Pay attention to QP

House of Commons





CBC’s Sunday Edition featured a somewhat bizarre essay this past weekend, wherein Michael Enright suggested that all that’s needed to clean up Question Period is for reporters to boycott the proceedings.  That’ll show them.  It’s clear from the very premise that Enright hasn’t a clue the way that QP actually gets covered by the Press Gallery, much less the way that reporting happens on Parliament Hill.  It also bears saying that ignoring the problems of QP won’t make them go away.

I will first of all note that I always find the handwringing around QP to be a bit much, because so much of it is complaining that theatre is theatre.  Because let’s face it – QP is theatre.  It may not be good theatre, but that’s what it is.  It’s actually fine that it’s theatre, because the rest of the sitting day on Parliament Hill is generally pretty sedate, and stuff gets done in generally a non-confrontational manner (the odd committee aside).  MPs need to blow off steam too, and nobody said that the exercise of accountability has to be deadly dull.  And before you think that oh, it’s not theatre anywhere else, like in Westminster, well, you would be wrong.  It is still a kind of theatre there, and PMQs doesn’t terrify every British prime minister without reason, seeing as they are being judged on their ability to deliver responses to the questions being put to them, and it all takes place within the context of a society that has a debating culture.  So yes, while it may be theatre, we are comparing Hamlet to Movin’ Out, the Billy Joel musical.

Moving to Enright’s thesis, the claim is that by paying attention to QP, we are enabling MPs to behave in such ways because of the “observer effect.”  It’s a curious assertion that in order to make the way we do politics better, we need to shut it behind closed doors so that we don’t know what is going on, what is being said, or how the government is being held to account.  That’s not to say that there aren’t times when yes, backroom dealing does get things done in politics, but for the forty-five minutes every day which is explicitly designed to show the public that the government is being held to account, as it is the job of the Commons to do, shutting out observers makes absolutely no sense.

More specifically, the way that QP is being covered today is not as Enright appears to imagine it.  On most days, there are few reporters in the Gallery to observe.  In fact, over the past five years, only Aaron Wherry and I have been consistent attendees (and in fact, I have not missed a Monday-to-Thursday QP in the Commons in at least that time).  While a few other outlets will rotate someone in to cover liveblog/tweet it from the Gallery, and others will liveblog it from afar, the vast majority of reporters watch it at their desks, and most of them will loudly proclaim that they do so reluctantly.  Many of them will only watch the first half before they need to leave for their offices – off the Hill – and walk up to the Centre Block to make it to the Foyer for scrums afterward.  So if Enright thinks that Wherry and I are to blame for the apparent deterioration in the state of QP, well, I’m flattered but I don’t think that I have that kind of power.

So rather than it being too much attention being paid to QP, perhaps the problem is the opposite of what Enright suggests – that not enough attention is being paid, and not enough to the whole exercise of it rather than just the leaders’ round that kicks things off.  And more to the point, if the observer effect is an issue, then so is sunlight being a disinfectant, and clearly, the way QP is being covered currently is not letting in enough sunlight.  Part of that problem is CPAC itself – it is bound to only focus tight camera shots on those who are speaking, and very occasionally, we get a quasi-wide shot of the chamber when the Speaker rises.  But that controlled image is often deceptive, and it shows but one fraction of what goes on in the Commons at any given time.  This is the fault of MPs – they have determined those rules for camera shots, after the very first few televised exchanges where Canadians did get both reaction shots and wide shots of the Chamber as a whole, MPs clamped down.  Changing this would be the first fix.

The larger problem, however, is the way in which television news covers the exchanges, which is the distillation into sound bites.  MPs know this, and questions and answers are now being formulated in such a way as to package a clip for TV, from the way questions are repeated in either official language, to the use of over-the-top clownish antics like you’ll find from Charlie Angus or Pat Martin, who are just begging to be clipped and put on the news.  It’s the same with government backbenchers using planted questions to have minsters make announcements during QP rather than in the slot for Statements by Ministers, which immediately follows.  They know that’s what the media is watching, so they play to it there.  The way we cover QP – in selecting these particular clips – is doing more harm than the “observer effect.”

If we want the media to play a role in fixing QP – and make no mistake, we do play a role – then we need to stop grousing and we need to start covering it seriously.  We need to show up, for a start, and we need to show more than the couple of clips that make the news.  We need to call out evasions and non sequiturs and let them know we’re actually watching and that we’re letting their constituents know when they misbehave.  Tuning out is not an option.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

For want of an activist Speaker
The ethics of crowd-sourcing your re-election
Term limits and the outsider fetish
Co-opting backbenchers
Democracy, not technocracy

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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