All In The Commons

David Cobb October 31 1977

All In The Commons

David Cobb October 31 1977

This article was originally published on Oct. 31, 1977 under the headline "All in the Commons"

"Let the doors be open.” Uttered by the Speaker to start every day in the House of Commons, the words this time had special import: at 2 p.m. on Monday, October 17, the Commons opened its doors for the first time to electronic coverage of its proceedings. That first Question Period was transmitted live from the floor of the House by both CTV and CBC, and the Commons will never be quite the same again. Nor will Canada. Now and henceforth Canadians will be able to assess their political leaders in action in a way unique to the world. Twenty years after it was first thought about, 15 years after it was first talked about, four months after work started in furious earnest, and at a cost of five million dollars, Canada has bought itself nonstop, unedited radio and TV coverage of everything that is said in the House—in effect an electronic Hansard which in sophistication and technology far outstrips anything available elsewhere. As CBS, itself lobbying to televise the proceedings of the U.S. Congress, noted later that day on Walter Cronkite’s evening news: “It may never get great ratings—but then again, it won’t have to worry about being canceled.”

Some viewers, of course, outraged at the loss of their favorite soap operas and talk shows, would have preferred it canceled before it had even started. “Is this going to happen every day?” was a repeated bleat from those deprived of their Monday soap fix. Answer: No. This electronic Hansard—though designed and organized by the CBC and whose current staff of 30 is mostly former CBC personnel—is run by the House under the direction of Speaker James Jerome, not by a television network. Both nets will plug into the Commons feed when the occasion warrants, as in that first Question Period and, later in the week, for Jean Chrétien’s first major speech as finance minister. But that won’t happen often. Instead we can expect to see and hear frequent clips from the House during newscasts and in regular public affairs programs; in addition, the CBC is running its own edited versions of the week in the House (TV—10-11 a.m. Sundays; radio— 9.10-10 a.m. Saturdays).

Still, however much or little we see and hear, radio and particularly TV will undoubtedly change Canadians’ perceptions of the people who lead them, or those who would like to. It’s one thing to deliver a set speech outside the House; quite another to be seen and heard in the cut and thrust of debate inside it. Since the House is where the laws are made, it should also be where political reputations are forged. When television was not allowed inside, more and more of the country’s business was being discussed for the cameras outside—more specifically, in Room 130-S of the Commons basement where a party spokesman would be grilled by parliamentary reporters while standing on the taped camera lines. If the advent of TV facilities in the House does nothing else, it should restore to the Commons—not least to its members, notably the Prime Minister, who has tended to ignore it—a sense of relevance that has been leaking away from it, air from a slow flat, for years. As Gordon Blair’s standing committee on procedure pointed out in a remarkable report in 1972, one of parliament’s prime responsibilities is to inform the people. Televising its proceedings, as Britain’s late great orator Aneurin Bevan explained, would encourage “intelligent communication between the House and the electorate as a whole.”

Britain’s House of Commons, which rejected reporters for a period 200 years ago, has so far rejected tv—perhaps partly because Bevan, whom the House never quite trusted, supported it. Certainly television has the capacity—anyway at the start—to reduce intelligent communication to a minimum. Thus, during that first televised Question Period, we could note NDP leader Ed Broadbent scratching his crotch as he rose to put a question, watch Federal-Provincial Relations Minister Marc Lalonde (behind the Prime Minister but in camera range) picking his teeth, wonder why the Conservatives put all their questions to the Prime Minister (thus allowing him centre stage), and wince that Liberal backbencher Simma Holt found it necessary to read a question—“Bad television!” we muttered, without listening to a word of the question itself.

