The Sunday Magazine

When TV took over question period: Michael's essay

On October 17, 1977, question period was broadcast on television for the first time, turning it from a daily chance to call the government to account, to a puffed-up piece of political theatre.
The arrival of television changed question period — and not necessarily for the better. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

If the unraveling fiasco known as the Brexit debate does nothing else, it has created a brand new media star.

His name is John Bercow, the son of a London cabbie and Speaker of the British House of Commons.

And as Mr. Speaker, he has humorously and loudly inserted himself into British celebrity culture.

He taunts and even insults MPs and party leaders. He has thwarted Theresa May on so many issues that she would no doubt like to see him follow seven predecessor Speakers to the Tower headsman's block.

His over-the-top matinee performances are deserving of a Lord Olivier Award.

The Speaker of the British House of Commons John Bercow is known for his bombastic style. (Reuters)

How does our own House of Commons stack up in the world of parliamentary theatre?

Well not bad, especially when it comes to question period.

In our system of Westminster democracy, question period is supposed to be the moment when the government is daily called to account for its actions.

Decades ago in question period, opposition MPs could rise in their place and ask questions without speaking from a prepared text. And quite often, government ministers would actually answer the questions.

A particularly cutting remark might have been met by a modest pounding of the desks.

That all changed on October 17, 1977. That was the day television began broadcasting question period.

"Lights, camera, action," crowed the CBC. Showbiz had arrived.

Now instead of desk thumping, MPs clap and give standing ovations, like at a campaign rally.

Now opposition MPs read written questions they didn't write and ministers respond by not answering the questions.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during question period in the House of Commons in Feb., 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Now, because there is a House rule that caps questions and answers at 35 seconds, everybody speaks in sound bites, hoping to turn up on the nightly news.

The current question period has become a perfect venue for party leaders.

When they stand to ask or answer a question, they are backgrounded by MPs of whatever mix of ethnicity, gender or colour that could be cobbled together.

It's the same in leader scrums. The minister or party leader stands at the microphone against a backdrop of MPs standing there like a mute Greek chorus.

Question period, as you might imagine, has been called a circus. In a recent CTV survey, a majority of Canadians said it should be reformed top to bottom.

Many backbenchers are embarrassed by it. One MP says he has to warn schoolchildren on tour from his riding that question period is not his major contribution to democracy.

Question period might be great as television entertainment. But as a vehicle for enlightened debate and government accountability, not so much.