The House of Commons
It may be asked what justifies this journals reflection on the present
state of affairs in the Canadian House of Commons. The simple answer is a career
of some thirty-five years spent in the service of the Commons and its
committees, almost thirty of them observing and chronicling its proceedings on a
During that time Canada has had a total of eight Prime Ministers,
Diefenbaker, Pearson, Trudeau, Turner, Clarke, Mulroney, Campbell, and Chrétien.
Eight political parties secured representation, Liberal, Progressive
Conservative, Canadian Commonwealth Federation, New Democratic Party, Social
Credit, Bloc Quebecois, and Reform. The number of Members of Parliament elected
in that time totalled well over one thousand.
Sharing that unique perspective with a rapidly dwindling number of long-time
members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the publisher of The Canadian
Vindicator has seen Parliament in its many moods, watched the comings, and
the goings, of Speakers of the House, of its members, and of its officers, and
felt a sense of the institution enjoyed by few among the general public.
With that as background, and a lifelong respect for parliamentary democracy,
the following general observations are offered.
A Member or Minister is shown with a sea of microphones and tape recorders in
front, on either side, and sometimes behind him, listening to a babble of
questions, the whole show reminiscent of Grade B movies of the 'forties and
'fifties, with crowds of reporters surrounding prosecutor or defendant on the
steps of a courthouse.
- The public dissatisfaction with Parliament in action is widespread.
- The performance of many of its honourable members is degrading, to
themselves and to Parliament.
- The loss of respect for each other among party leaders is palpable.
- The loss of respect for individual members is due to their own behaviour.
- Much can be done to restore the status of the institution and its members
in the confidence of the public.
- The members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery need to shed their current
horde mentality and pavlovian behaviour. Members of the public do not have time
to watch parliamentary proceedings hour after hour, day after day, as shown on
television. Impressions are gained from the five to fifteen second clips of
debates shown on national newscasts. Even stronger impressions are garnered from
the televised "scrums" in the corridors outside the Commons Chamber following
each day's Question Period.
In effect, the "scrum" usurps the function of Question Time in the Chamber.
But there are no rules, and the process presents an unedifying spectacle
unworthy both of Parliament and Press.
So help me, I recall a young reporter boasting that he/she almost "got him"
on tape when the Member being "scrummed" almost damaged himself or his party
with an injudicious remark.
Is that the purpose of the "scrum"--to "get" a Member, in order to get a
reporter's fifteen seconds of fame on television?
Those who think it is demean not just themselves but also the journalistic
profession. I write this in sorrow, as former newspaper journalist, the son and
grandson of journalists.
There must be a rethinking of the relationship between parliament and press,
or at the very least of the relationship between Members of the House and
members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in the conduct of their daily
The "scrum" is not the proper forum for that interaction. It demeans both.
And the public see this, get a poor impression of both, and is ill served by
That Members are ready to unite in improving the performance of Parliament
has recently been evidenced by steps being taken to make the appointment of its
principal officers the subject of open debate. At present there is no such
mechanism in place to give Members a role in the appointment of the Auditor
General of Canada, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Official Languages
Commissioner, the Clerk of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Librarian,
Information Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner, and the Ethics Counsellor.
Hitherto the Prime Minister in office could appoint anyone of his own choice
to these posts, without debate or scrutiny.
There remain, however, two bodies in Ottawa whose debates are conducted
"behind closed doors", two bodies clinging to a code of secrecy that has no part
in democratic governance. They are the Board of Internal Economy and the
National Capital Commission.
Now that the first modest steps are being taken to provide transparency in
other areas, Members might wish follow through by practising what they preach.
Let the Press report freely on their own deliberations in the Board of Internal
Economy, severely limit the number of in camera sessions, and allow the
public to judge the results.
And, while they are at it, Members should instruct the National Capital
Commission, by legislation if required, to open its deliberations to Press and
All-party consensus can see both steps taken within much less time than that
required to pass well deserved stipendary increases, aka pay raises, for the
work they perform.
Click for larger image
Note: This photograph of the House of Commons in session during Question Period was taken
in the mid 1960s. Shown
is Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson on his feet replying to a question from the
Opposition. Prominent to his left is George McIlraith, and to his right Paul
Hellyer and Walter Gordon. Right Hon. John G. Diefenbaken, former Prime Minister
and then Leader of the Opposition is seated facing Pearson. To his right is
Waldo Monteith, Walter Dinsdale, and Hugh John Flemming, and to his left Leon
Balcer and Gordon Churchill. The Speaker is the Hon. Alan McNaughton, the Clerk
is Leon Raynond, to his left Gordon Dubroy, and to his right "Monty" Montgomery.
The Hansard reporters are Jack Dyer, right, and on the left John Ward.
Older readers may recognise other Members shown in the photograph, reproduced
as evidence of the thirty-five year career mentioned in the opening
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