Still, there are no commercials from the House, aside from the party line, and during concerted watching more lasting impressions are likely to form. The most telling may well involve Tory leader Joe Clark, whose performance outside the House—particularly with set speeches— has not received high marks from the press, “TV may well remove, or make less important, the judgment of the journalist,” says Clark; he may certainly wish it so, for in the House he can now be seen to be the Leader of the Opposition and to act like it. He is fast, often funny, and he knows how to stick the stiletto. “Among the Canadians who are watching us today,” he said during the first telecast, with a ghost of a smile, finger jabbing, “are a large number of the army of Canadian unemployed who, because of the policies of this government, have nothing else to do with their time.” Trudeau, whose TV style is glacial-cool and who is generally regarded as better outside the Commons than in it, contemplated the House’s elegant linen ceiling, hitherto almost invisible, now brightly lit by the reflection of 100 TV lights. It was not a reaction recorded by television: reaction shots are being kept to a minimum. Says Cameron Graham, the CBC producer who is adviser to the project: “We’re playing it carefully at the moment, to see what members think.” Such caution—born out of a fear that any overt showbiz might turn the House into a circus, its members into performers—seems excessive. Clark gave an excellent reply to the Liberals’ Throne Speech, and when he scored his best points the viewer longed for—and didn’t get—a glimpse of Trudeau’s contemplations (mostly monastically stony, but now and then granting a point, with a half-smile at the ceiling). That’s not Kojak-conditioning: if we insult someone, we want to know how the insult’s going over—and so does any third party who might be viewing. 

Parliament-watchers, particularly the members themselves, will be anxious to note how television affects behavior in the House. Initial impressions, naturally, are optimistic. John Diefenbaker, who in 1957 brought TV cameras into parliament for the first time for the Queen’s first Throne Speech in the Senate, says it will do three things immediately: ensure fuller attendance, cut down on smart-aleck interruptions, and deter “the use of certain expressions in the House.” Such shockers as Trudeau’s “fuddle-duddle episode,” Diefenbaker elaborated, are not likely to recur. He himself surprises on the small screen by his age, which is after all 82; in person he seems 15 years younger, and his sense of theatrics, his command of Commons lore, should make him a television natural. “I wanted to throw out all the desks in the House when I was Prime Minister,” he ruminates in his corner office, “so that we would only have benches, like the British Commons, so that members would really have to know their subjects. The idea wasn’t enthusiastically received, to say the least.” The eyes glint; he laughs the laugh of a man who never needed a desk to prop up a prepared speech in his life.

The Conservatives are devoting much time and care to the structuring of questions for the daily Question Period. “We must make them brief and to the point,” says one of them, “and we must try to sustain an issue—not go scattershot for 45 minutes.” Joe Clark, an optimist by nature, foresees a sharp reduction in governmental evasion: “All governments are more or less evasive, but one rarely gets any straight answers from this one.” Perhaps, he adds, the chance of that evasion showing up on two networks’ national news might get him straighter answers from now on. There’s a widespread feeling that scripts will be abandoned, a view that Marc Lalonde does not share. “The person who always used a script before,” he says, “will stick to it even more now.” A more serious danger, to Lalonde, is that radio and television will select from a Commons day only the sensational. “Then the Tom Cossitts of this world [Cossitt: the Tory gadfly viewed by Liberals as a poisonous body politick] will think they have the world by the tail.” One NDP member hastily redrafted a motion urging the government to reduce the age at which one is eligible for a pension: he had intended to add as a rider, “in view of the Prime M inister’s fifty-eighth birthday” but decided against it: “On TV,” the member noted shrewdly, “the Prime Minister’s birthday would have been remembered, not my motion.”

But the most noticeable change in the House’s conduct belongs to the Liberal backbenchers—that faithful army of the mostly young and hopeful who occupy less than 3% of the Question Period, the most visible, most quoted time of the Commons day. Why, after all, should they ask questions of their own ministers? Such questions as they do ask are regarded either as shameless exhibitionism or as a plant. Now, since October 17, there has been a radical change: Liberal backbenchers are rising like trout at dusk, trying to catch the Speaker’s eye—less, it sometimes appears, out of any hope to actually ask anything, than to assure the folks back home in the constituency that they do in fact exist, are in fact concerned. “There’s great pressure on us now,” says Jim Fleming (York West), “and great pressure on the Speaker to recognize us. For the last three days about 20 of us have been pumping up and down trying to catch his eye. Otherwise people are sure to ask, ‘Why are those guys sitting on their butts?’ ”

