Several legislatures have internship programs which provide an opportunity
for university graduates to observe the real world of parliamentary government.
This article by two such interns looks at some reasons for the gulf between
what is expected and what is provided by our elected institutions.
Well, I guess thats why its called Question Period, not Answer Period!
By the end of our term as interns at the British Columbia Legislature,
this phrase had become a common refrain among both participants and observers
of the daily Question Periods. As recent Political Science Graduates and
rookies to the legislative scene, however, the quip was of more than a
passing interest. It spoke to what we found most shocking and most frustrating
about our first hand experience of our system of parliamentary democracy.
In our first year Political Science classes we learned that parliaments
were talking places the buildings in which first nobility, and then
elected officials, developed solutions to public policy problems and debated
the issues of the day and of course the odd scandal too. While this may
be a simplified and perhaps optimistic reading of the function of legislatures,
it is also the reading which informs many proposals to reform and renew
this fundamental democratic institution. This reading also speaks to our
collective desire for parliaments to be places for discursive engagement
among our elected representatives. It is, after all, figures like Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau the brightest
minds and the best orators who fill our political imagination and play
the role of archetypal legislator in our political mythology.
Watching debate in the BC Legislature, we found that there was certainly
no shortage of talking. But while facts, messages and information abounded,
they type of substantive dialogue and conversation that ideally lead to
elucidation and edification were often at a premium. In Question Period
and debate alike, ministers and members often spoke past each other in
a battle of messages. The tendency to speak in sound bites and avoid rather
than rebut opponents arguments diminished the potential for dialogue inside
the chamber. Legislators, however, often invoked a different audience and
implicitly addressed their remarks to this group outside of the chamber.
This group is the public.
Indeed, it is the observers of legislative debates who are frequently invoked
by legislators, and who are the intended recipients of the messages delivered
during events like Question Period. The clip format used for stories in
the evening news creates both an imperative and a receptacle for the thirty
second sound bites legislators use to communicate with the public, and
with voters. If one has only a limited amount of time in which to communicate
with this important group, it is understandable that one would want to
be seen delivering a positive message rather than attempting to engage
with an opponent in a discussion that could easily be construed as bad
In many ways the public is now the intended recipient of legislators statements
in the House, and it is the public that has become an increasingly important
party in a conversation that had previously been largely confined within
the walls of legislatures. While the effects of the media on politics have
been widely studied, it is the shifting locus of conversation from within
legislatures and out to the public that we wish to discuss here. It is
our belief that developments in communications technology and the media
have transformed legislatures from talking places and forums for discussion
into a medium for communication with a remote audience. While politics
is often likened to theatre, we believe that legislatures themselves have
in many ways become theatres or stages upon which legislators ask questions
and deliver statements not so much to elicit a response from their colleagues,
but to convey a message to an audience.
The transformation of the legislature from forum to medium, however, comes
at the expense of the conversation and dialogue it was intended to foster
and that it could foster in the broader society as well. Today, however,
legislators tendency to use parliaments as stages makes their colleagues
less conversation partners than foils for their presentations to viewers.
While the public represents a new addition to this conversation, their
status as audience inherently limits their ability to engage in any discourse
with legislators. Like the audience in a theatre, this audience is expected
to be one in the most literal sense: a group that listens and watches,
but that can do nothing more than observe. This transformed parliament
generates no expectation let alone avenue for the audience to communicate
with those inside the talking place. The attention legislators give the
public in implicitly directing their comments to them is thus less democratizing
than it may appear on the surface. The conversation lost within the legislature
itself is thus not recouped through legislators engagement with the public.
This transformation constitutes a change in the mode of communication that
defines parliaments as talking places. In essence, we contend that the
talking which occurs in parliaments is increasingly directed at an audience
located outside of the place. The fact that the intended audience is
located outside of the talking place and that communication with it occurs
at a distance has several important implications for our main thesis. First,
it is not only the case that this audience has little opportunity to engage
with the speakers, but when the audience or some subsection of its members
does find its way into the talking place, they are not so much represented
as popular theories of democracy would suggest, but are rather made into
representations. That is to say, they are abstracted from the intricacies
of their social contexts. While this is in some respects an inescapable
consequence of the nature of representative democracy, it is greatly exacerbated
by a mode of communication that mitigates against conversation and gives
subjects the appearance of objects or props in a performance.
Additionally, we believe that the mode of communication that has come to
dominate parliament is a source of disengagement on the part of the public,
or audience. Although electoral and institutional reforms are often seen
as the solution to rising public cynicism, we would contend that such changes
cannot be entirely effective until the mode of communication we have identified
above is adequately interrogated and addressed. And while it is frequently
presumed that declining citizen engagement is driven by forces outside
of political institutions, we would contend that to the extent that parliament
itself is becoming less and less of a place for engagement, it plays a
significant role in fuelling popular disengagement.
In particular, we believe that the fragmented nature of the conversations
that tend to characterize legislatures plays a role in deterring the public
from becoming more involved in the political process. Legislators' statements
are often seen as being nothing more than spin and are frequently viewed
by the public with a large measure of distrust and boredom. Increasing
the level of genuine engagement within parliament would re-create an important
space for citizen engagement.
This is but one piece in the puzzle of reinvigorating our democracy. Much
like Question Period, our term as interns left us with more questions than
answers. Our time inside the legislature gave us valuable insight into
how parliaments work, how we might like them to work, and what separates