BTC: Optimism alert


From the Globe’s Adam Radwanski.

“As it sinks in that minority parliaments are more than just a blip on the radar, Canadians may start looking for someone to navigate them with some semblance of magnanimity and a willingness to engage those with different perspectives. Mr. Dion — a poor communicator lacking in charisma — was clearly not the one to sell a new way of doing politics. But a more gifted politician may just find an audience.”

In this regard, that Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have apparently negotiated some sort of non-aggression pact is probably to be applauded. Of course, that two competing politicians would now have to negotiate such an agreement and that it would then be applauded as rare cause for hope is altogether depressing. 

But let’s say Adam, among others, is right and there’s a burgeoning desire among the population at large for something better than what we have. And let’s assume that, while it took the most disastrous presidency in half a century to get America to demand change and we seem to be approximately four years behind them at this point (our election just past was, in all sorts of ways, a re-running of the U.S. election in 2004), we can get there without something vaguely cataclysmic. 

Is that even remotely possible without at least a minor revolution in the way we (in the occupational sense) cover politics in this country? Or, put another way, wouldn’t that change be a lot more likely if we went ahead and dramatically overhauled the way we cover politics in this country?

For instance. On election night, Rick Mercer used his rant to propose more cameras in the House of Commons, with the explicit purpose of showing the heckling and cross-talk that is not currently aired. This will almost certainly never happen because no party, least of all the one presently governing, can claim to be without members it would prefer to remain unseen. But what Mercer’s plea generally spoke to was a desire for members to be held accountable for their words and actions while participating in the business of government—that we need more coverage of stuff like Question Period, not less.

The conventional gallery wisdom has it that QP is such pointless theatre, beneath serious journalism and unworthy of your attention. Of course, knowing they can say just about anything without wide notice only encourages our more enthusiastic politicians to work out their repressed emotional issues in public. Which only discourages serious coverage. Which ultimately manifests itself in an annual mope about the state of decorum in the House and not much of anything being furthered, aside from John Baird’s vocal range.

(It’s a basic system of reward and punishment. And if there’s no punishment for acting like an ass, and no reward for not acting like an ass, there’s no motivation to pursue anything but your basest instincts. In general, you see, it’s best to imagine the House of Commons as a class of kindergartners.)

Coincidentally, serious journalism has never been less serious. Imagine, for a second, how much happier a world we’d live in if the networks all agreed here and now to never again televise a panel consisting of party “strategists”*. Or if we generally stopped trying to pretend we’re all strategists**. Or if we spent 97% less time during the last election discussing poll numbers. Or if we imposed vaguely reasonable restrictions on the use of anonymous quotes, especially when used solely for the purpose of documenting internal party dysfunction. Or if we spent 84% less time documenting internal party dysfunction. Or if we updated our basic tenet of balanced journalism to make truthful reporting the primary objective***.

Granted, that’s probably a less interesting world.

Anyway. At dinner last night with a fellow resident of this place, we got to talking about what it would take to really “change” things. And this is, essentially, what I theorized. And then we both fought the urge to conclude this place is completely and irredeemably screwed.


*For the record, since coming to Ottawa, I’ve met approximately three people who regularly participate in these things. Each are intelligent, insightful human beings who I enjoy talking to. Unfortunately, those panels essentially demand that they put on suits and jell-o wrestle. And panels featuring three or four MPs commenting on the day’s events are only slightly more useful.

**At one point during the campaign, a reporter tried to explain to me that Stephane Dion was a failure because his campaign couldn’t stage a proper photo-op. Now maybe his campaign really wasn’t very good at setting up particularly meaningful backdrops, but where should that rank on the average campaign reporter’s priority list? Is it even a top-five consideration in judging a political candidate?

***The Bush-Rove administration understood very well that journalism’s focus on “balance” meant your viewpoint, no matter how flawed or dishonest, would, at least initially, be given equal standing and any future correcting of the record would receive less attention than the initial report. Then Iraq happened. And now CNN spends great amounts of air time fact-checking what politicians say and, in the parlance of Anderson Cooper, “keeping them honest.”


