In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

TV in the Senate

Posted 3/11/2009 by Senator Grant Mitchell

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Senator Hugh Segal has presented a motion calling for full, live video coverage of the Senate proceedings. I support it and said so in the Senate several days ago.

There is concern that behaviour in the Senate will become more like that in the House of Commons were senators to begin to play to the cameras. I disagree. There are cameras now in most of the Senate Committee hearings and behaviour has not deteriorated. Even in the potentially more partisan atmosphere when cabinet ministers appear, behaviour has not deteriorated. If our behaviour were to become an issue, then we would need to control it. No one can make us behave badly. And what good is perfect behaviour if no one sees it?

I expect that exactly the opposite will be the case. People will look to the Senate as the model of reasoned debate and elevated behaviour that the House of Commons should emulate. I also expect, from my experience as an MLA and Leader of the Opposition in the Alberta Legislature, which was televised, that the presence of cameras will soon be forgotten.

There is the concern that Canadians would see empty seats and not understand that senators need to do other work while proceedings are underway and can be legitimately out of their seats. This is already handled effectively in the Commons by narrowing the focus of the camera.

In any event, I am not at all convinced that television coverage accounts entirely or even predominantly for House of Commons behaviour. It is abundantly clear that the public is decidedly unimpressed by it. So why would MPs grandstand to a public that continuously tells them that they deeply dislike this kind of behaviour? They probably wouldn’t except that they operate in a House that is divided along deeply different value sets and the stakes are very high.

How can we all believe in open and transparent government and then argue against televising the Senate? How can we justify – in the 21st century with its digital technology – not opening the Senate’s proceedings to all Canadians? Residents who live in Ottawa can theoretically see the proceedings first hand at anytime while someone living in Edmonton cannot. Televising levels this inequity.

Many of us lament the lack of involvement of young people in the political process. Well, young people are driven to and by the internet. If we want to reach and inspire them, we have to be internet savvy and internet connected.

This need not be particularly expensive. Much of the technical set up has already been established in the House of Commons. We do not need full television coverage which would be hampered in any event by channel availability problems for CPAC. We can simply “podcast” the proceedings live through the internet.

Cameras can be much less intrusive than they are in the Commons and staffing requirements would be very limited too.

We implicitly accept the written Hansard of the Senate as being legitimate and appropriate. Video coverage – podcasting – would simply be the 21st century, digital version of Hansard. Interestingly, while the written version of Hansard cannot yet be searched on the Senate website (unforgivable I might point out), the video version could be.

Senators are rightly concerned that the work of our Chamber is maligned when it is not being ignored. We need to give Canadians the opportunity to see what we do and make up their own minds about how well we do it. There are many stirring moments in the thoughtful and less partisan debates in the Senate Chamber. In many ways, Canadians would see much more of themselves in the Senate which much better reflects women and Aboriginal people than the Commons.

And, if it does not work out, we can always go back to the 19th century.

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