Period…Canadians are tuned-out, turned-off and skeptical of the effectiveness of the House of Commons.”

More than half of Canadians, Nanos found, are not getting information about government from the Internet, newspapers or radio.  More than half are doing so – and forming impressions – based on TV coverage.

This is not a good thing.  Fox News founder Roger Ailes, typically, knows why.  Asked about what works on TV, and what doesn’t, Ailes said: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”

Precisely.  TV, by its very nature, rewards those who are LOUD.  It adores CONFLICT. It is a medium that is all about PASSION, not reason.

As long as television cameras remain in the Commons, nothing is going to change for the better. Ipso facto, voters will continue to grow disenchanted with democracy itself.

As former B.C. Premier Gord Campbell once said to me, after his 1996 election loss: “It’s 70 per cent how you look, and it’s 20 per cent how you say it.

“And, unfortunately, and it’s only 10 per cent what you actually say.”

27 Comments

  1. Peter says:

    The essence of what you are saying or trying to say will be drowned out by partisans on a political blog like this. “Sure JT may play to the camera, but given Harper’s lying attack ads and destruction of our democracy, what can you expect?” Etc, etc., yada, yada. I think you are talking about a cultural shift brought about by a communications and social media revolution we have hardly begun to understand. If anyone wants proof of the problem, look at sports broadcasting. 24/7 hyperventilated analyses by overly-assertive, faux-combatative commentators who are clearly trying much too hard to give the impression they are saying something a point, controversial and momentous.

  2. Sam Gunsch says:

    NDP’s Mulcair demonstrated the approach to make QP valuable to the citizenry and democracy in his questions on the Duffy file, according to observers across the political spectrum.

    But Harper’s unending non-sequitur evasions or repetitive but evolving obfuscation, and ultimately resorting to Calandra idiocy makes your case.

  3. Brachina says:

    Abolish one of the most important and vital parts of our democracy?!? Why because it embarrass your leader?

  4. Had the motion requiring questions be honestly addressed passed it would have improved things. Hopefully that can be held against Harper in the election.

    Debate clip

    Mulcair: Mr. Harper, you voted to block a motion to require honest answers during Question Period.

    Harper: We have the right to free speech.

    Mulcair: The constitution gives the people the right to freedom of expression, but as the government you do not have that right. You are constitutionally required to be accountable to Parliament and the people. If you are unwilling to fulfill that responsibility you are free to resign as Prime Minister.

  5. Brachina says:

    That’s the Prime Minister, not QP, Abolish Harper and Justin instead.PAP

  6. Al in Cranbrook says:

    Could not possibly agree more, Warren!!!

    Preston Manning made an effort to bring decorum and get rid of the drama…and the press gallery promptly ignored him and the Reform MPs. Indeed, they even complained about how dull they’d become.

    The whole affair has become nothing more than theater since the introduction of TV cameras.

    The notion that Mulcair would do well on election day because of his supposed talent for hamming up indignation for the cameras is, frankly, silly wishful thinking. Besides the self important press gallery, nobody else worth mentioning is paying any attention.

  7. I don’t think Parliament’s QP is to blame. Certainly, the media that reports on QP could do better. As could Justin and Steve and their ilk. Admit it, Tom is killing in QP so Liberal supporters like you think that’s one way to shut him down.

  8. Bill says:

    A fairly recent Nanos poll for Policy Options, for instance, was quite clear: only ten per cent of Canadians – one in ten! – said they were satisfied with the way things were done in the House of Commons; two thirds of them, meanwhile, wanted to see vastly improved behaviour there.

    No diff really from the US where Congress is held in low esteem.

    We have an election coming up and the “media” will drive the coverage based on the political message. It’s up to us to force these issues. If we all think that answering questions is important, then we should be emailing/calling our MP’s to hold their feet to the fire.

  9. Lance says:

    I wonder if they did what they do in the British Parliament and have a period set aside during the week for questioning ONLY the PM if that would help, or if it would make any difference. I watched it a few times and their PM gets grilled; there was no avoiding it.

  10. Richard says:

    The “questions” are laced with bloated cynicism and faux-anger while the “answers” are nothing but promotion of the governments position. Now if the opposition were to ask questions in a thoughtful and even respectful manner and the government were obliged to answer in a forthright manner…. oh well that’s enough fantacizing!

  11. Monique says:

    Eliminate question period? Doesn’t our current oligarch have enough freedom to dictate as he pleases? You would have him (or in future, perhaps Trudeau) not have to answer any questions about their actions? I heartily agree that the behavior could improve, but I’m not interested in a system which does not allow the opposition to question the actions of the ruling government in any other forum than our often corrupt and biased press.

  12. Patrick says:

    It is mostly buffoonery and bluster but what else is there? Anything else is controlled messaging or favouring supporting media for softball questioning. I suppose we could demand they be forced to stay on topic and not interrupt other people and not hurl insults and think before they speak, but man, that’s a hell of a lot of ritalin.

  13. davie says:

    Would using the cameras differently help? I notice that the Scots, Brit and French allow cameras to show reactions of other legislators to what the answering government member says. Would I it help to show hecklers? Would it help to ban reading from a copy of any kind, for questions and answers?

    Suppose we do not have a formal question period. What device can be used by non government legislators (including back benchers in the governing party) to force the government to account, on an on going basis, to the people of Canada for what they are doing?

  14. kre8tv says:

    I go back and forth on this. On one hand, it’s theatre. And not even good theatre. The players know it, the audiences know it. Everybody. It’s all passion. The real work gets done at Committee because it’s the place where reason takes hold. Here’s what I worry would happen if QP was gone. The grandstanding and windbag powered BS would not vanish. It would just move to Committee and elsewhere. Politics + cameras always equals stupidity. We just get to choose how much and where it gets to spread.

    • davie says:

      MP Simms made a similar point about the theatre being not very good.
      I disagree. I think our parliamentarians are very good, and keep getting better with practice: self righteous outrage, rollicking laughter, laudatory standing ovations, thoughtful nodding, patriarchal sermons, chest thumping patriotism, eye watering apologies,…they win our votes thereby.

      Old one liner goes: A most important trait for success is ‘sincerity.’ Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

  15. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Warren,

    Aren’t the British lucky — thoroughly satisfied with only one weekly dose of being insufferable, every Wednesday.

  16. Warren is right on the money with this article. The childish, boorish antics of QP are a kind of sickness that continue to infect generation after generation of would-be change makers in Ottawa. Ask any schoolteacher who’s ever led a field trip to Parliament Hill. This only makes sense to pundits and political junkies, but to everyday people it’s as outdated as cat-calling women on the sidewalk. It needs to end.

  17. socks clinton says:

    In the 1970s when Question Period was first televised only to show the MPs thumping on theirs desks like Arnold Horseshack “Wayne & Shuster” had a spoof where QP was turned into a musicial to get the ratings up.

  18. JimDougBob says:

    1. I would join a movement to de-televise only QP (leaving the rest of Commons business on CPAC) – just to see what might happen.

    Been saying this for years. I guarantee QP would not become MORE pointless. Wonder how the tone would be then?

    Hansard would still be there to record the Qs & As.

    2. The set piece process (written questions, in advance –> full-dress researched report/answer) has some possibilities too.

    3. It seems to me the government does not have anything to gain by improving QP, so why would they?

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