BTC: Optimism alert

  1. All right. Think about this approach.

    If you can’t take QP seriously because it’s a big PR exercise, then change the way the PPG covers Parliament.

    Send more staff to the major committee meetings, where bills are debated. (You might have to stock up on Vivarin, but they’re tough, they can take it.) Get more people to track the major Senate committees such as public accounts and national defence.

    Put pressure on the staff transcribing those meetings to have the transcripts available, online or otherwise, on a more timely basis. Cultivate the backbenchers,not the senior people, so that they can tell you what happened at caucus meetings.

  2. Unfortunately, I do not watch Question Period on CPAC or the highlights on the news. The responses to the questions lack meaning; the heckling is childish. I always have my remote on hand to change the channel whenever a news program shows Question Period.

    I would recommend at least showing other people who may be in attendance. If someone starts heckling or makes inappropriate comments or gestures, then Canadians should be able to see that person. Maybe the immature behaviour will subside.

  3. Every day, each and every network should show footage of whomever was the biggest ass of the day in parliament. They should also digitally add an ‘asshat’ to said person.

  4. People still watch the News? Whatever for?

  5. I like QP as it is. I want conflict, heckling and the like because that’s what QP is for. I know many of you are pro-kittens, lollipops and rainbows but give it up already. Conflict is the only way to get decent legislation and if we look for consensus, the country will quickly go down the toilet.

  6. Aaron,

    Have you eveer read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”? It’s a very good read if you haven’t already, and isn’t just another book that denounces the faults of TV.

    Rather, Postman makes a pretty good argument that the medium of television itself encourages bad political coverage, irrespective of the program’s producers intentions. Television wants to entertain, not inform. In other words, if one is going to try and have a serious political discussion on television, one will end up creating unwatchable TV.

    He further makes the argument that with television being the dominant medium in our society (which is still true even today with this whole internet thing — his argument equally applies to YouTube videos, for example), the discussion held on TV profoundly influence the discussions held in other mediums.

    Ergo, the coverage in newspapers and magazines have been more “television” like: diluted and sensationalist (but more entertaining to read, perhaps).

    Ultimately, I think Postman would argue that print media is capable of making the change you suggest, but it will be difficult so long as television is the dominant medium (again, with the advent of YouTube and Facebook, the internet is becoming very television like, so perhaps it’s not the great public discourse saviour we predicted it would). But regardless, he would argue that ultimately the people in charge of creating the content can only push proper discourse as far as the medium lets them.

    Anyways, something for you (and everyone else) to think about.


  7. I cannot – no, I cannot resist putting in a plug for my radical, wonderful idea about how to make QP sane and sober again:

    The Athenian Solution

    The gist: 1/3rd of the House (100 MPs) is randomly chosen at election time from among ordinary voting Canadians (you amalgamate every elected 3 ridings into 2).

    Thus the randomly chosen MPs would hold the balance of power in the House, while being proportionate to voter preference. Since these randomly chosen MPs would not be officially affiliated with a party, and would generally not egomaniacs, and would be obliged to attend the House in order to earn their consider salaries, they would not be willing to tolerate juvenile bickering every QP – it would alienate them and their votes. Indeed, they would need to be convinced by stirring oratory and logical arguments into voting for or against any given bill. Thus the regular, elected, affiliated MPs would actually have to convince living human beings of their party’s position instead of preaching to the converted and the unswayable all day every day.

    Bonuses: we boost voter turnout (who doesn’t like a free lottery?), get some PR (both political and gendered/ethnic/regional), and show that the House fundamentally belongs to the People.

    Really, if I don’t deserve the Order of Canada for this, who does?

  8. JM they would be eaten alive by lobbyists!

  9. Aaron,

    Solid piece, thanks. I especially liked this, because it accords closely to my thoughts on the subject: And then we both fought the urge to conclude this place is completely and irredeemably screwed.


    1/3rd of the House (100 MPs) is randomly chosen at election time from among ordinary voting Canadians (you amalgamate every elected 3 ridings into 2).

    Have you met ordinary voting Canadians? We’re not the brightest.

