In the parliamentary calendar, it is inevitable that the subject of Question Period’s dysfunction will emerge, often with a twinge of anger. It’s happening again in these last few days, led by the Toronto Star researching into the veracity and truthfulness of that one time in the House where the government must account for its actions, or lack of them. To that must be added the insights of Star reporter Tonda MacCharles, who notes that Question Period’s 45-minute duration is really just a regurgitation of talking points, ad nauseum. Bruce Campion-Smith and Sabrina Nanji of the same newspaper put a fitting point on it by asking just how is it that an important political event designed to hold the government accountable has become an exhausting piece of political theatre?
As with anything the pops up repeatedly, we grow tired with the sense of hopelessness of it all. Governments come and go, yet Question Period seems in perpetual decline. Arthur Rimbaud noted that, “Life is a farce when everyone has to perform.” Perhaps that’s just it: QP isn’t about inquiry and accountability but optics and image. Actually, there’s no “perhaps” about it; that’s what it has become – theatre, but the kind no one wants to watch anymore. Maybe by permitting cameras into the great Chamber of Parliament years earlier what we eventually got instead of open politics was operatic parody.
Conservative David Tilson and I served on the Privacy and Access to Information Committee for a time in Parliament. Even back then, in 2007, he was one of the longest-serving MPs in the House. I liked and respected him, in part because he rarely participating in any of the faux tirades that often materialize when the camera goes on. He was a straight shooter and our working relationship was amicable.
So, a smile inevitably crossed my lips when I read this week in the Star that he simply refused to utter a single word in QP. His reason? “I listen to the answers that are given by the minister in the Liberal government and it’s just garbage. If I stood up and asked a question, I guarantee you 100 per-cent that it will not be answered.”
He’s right, of course, but when he reflects on just how much better things were in the Harper government his observation goes from honesty to hilarity. Does he not recall just how bad things were back then – the yelling, name calling, contempt of Parliament, slurs and outright mendacity? Of course, he does. In my five years in the House, career civil servants, and not a few journalists, would note that things hadn’t been so bad in recent memory.
Anyone from the opposition parties daring to ask a Conservative minister a question in those years got one of two responses: name-calling or refusal to answer. Folow-up queries only got the same result. We all witnessed the shock in the vistor galleries as people stared on in fascination or disgust. The site of teachers covering the ears of their young students in those same galleries only added to the sense that Parliament wasn’t only declining into mayhem but, ultimately, a lack of relevance.
The Harper government was highly effective at obfuscation, just as the Trudeau government is today, but it’s difficult to read Tilson refuse to acknowledge that equivalency. One recalls the sincere and noble efforts of various MPs, most especially Conservative Michael Chong, to bring some sense of respect and accountability to QP and how such attempts were lauded, but eventually shelved.
The truth is that Question Period has been hacked – not by Russian techies or Facebook algorithms, but through the concerted efforts of unelected political handlers who view that 45-minute period during the day as a zero-sum game. For the government side the secret is to evade at all costs, to avoid liabilities, to appear in control. Opposition handlers use every attempt to denigrate those governments the people themselves have elected. Either way it’s war under the Peace Tower and it’s demeaning as long as it is tolerated by those meant to engender respect within the governing system.
Year after year sees ongoing decline in QP behavior, not just in Canada but in democratic institutions around the world. Sometimes farce can be a good thing, illuminating inconsistencies and failures. Then again, it can drain the very life out of democracy with its emptiness and pettiness. Writer V. S. Pritchett understood the distinction: “The difference between farce and humour in literature is that farce strums louder and louder on one string, while humour varies its notes, changes its key, grows and spreads and deepens until it may indeed reach tragic depths.”
It would be correct to suppose that we have sunk to those tragic depths, not through nuance, respect or intelligence, but through brutality, utter silence, or and continual one string responses.
Progressivism hangs on inquiry and transparency. At the moment, Question Period isn’t the place to discover such things. It is what it is and will remain so until everyone stops pretending.