Speeches | The State of the Senate's Online Presence

01 June 2010

Honourable senators, I know this item is less controversial, so I am happy to be standing here.  I want to make some observation about the state of our utilization of digital communication. That may not be the right word to cover what I am talking about. If I were under 25, I would know what word to use. However, to me, "digital" refers to use of websites, television, podcasts and electronic devices that can assist us. I know that podcasting is being worked on under another motion.

We are past the verge of a digital communications breakthrough that provides politicians and houses like the Senate with outstanding opportunities, not to communicate at the public, but to embrace and engage the public. We often hear that young Canadians especially are not engaged in the political process. We emphasize the problem of young people who choose not to vote; we discuss what that means to the future of community involvement, involvement in our societies, to our political process and how important it is to nurture and engender that kind of involvement.

For any of us who have children older than age four, we know how familiar they are with electronic communications. Teresa and I have three sons, all of whom live away. One has a television, not because he watches it but because he wants a bigger screen for his computer. They do not use the kinds of communications we do.

They see the world differently and they communicate with that world differently. It has all kinds of implications for how they will relate to society and their peers, develop relationships and networks, develop argument, and push issues. We saw the issue of prorogation and how that was developed, almost exclusively, through Facebook. That will happen no matter what we do.

I have considered this issue, as have many of us. I want to give honourable senators some idea of my frustration. I am not frustrated with the staff who works on this. There is good leadership there and they are struggling with getting the direction they need to gain the resources, et cetera, to do what we need to do.

Going to the Senate website is an experience in and of itself. If one were to type in "Senate of Canada," one would expect to get to the Senate website. However, one does not get routed to the Senate website. You go to a website that lists the websites and biographies of senators.

Senator Stratton: We know that.

Senator Mitchell: Honourable senators, when we look at that website today, it includes biographies of senators who are no longer senators; the website is not updated and no one looks at it. We do not find the guts of the Senate where one can learn about committee hearings and so on. One simply finds biographies.

We must navigate out of that website and try to find, one way or another, a website of sorts for Senate committees. Do honourable senators know how long a young person will bother to pursue that information? Their interest lasts about two pages and two seconds before they are gone.

Upon arriving at that committee page, what do we see? First, we cannot, in any way, shape or form, search the Debates of the Senate. We cannot type Senator Plett's name, for example, to find out all the things on which he has spoken, which would be a long list. We cannot type a committee name to find the committee. We cannot type a topic to find the topic. In the 21st century, in the Senate of the Government of Canada, we cannot find someone's name in Debates of the Senate.

If honourable senators eventually find someone or a topic in the written portion of the website, they are not linked to any recorded or video statements. It is incomprehensible that we cannot go to a website and click on a link to see more text or video. This is the 21st century; it is not 1950. The technology is tried and true; it has been used over and over again, but the Senate cannot do it.

If honourable senators want to find a report, we can look at the Fortieth Session of Parliament, but what is the Fortieth Session of Parliament? Does anyone know when the Thirty-seventh Session of Parliament occurred?

Senator Banks: It was a good session.

Senator Mitchell: All of us were here, so it was good.

Honourable senators cannot even find the dates for a session because they are not listed. If we are looking for a report — this may have changed, but I do not think it has — the report is listed only as report No. 1. What is report No. 1? How does it compare to report No. 1 in the Thirty-ninth Parliament, the Thirty-eighth Parliament or the Thirty-seventh Parliament? It makes me angry that the Senate is so backward. The potential is great and an online presence does not have to be particularly expensive.

The Senate of Canada does not have an independent presence. If honourable senators want to go to the Senate website to find a committee, we must select "committees" first and then committees for both houses are shown. Someone may ask, what is the difference? I will not dwell on that.

A young man set up a website called openparliament.ca because he could not conduct the type of searches he wanted on the House of Commons website. He created that website for the House of Commons, but he cannot do it for the Senate because our architecture is so archaic he cannot set up an external site for that purpose.

I talked about the importance of a search tool. It may seem like a small issue, but the Senate uses black and white pictures on its websites. No one uses black and white pictures. That does not interest young people. There is a marketing sense that the Senate must understand.

I have debated television coverage of the Senate, as have many others. I believe in my heart of hearts that the Senate must have at least a podcast of our proceedings. It does not have to be expensive. All of the problems that we might encounter have been handled by the House of Commons. The Senate has a different structure to the Order Paper, which entails a lot of standing. Some have indicated this may offend people. I do not think people will be offended, but we could organize our proceedings better.

Some people worry about honourable senators not behaving properly when we are on television. Honourable senators behave perfectly well, for the most part, when we are on committee television. I think if the public saw both the Senate and the House of Commons, they would say, "I wish the House of Commons would behave like the Senate." If honourable senators do not behave properly, we should fix that behaviour.

Currently, the Senate broadcasts audio to Parliament Hill. We can broadcast audio to the world for free, but we have decided not to do so. I do not understand why. People have a right to hear what we do here.

Senator Segal: Hear, hear.

Senator Mitchell: It is not for honourable senators to decide they do not like what they say or do. We stand and speak to the 105 people that are in this chamber. Even if the public wanted to see what happens in this chamber, how could they? They cannot find it easily on video or search the Debates of the Senate.

The old question is: If a senator speaks in the Senate, does anyone hear? No one does, but there is unbelievably good oratory in this chamber. For any honourable senator who has been here for any period of time, we know how important this institution is. If honourable senators sit here, we must believe in this institution. If we do not believe in it, then we should not be here. If we do believe in the institution, we should want people to hear what we say.

