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Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Blackberry Boys Obey the Rules but Are the Rules Realistic?

I remember when Ed Stelmach was one of the “Deep Six” group of rookie backbencher MLAs. They sat in the nose-bleed seats way in the back. They wore pink bow ties and were prepared to be contrarian. When truth had to be brought to power they delivered it - often very effectively.

Now we have a new group "The Digital Six." These are, the thoroughly modern and contrarian MLAs I like to call The Blackberry-Boys. These are the MLAs who were caught “Twittering” in Question Period and have been reprimanded by the Speaker. There are rules and they must be to be honoured, and the Speaker is clear he will enforce them. The Blackberry Boys have said they will abide – as they should. Otherwise the Speaker will come down hard and they will find themselves out on their ears and become the “New Kids in the Hall.”

The Speaker is right to enforce the rules. It is his duty. The question is should there be such rules against using PDAs in the Legislature Chamber? Is that reasonable in the age of digital democracy? I don’t think so. Tradition versus technology is the dynamic at play here. The rules banning Blackberry communications in QP or even the debates and in Committee is something that must be changed.

We have had Hansard for eons and we have had live television coverage of QP for decades. There is even on-line streaming of QP these days so you can catch it on your computer from anywhere in the world that has a browser. That streaming service has been extended to include audio and video coverage of Committee meetings. These are all progressive steps to be applauded and were achieved under the leadership of the current Speaker. Hard to peg him as a Luddite. He is not.

That said, what is the principle and purpose of banning digital communications from the Legislature to the outside world by MLAs? It is because of the decorum of Question Period? Well the tradition of parliamentary government in QP is hardly one where manners prevail. It is a tradition rife with heckling, hectoring, haranguing and humiliation. That history hardly justifies a ban. School teachers have been loathed to bring classes to see QP because of the bad example these “adults” provided to students in their QP shenanigans.

Is it because MLAs are perceived as not paying proper attention while Twittering or text messaging? With the extensive staging and scripting of QP and the focus on Ministers what is there that demands such attentiveness? Is anyone actually sitting in the Legislature in QP not already knowing what the focus and outcome of this farce in three acts is going to be about? Who needs to pay that kind of attention with you already know the plot, the characters and their lines and the outcome of the “drama”?

I think the Backbenchers time is better spent reaching out to the world and putting the proceedings in some meaningful context for the rabble also known as citizens. This better use of their time instead of feigning interest in the proceedings for the benefit of the TV cameras.

The larger question is what is the actual value of Question Period anymore anyway? As I said, it is highly scripted political theatre designed to garner positive or negative headlines. It is not a way to get accountable, open and transparent governance. The Opposition’s questions are rarely answered to the point where the running gag saying “It is called Question Period not Answer Period” is more true than funny.

Then we have the self-serving puffball questions that are read by government Backbenchers to government Ministers, many of whom merely answer by reading directly from prepared scripts. The purpose of this tactic is to get the government version of the “story “on the public record and hopefully garner some positive media coverage. But it is not credible to the media so it does not work. Puffballs have the side benefit of giving Backbenchers some Hansard excerpts to send to constituents to show they are on the job. This is all so passé and such a futile exercise in message control. It merely adds to citizen cynicism about the overall effectiveness of our representative democracy.

There is a new web-based world out there and it is changing everything, including democracy and governing. I am thinking the Alberta Speaker’s enforcement of the old-world rules is doing the focus on this issue of digital real-time communications and the ubiquitous connectivity capacity of politicians a real favour. He is precipitating a public discussion about what accountable, open, responsible and effective representative government can actually be in the digital age.

There is so much positive potential in all of this in so many ways and at so many levels. Technology induced change is not new but it is always disruptive so let the debate begin.