Who knows, on the other hand, how long such ardor will continue? In other jurisdictions where TV is used—though no other country or province uses it nonstop—life seems to have continued, after initial flurries, much as before. Elsewhere the use is sporadic, w here permitted, and at the network’s discretion. The United States, which televises certain sittings of its subcommittees (the McCarthy witchhunt hearings in the early Fifties, Watergate), is expected to allow TV to cover the House of Representatives next year. The United Nations in New York has had TV facilities from the start, but among individual countries Denmark was the pioneer, in 1962. There, and in Austria, West Germany, Sweden, Norway and Holland, proceedings are covered that are deemed newsworthy by TV: there is no evidence that TV has prejudiced anyone’s political performance one way or another. In Holland, for instance, former minister of justice Andreas van Agt underwent severe and repeated roastings on television because of the flight of a suspected war criminal, yet emerged strongly in Dutch elections earlier this year as the new leader of his party. Conversely Marcus Bakker, leader of the Dutch Communist Party and one of the great stars of Dutch parliamentary TV, saw his party disintegrate in the same election— and almost lost his seat. New Zealand has broadcast its House of Representatives since 1936, Saskatchewan and Australia started selective broadcasting 10 years later. But a recent suggestion by Australia’s Speaker that their proceedings should be televised was greeted with enormous derision. “We could never expect parents to allow their children’s minds to be shattered by such shock treatment,” a Sunday newspaper editorialized. True, on the opening day of broadcasting parliament 31 years ago, a veteran member did announce to a curious Australia that he was returning to his hometown, Newcastle, that Friday so would his dentist please have his new false teeth waiting for him; but after that, matters went downhill and parliamentary radio today has the lowest ratings of any radio program in Australia.

The control centre and Jerome as he appears on-screen: telepolitics

At home, Alberta has had selective television for five years; initial fears of MLAS grandstanding have proved unfounded, and the rv cameras are accepted as part of the Chamber environment. The Ontario Legislature has tolerated TV cameras (under crummy conditions; weak lighting, worse sound) for two years: “They’re a splendid idea,” says NDP leader Stephen Lewis, “but they affect members’ performances not at all.” The Saskatchewan Legislature, which started radio broadcasts in 1946, voted against a rv invasion last November, A special committee report explained that since TV is primarily an entertainment medium it might put “pressure on the assembly to conform to entertainment criteria in the proceedings to avoid appearing dull and slow-moving.” In other words, leave things dull and slow as they were. Quebec, though, is seriously thinking about television: the government already is looking at tapes from the House of Commons, and a closed-circuit test is expected shortly.

For the moment, then, Ottawa has the jump on everybody everywhere. Considering the speed with which it was finally put together, it has gone off with remarkably little hitch: sometimes the sound is episodic, and simultaneous translators should surely be at least the same sex as the person being translated. Minor teething troubles. Still to come: 1001 doctoral theses on the impact and significance of the electronic medium on the House of Commons’ behavior and procedure. That’s much more serious.



Many Canadians think of parliament as having as much drama as last year’s phone book, and while little of the daily fare of the House of Commons is great theatre there have been plenty of great moments. In recent months, for instance, the television networks would have had a source of cheap, gripping entertainment from the judges affair, the capital punishment vote and even the Arctic pipeline debate, the passion and fury of which until now have been filtered through reporters’ accounts. Looking back further, consider these bits of parliamentary heritage as the stuff of television:

• “Black Friday,” May 25, 1956: The Speaker, siding with the Liberal government during the stormy debate on funding a trans-Canada pipeline, reverses himself on a key procedural ruling. As debate is cut off, then-CCF leader M. J. Coldwell stomps down the aisle to stand in front of the Speaker, waving his fist and denouncing him as a tyrant and dictator. The government’s arrogance on the issue contributed to its downfall a year later; arguably, with live TV coverage, the Conservative victory might have been quicker.

• March 4, 1966: Liberal Justice Minister Lucien Cardin, goaded by shouts of “Go on,” bellows across the floor at Tory leader John Diefenbaker: “I want the Right Honorable Gentleman to tell the House about his participation in the Monseignor case.” Despite the mispronunciation of the name of the German social butterfly Gerda Munsinger, this was the beginning of one of modern Canada’s most unseemly scandals, implicating two former Diefenbaker ministers in a security case. For months, the Munsinger affair produced daily drama in the House far more compelling than any soap opera.

• February 16, 1971: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau mouths the words “f---off " at an opposition MP. TV coverage would have put a different perspective on his claim later that he had said “fuddle duddle.”

• June 26, 1973: Conservative MP Peter Reilly, considerably under the influence, repeatedly boos John Diefenbaker. Before being hustled from the House, Reilly declares: “I will sit here and boo every time he opens his mouth.”