Should We Expect Theatrics In The Senate Now That Cameras Are Rolling?

(Published originally in HuffPost Canada)

The week of March 19 was auspicious for two reasons. Finance Minister Bill Morneau tabled his long awaited Budget 2019 and senators went live on television.

While MPs have had television cameras recording their proceedings since 1977, the Senate has been reluctant to adopt. Partly it was a technological limitation in their old chamber, but now that they’ve moved into a new building, due to the Centre Block renovations, they’ve been thrust into the modern era.

The arguments in favour of television abound: more education for Canadians on what happens in the Senate, an increased spotlight on what this new independent Senate is doing along with the larger case for democracy being well-served through increased transparency.

But equal are the arguments against. Knowing that cameras, and by extension Canadians (albeit not likely many), will be watching them will invariably change how the senators conduct themselves. Knowing you are being constantly recorded will either encourage you to always act professionally, or will give senators who want to obstruct legislation a chance to grandstand their blocking tactics in a public way.

If that sounds familiar, its because that’s exactly how the House of Commons operates. The most watched portion of the House of Commons proceedings is usually Question Period, a daily theatre for a viewership that rarely extends beyond the Ottawa city limits. And you only need to look to last week’s budget for proof.

Conservatives, upset over the prime minister’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin case and prompted by the antics in Justice Committee, loudly advertised that they would use every procedural tactic to delay the budget. So far so good, with a majority Liberal government, the Opposition only has so many tools, and it’s fair game to use them to their fullest extent.

Unfortunately one of the risks of announcing your strategy is that it allows the government to outflank you. And outflank them they did when Minister Morneau rose on a point of order to table the budget documents and immediately took his budget messages to the media in the lobby before giving his speech.

In retaliation, when the formal budget speech did finally occur, the Conservatives turned to kindergarten antics and drowned out virtually the entire speech by pounding on their desks and eventually walking out. In addition, the next day the Conservatives also successfully engineered over 30 hours of voting in the House of Commons.

Would these tactics have been effective without cameras in the House of Commons? The answer is simply no. Are the Conservatives justified in their outrage over SNC-Lavalin? Certainly. But drowning out the minister’s speech and calling a marathon voting session are only effective tactics if Canadians see them happening.

The Opposition in the House calculated, rightly as it turned out, that it would be worth whatever public backlash they would face from their antics and certainly much of the immediate budget media coverage did include the Conservatives tactics — so, a win for sure.

So senators, be careful what you wish for. Will senators rise to the challenge and continue to project an air of calm tranquility or will we see a resurgence of partisan politics?

The Senate is certainly evolving, they are in a new physical building and its membership has been changing under our current prime minister. But the next existential crisis for them will be how they conduct themselves when Canadians are watching. They will need to do some soul searching and ask if Canadians even want to view two increasingly divided houses.

Matt Triemstra is an Account Director at Ensight where he provides public affairs advice. He has over a decade of experience consulting and working for Conservative Members of Parliament and the Conservative Resource Group on Parliament Hill.