Writing in Postmedia papers, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley dampens any expectations that the addition of cameras in the Senate will raise the quality of debate in the upper chamber.

Look no further than the House of Commons, he says, where the introduction of cameras close to 40 years ago has made the institution no more thoughtful, honourable or judicious than before.

By Brian Lee Crowley, Aug. 1, 2014

The news that the Senate is going to experiment with televising its proceedings reminded me that progress isn’t always synonymous with improvement.

The House of Commons began televising its work in 1977. That will seem like ancient history to many, but 1976-77 was the year I first came to Ottawa as a parliamentary intern. I saw the before and after pictures, as it were, not only immediately, but as the logic of the change worked its way through the minds of parliamentary and political strategists of all the parties.

It seems to me that bringing the cameras into the Commons resulted in two fundamental changes that have made parliament less central to the political life and health of Canada.

The first was to replace the audience to which MPs addressed themselves. One needn’t see the parliament of 40 years ago and more through a golden nostalgic haze to find that debate then aimed chiefly to persuade the country’s political class and opinion leaders.

Sure the whips kept party discipline intact then as now, but MPs of all parties would often crowd in to hear a distinguished parliamentary performer like John Diefenbaker or Robert Stanfield because of the quality of their argument. I remember Pierre Trudeau standing in the House to merciless heckling—until he began to speak. He did so softly, forcing opposition members to choose between heckling and hearing what he had to say. Often in spite of themselves they would fall silent, straining to hear.

Some of the finest parliamentary oratory was heard in those debates where persuasion of MPs was still possible, such as votes of conscience on matters like capital punishment. When other MPs are the audience, and minds can at least in principle be changed once in a while, the tone of debate is more civil. Addressing the TV audience has the reverse effect, making debate more partisan, less persuasive and more about point scoring.

MPs were not the only audience for parliamentary debate of course. There were also the giants of Canadians parliamentary reporting, like Charles Lynch and Doug Fisher (himself a former MP) who were connoisseurs of good performance on the floor of the House and insightfully interpreted what they saw for their readers. There were great editorialists who pored over Hansard in the search for enlightenment and the rhetorical nugget that crystallised the debate of the day.

One of the effects of televising the Commons has been to remove the middlemen between parliamentarians and the average voter, who now sees Commons snippets  on the evening news. TV is a medium that privileges drama over substance, histrionics over argument, conviction over analysis. It rarely persuades but allows immediate emotional connection. In a televised world, as the political consultants will tell you, if you have to explain, you’ve already lost.

The second change wrought by television was to remake our image of a good parliamentary performer. In this there is nothing unique about parliament. In field after field TV has helped devalue genuine talent and skill in favour of those who look good, who can become famous for being famous.

Compare the quality and the power of the Tory parliamentary attack on the Liberals in the 1956 Pipeline Debate with that of the Rat Pack on the Mulroney government of the 1980s. Think about star parliamentary performers of the past, such as Don Jamieson, Walter Baker or Jed Baldwin, who would never have passed a screen test but were adornments to the institution, and compare them to the jumped-up purveyors of on-demand emotion whose telegenic features dominate too many front benches today.

Things were far from perfect in the Commons before TV, and the cameras had to come, as they must come to the Senate too. But let’s not kid ourselves that the result has been a parliament where the nation’s business is conducted more thoughtfully, more honourably or more judiciously than before.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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