On the second day our government sat in the B.C. legislature, Speaker Linda Reid admonished then-unelected premier Christy Clark for passing notes to a cabinet minister during a debate. Clark had not yet won the Westside–Kelowna byelection, and so was relegated to the legislature’s public galleries.
The incident took me back to my years in middle school, an association I doubt Clark or Reid intended. In those olden times, many notes written on paper changed hands any time a teacher turned his back on a class.
Of course, that was before there was a smartphone in every pocket and a computer on every desk. When a desktop was the flat, horizontal surface which supported the paper you wrote your notes on. When a notebook was a collection of bound and ruled paper.
Not that those low-tech methods of communication — note-passing included — were superior to today’s methods.
The Kremlin might disagree with me on that one. In an effort to prevent National Security Agency-style cyberspying, the Kremlin’s secret service recently decided to revert to using old-fashioned typewriters and paper to write and store official secrets.
Clark’s trespass wasn’t in passing notes, it was doing so as an unelected visitor. Now that she has won her seat in the Okanagan, she can pass notes with impunity.
The practice has long precedent in the houses of Canadian democracy. Every year, in the House of Commons, a suite of overachieving students is hired to help, among other things, carry messages from the Speaker to members of Parliament and back. That is, pass notes.
The face of democracy would change if our elected officials dropped note-passing and took up texting or tweeting instead. The give and take of debate would be replaced by silence as our worthy officials bent over their smartphones and tablets, thumbs doing the talking for them. Interchange would be limited to remarks on speed of transmission or whether Twitter was blocking them because they’d exceeded their daily limit of 1,000 tweets.
Visitors would stop filling the public galleries, because, really, they can watch — and be shut out of — groups sitting together, intent on their devices to the exclusion of everything around them, anywhere these days. On the bus. On the street. In restaurants. Around the dining room table.
Why stand in line for that?
On the other hand, if statements in the legislature were limited to 140 characters, long-winded, winding obfuscations of information would be relegated to the legislative dustbin. No more filibustering.
Our elected officials would have to get to the point.
Or deliberately miss the point. It’s easier to avoid uncomfortable questions and heated encounters when you’re not face-to-face.
However, new media also better enable observers to spot and track avoidance.
Perhaps more of us would read debates — or non-debates — if they occurred in new media. Few now take the opportunity or make the effort to review the online and downloadable daily records from Hansard.
Because of the open nature of social media, our elected officials would have to share the stage with other tweeters and texters, elected or unelected. Christy Clark could communicate freely in her own right from the public galleries, from her office, from the campaign trail, or wherever.
There would be no need for the imposing legislature buildings. Debate of budgets and bills would take place on the street. As occurred in ancient Athens, during the dawn of democracy.
There’s room for that kind of interchange and openness in our political system. Certainly, political parties and interest groups in Canada and around the world are adopting and using it to further ideas, ideologies and change.
But value yet remains in the structured, often stuffy, debates of our traditional systems, as flawed as they are.
Here, elected officials are forced to stand up, take a stand, stand their ground, face up to and face down opposition, and practise powers of persuasion and obfuscation.
Value may remain even in the passing of notes.