Observations on the Theory and Practice of Parliamentary Government

By Cochran, Ashley; Cochran, Heather | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Observations on the Theory and Practice of Parliamentary Government


Cochran, Ashley, Cochran, Heather, Canadian Parliamentary Review


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.

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"Well, I guess that's why it's 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 news'.

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'. …

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