I also want a website that allows honourable senators to do virtual town hall meetings and receive feedback. The Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources is trying to do this. We will receive feedback and solicit input. The Liberal Senate Forum does this.

I have a Kindle; it is an electronic book. It is fantastic item for those who travel. It can contain 1,000 books. I can borrow a book on Kindle from the Edmonton library. They give it to me electronically and it dissolves in three weeks.

I asked staff in the Library of Parliament if they have looked at Kindle and was told it has various copyright problems. I suggested they contact the Edmonton library for advice on how to resolve such problems. Even if only a small number of people want to borrow electronic books, it is much easier and there are an infinite number available. It is not like the current situation where the book may be unavailable because someone else is reading it. To be a state-of-the-art, leading library in the country, the Library of Parliament should consider Kindle.

The speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Ken Kowalski, is a fine parliamentarian and has done unbelievably good things for the legislature. He developed a virtual tour of the legislature where children can go to the website, dress in whatever clothes they want — skater, geek or whatever — and walk around the historic buildings. Much more can be done. Someone said we cannot do that because —

Senator Mockler: Can we do the same thing for senators?

Senator Mitchell: We should.

— there is a security risk. How is there a security risk? People can enter Parliament and take all the pictures they want. How can that proposal be a security risk? It is simply another excuse not to do something to bring Parliament to people across Canada.

There is an effort to get Flickr — a photograph exchange — on our website. The lawyer — a fine person, I am not being critical — indicated there is a problem; you might be Photoshopped. American President Obama uses Flickr; the Prime Minister uses YouTube. People can Photoshop you from any photograph taken anywhere. The argument is ridiculous; they are simply reasons to do nothing. All we have to do is find reasons to do things and the way to do it. We need leadership to allow us to do it.

About three weeks ago — and this is coincidental — my high school has a unit supported by the province and the school board where Terry Godwaldt, a fantastic young man, is developing a system of virtual meetings and conferences around the world. They linked schools in Brazil, Alaska, Mexico, Malawi, New Zealand, et cetera. I called him regarding environmental legislation and he suggested I participate in one of these activities. I told him I was not in Edmonton, but in Ottawa. I went to an Ottawa school where I was surrounded by high school students looking at a screen with eight or nine different classrooms pictured, including Brazil, Texas, Ohio, Alaska and Mexico. I was able to talk with those students all over the world. They stand up and ask questions. My high school is in a rough area in Edmonton where kids need a chance. They can see kids all over the world and ask them questions.

Kids from all over the world can see me as a senator on that, but not a single kid in Canada can see me as a senator giving this speech right now. That has to stop. We can change that.

Hon. Hugh Segal: Will the honourable senator accept a question?

Senator Mitchell: Yes.

Senator Segal: I will defer to my colleague across the way because I am a newbie by comparison to him in terms of membership in this place. It is kind of like after the Socreds swept into power in British Columbia. In coffee shops people would ask, "Did you vote for Mr. Bennett?" Everyone would say, "No, not me, not me." No one voted for him, yet he had a massive majority.

I have not met a single member of this chamber who, when I ask about televising, digitalizing, modernizing, stepping up to the plate, embracing the 20th and perhaps even the 21st century, does not nod their head in agreement, saying, "Great idea; super; let's move along; it's in committee."

The proposal on televisation is in committee for the third time. I predict that it will die, and it will die because people on that committee want it to die.

The officials who sit at the table are great and distinguished Canadians who work day and night on our behalf. It is their job to be supportive of whatever decision this place makes and to give technical and financial advice about what things cost and how they might be done. I would not for one moment say that they have been a force against this —

The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, Senator Mitchell's time has expired. Is it agreed that he be given five more minutes?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Comeau: No more than five.

Senator Segal: There seems to be a consensus across the aisle that this is a good thing. People from different political backgrounds and different regions say that broadcasting the chamber is a good thing, but it is dead in its tracks. It is not moving.

Could the honourable senator share any perspective on why we cannot move this very simple file forward? I had the great privilege of starting this when there were 70 senators on that side and 20 over here. I had the privilege of starting it when there was a government that was of a different party affiliation than mine and I was sitting over there, and the same thing happened. I cannot find any evidence that whoever is in government or who holds the majority impacts the progress of this issue. I would be interested in any advice Senator Mitchell might share.

Senator Mitchell: I thank Senator Segal for the question and for all the work he has done on this file. I have asked myself that question many times. I do not have an easy answer, but I do speculate about a couple of possibilities.

People are worried about being on TV, and they need not be. The odd time you make a mistake here, no one pounces on you. I think some are confusing this issue with what it is like to be the leader, who gets pounced on all the time. In fact, broadcasting is not a threatening experience. Once the cameras are here, people will forget about them. I do not agree that people misbehave because of cameras, although I think they may sometimes misbehave because of the press gallery.

Does anyone think about the cameras being on in committees? No; you forget about them and it becomes natural.

Second, there is generally a resistance to change, which is not all bad. This is an important institution. As Senator Banks said earlier today in a different meeting, it is important that we have traditions, and I agree. There is a reason for slow change rather than precipitous change. We have had Facebook for many years now.

Finally, I think that the issue is in part a question of money. Ironically, broadcasting does not have to cost nearly as much money as people think. I know that some people here resist spending money. We have to get past that. Some 30 or 35 years ago, the day before we got computers, everyone was saying that they cost too much money. The next day we all had computers and faxes and whatever else we needed electronically, which may have cost a lot of money, but now we would not live without them.

If we can live without digital communication and TV in here, then we can live without computers, because that is every bit as essential to the 21st century as computers were in the 1990s and still are.

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