Theatre of the absurd

Warren Kinsella

By Warren Kinsella, Special to QMI Agency

A view shows the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa September 12, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A view shows the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa September 12, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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 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 "bullsh-- 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 behaviour – 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 10% of Canadians – one in 10 – 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% how you look, and it’s 20% how you say it.

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


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