Canada's House of Commons began televising its daily deliberations and debates only two weeks ago, but already parliamentarian who might have had reservations seem ready to declare the effort a success.
So far, only viewers in Ottawa, the capital, have been able to follow the proceedings live, and only those able to receive cable television transmissions. The country's television networks hve access to the feeds from Parliament for use in their nightly newscasts, however, and Toronto coverage as are French-language radio and television networks.
Predictably there have been denials from all sides that the presence of cameras has led to much of an increase in posturing on the aprt of the members of Parliament. Yet, some subtle and not-so-subtle changes have, in fact, taken place in the proceedings.
The opposition's questioning of the prime minister and his Cabinet is felt to be a little sharper, and the answers more responsive. More members also want to get into the act.
Speeches are said to be shorter and more to the point. The use of "damn." the strongest expletive formerly heard in Commons, seems to have disappeared, and the dress of certain members is becoming smarter.
"I spoke the other day with a gray suit and a dark tie on, and my God, I looked like an undertaker, so I'll not wear that combination again," commented Jack Ellis, a Conservative member from Hastings, Ontario.
More substantively, Stanley Knowles, a member of the minority New Democratic Party representing North Center. Winnipeg, thinks "the speeches are better" and that Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, among others, has been forced to be more accommodating because he knew the cameras were on him.
"In one case the prime minister was asked a question," recalled Knowles, "and he passed with a wave of his hand to a parliamentary secretary. The member got up for the second time, expressed a little annoyance, and said 'I want the prime minister to answer this,' and the prime minister got up. I'm telling you that prior to television, he would not have bothered."
Knowles also noted jocularly that in that the demonstrative desk pounding and clattering that takes place in Commons after a member makes a point in a speech. "We find that four of five of us can make just as much noise on television as 100 Liberals," the ruling party.
The most significant change seems to involve the question period, which is unique to the British-style parliamentary system. In the past the questioning has been generally limited to members of the opposition, as they demand that the Cabinet account for how it is running the country.
Normally, the so-called "backbenchers" in the ruling party, who have little say in policy matters, keep silent during the parliamentary question period.
Because the confrontational aspects of the question period also make for the best television, however, the backbenchers have started to enter into the question proccess to show their constituents that they are not silent bumps on a log.
"Television may well prompt backbenchers to do that." said Ralph Goodale, a Liberal member representing Assiniboia. Saskatchewan and a back bencher himself, "because it's a natural tendency on the part of the media in picking up the parts of the day they want to carry to select the questioning period. It's a one-on-one confrontation and it tends to make good news."
Whatever complaints there have been so far about the presence of cameras relate primarily to technical aspects, such as the glare and heat of the lights.
Televising the proceedings, which has been going on since Oct. 17, is totally under the control of Parliament, with the technical director and cameramen employees of Parliament. There are eight cameras, two on each wall.
Strict rules have been established that the "live" camera must always be focused on whoever is speaking and that no reaction shots are allowed. This policy, however, is being reevaluated.
"This is going to be an extremely difficult question to resolve." said Alistair Fraser, clerk to the House of Commons who has had major responsibility in implementing the decision on television. The fear is that reaction shots could inject unwanted subjectivity into the telecasts, but Fraser and others who are debating the issue concede that such reactions are a valid part of a parliamentary interchange.
The Canadian Parliament, like the U.S. Congress, had considered the question of television for many years before approving it last spring.
What tipped the balance?
Fraser said that he believed it was the victory last year of the separatist Parti Quebecois in Quebec Province, and the "general desire of all sides of the House to provide a forum for the debating of this crucial matter in our public life."
"Even more important than that." added Fraser, "there was a realization that if you regard the House of Commons as the most important room in the country, which I do, that the Canadian people had a right to see what was occurring."