Friday, February 18, 2011

An opportunity for debate

Aaron Wherry's article on the current state of the House of Commons is well worth a read. But I have to wonder whether part of the solution is easier than one might think from Wherry's lamentation about the meaning of debate in the House:
In many ways, the scene in the House reflects modern practicalities. Since the proceedings are televised, attendance is not necessary to follow what is said. MPs have myriad other responsibilities they must attend to, from committee work to dealing with the concerns of constituents. In the beginning, House debates were covered extensively in the popular media. Up until the mid-1980s, the Canadian Press kept a reporter in the House for the duration of each sitting day. But those days are gone and, besides, despite the impressive decor—carved sandstone and wood, chandeliers and stained glass—a lack of wireless Internet access makes the chamber something less than a modern workplace for reporters.

But the sight of the ornate room sitting mostly empty, an MP on his or her feet pontificating into the abyss, speaks as well to the undeniable obscurity of the institution at this point in history. Because the debates don’t matter, the press doesn’t cover them and because the press doesn’t cover them, the debates don’t matter. Instead of covering the exchanges that occur each day in the House, the evening political shows prefer to assemble their own panels of MPs to exchange shouted talking points.
Now, it's understandable that political TV shows may prefer to generate their own content to fit the time they have available. But for print media in particular, I'd think the debates in the House of the Commons would offer an obvious source of easy and relevant content. After all, every word of the debates is available for public review within a day - and it would seem like a fairly simple matter to make a regular practice of distilling the bills or issues being discussed, along with the parties' positions and any interesting interactions between them, into a regular stream of content.

And what's more, the fact that debates in the House cover as much time as they do means that they're less easily scripted. Which means that there would figure to be far more opportunity to discuss a range of different perspectives than there is in reporting on question period.

Of course, it's probably seen as easier to report on bills only when somebody is putting on a direct PR push. But Wherry is right to note that there's plenty of (at least nominally) important discussion taking place that seems to receive far less attention than one would expect in light of the formal role of MPs. And it might well be a win-win for a media outlet and the state of Canada's political conversation to reverse the vicious circle and start more fully covering Parliamentary debates as more than just a matter of curiosity.

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