IS THERE SUCH A THING AS BEING TOO POLITE? The past four years have seen two failed attempts by MPs to reform question period — both of which included measures that would have resulted in more decorum in the House of Commons. But new research suggests future would-be reformers might want to be careful they don’t bring too much civility to our legislatures.
In an article for Democratic Audit UK, former New Zealand political advisor and University of Michigan political science professor Rob Salmond writes that his data shows, “More spontaneous, combative question times are associated with higher levels of voter turnout, deeper partisan attachments, and higher levels of political knowledge. These relationships hold even when accounting for many other factors known to affect political engagement.”
By comparison, according to Salmond, “More ‘serious’ question times, often featuring longer questions and answers that can all be prepared in advance, do relatively little to promote public political engagement.” Although they likely result in less bruised-feelings on the part of politicians.
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE Canada’s information commissioner Suzanne Legault has long-wanted the legal power to raise public awareness about the Access to Information Act. But archival material recently posted online by her office provides a reminder that she isn’t the only one to have put that power on a wish list.
For example, in her very first annual report, Canada’s first information commissioner Inger Hansen wrote that “one of the most serious problems” with the Act was Canadians’ lack of understanding of it.
Hansen appeared to blame the government for lack of understanding, writing that a “press conference was held when the Act came into effect but no other announcements or explanations have been disseminated to the public.”
But the commissioner stated she couldn’t pick up that slack because her office didn’t have the authority to “actively engage in public education and no funds will be allocated for such activities.”
Nevertheless, Hansen recommended, “Either the government, or the Commissioner, should actively inform the public of the meaning of the Act, the rights it grants to individuals and the importance of those rights in a modern democratic society.”
HOPES GO ASTRAY In that first annual report, Hansen withheld judgement of the Access to Information Act — even though contemporaries had described the legislation as “no good,” “a big disappointment” and a “farce.” But she was more forthcoming in her final annual report, published six years later.
Mirroring modern concerns about the Act, Hansen wrote that she remains convinced “the political will in support of freedom of information could be stronger,” “the bureaucratic resistance to freedom of information could be weaker” and that “the tendency to withhold government information should give way to attitudes favouring its disclosure.”
MIC CHECK What is the future of the news industry? How are reporters being impacted by the absence of data and information in Canada? Does our country have a lazy citizenry?
Those are just some the questions I pondered last week while speaking with Paul Holmes and John Juricic, the hosts of John, Paul and Mic. It’s a new Victoria-based weekly podcast covering “ideas, discussions and innovations in politics, technology and society.”
You can check out that episode here.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.