  10. Optimism? I have none.

    I guess that’s the point. If a politics (or policy) geek like me becomes so disillusioned, can be blame average Canadians for tuning out?

  11. “JM they would be eaten alive by lobbyists!”

    Not to mention the parties. If any of these 100 get to like their comfy MP jobs, and they are not precluded from running for an elected seat, some number of them could certainly be bought.

  12. And then we both fought the urge to conclude this place is completely and irredeemably screwed.

    I’ve had a long-standing theory that this is the inevitable conclusion, in any field, whenever you get skilled enough, and wise enough in the ways of your trade, to see the big picture. So uh, congratulations; now no-one can say you aren’t a pro.

    Hey, why don’t you guys get together and start a new national daily newspaper? (Joke, it’s a joke.)

    I think, if you really want to change the face of Canadian news, you have to be able to prove to people with money that there’s an audience for non-sensationalist, actually-honest-to-god-serious reporting on politics and current events. To be brutally honest, I think one could demonstrate it already with Macleans – the breadth of knowledge is here, and very visible online – but more often than not the actual layout of the magazine feels pretty ridiculous. Who’s hot and who’s not? (or whatever Capital Diary is supposed to be) “Nagging will shorten your husband’s life?” Really? Is that why I’m buying a newsmagazine? (This criticism doesn’t really include the special election edition, which is pretty good, I must say.)

    I think it’s harder to sell “serious news” when you package it up with a pile of very obviously not news. It’s instructive to compare what ends up on the front of macleans.ca to what ends up in the table of contents in the magazine. It is that mush of topics that seems to result in news being treated as just another entertainment item to pull in the crowd — I realize that’s how the world works, but I also believe there will always, always be an audience that values spartan, hard truth over dolled-up tabloids.

    Anyway, I don’t know how useful my ranting is; probably not much. Long story short: write it, push for it, and there will always be people with an appetite for good journalism. If you can see what’s wrong with the system, we need you to work on it from the inside. There’s always hope!

  13. Also, the House is often terrible and I would absolutely love it if other politicians, and the media, would extensively detail each and every outburst of kindergarten-level taunting. It’s that, or get a Speaker who is willing to exercise real authority to get the knobs to shut up.

    I sometimes think about becoming an MP solely so I could somehow do something about the idiots who yell from the back benches.

    jwl is right in a way – Parliament does need to be adversarial in a way, but so do courts, and lawyers manage to do it without accusing each other of stealing their milk money or whatever. And they’re lawyers!

  14. In shrill defense of my Athenian idea for randomly chosen citizen MPs –

    Toby: “they would be eaten alive by lobbyists!”

    Andrew: “Not to mention the parties. If any of these 100 get to like their comfy MP jobs, and they are not precluded from running for an elected seat, some number of them could certainly be bought.”

    Olaf: “Have you met ordinary voting Canadians? We’re not the brightest.”

    @Toby & Andrew: Yeah, good points. We’d have to have some severe, severe checks on buying them – in my piece I suggested they be permanently ineligible for later quangos, but maybe you could get downright Draconian on them. No bribes, no Sens tickets, no whatever. It must be possible to do that, no? By scrutinising their finances, barring them from reelection, etc. I think people would still go for it even if they couldn’t be bribed on the job – the salary’s pretty sweet by ordinary standards.

    @Olaf: not very bright, but surely not much less bright than the average MP?

    Thanks for the feedback, guys! (And sorry for the typos in my first post.)

  15. Wherry: Is there a limit on your pompousness?

    Pretending that we just fought the 2004 US election, where a Harper thinly-disguised as Bush duped the Canadian electorate and hoping for the day we can go back to rainbows and unicorns under Bob Rae or Ignatieff liberals is hackery at its finest.

    You top this off by demanding serious journalism and seem unaware that you are not a serious journalist.

  16. The Ottawa Press gallery can make a major step towards relevance by dropping their war with PM Harper and the Conservative Party. I would guess that 95% of Canadians do not care how slighted reporters feel at the PM actually setting the rules for his press conferences. Grow up or get another job.

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