A virtual solution for Parliament’s restoration

One of the worst kept secrets in Ottawa these days is the worrisome state of Canada’s Parliamentary buildings. Renovations are behind schedule and over budget, asbestos concerns persist, and the most complex and daunting challenge – refurbishing the House of Commons and Senate Chambers – has yet to be tackled.

The story went public in the October issue of Ottawa Magazine, though it is unlikely to become an election issue. Not only is it not obvious who precisely is to blame (as the problems have piled up for decades), but party leaders aspiring to Prime Minister Paul Martin’s job may be less than thrilled at the prospect of abandoning the Centre Block for temporary digs somewhere south of Wellington Street.

Precisely how far south remains an unknown. Some Parliamentarians would no doubt prefer something as close as possible to the Ottawa airport (a new facility with extra space). Yet, if Parliament is to remain supreme, its members must surely remain in the vicinity of a Peace Tower that at one time hovered above all else (though it has since given way to sprouting condo developments in most directions).

In this final column of the year allow me to propose a way out. By 2010 (or earlier if election cycles permit), let us do away with Parliament in a physical sense, at least temporarily, opting instead for virtual politics and online chambers. Members could thus remain in their constituencies, interacting as need be in caucuses and committees that can surely function quite well in cyber-forums of one sort or another (whether proprietary or open source solutions should be deployed is a matter deferred for now, perhaps a useful topic for a citizen’s panel).

As for Cabinet – well, it was Martin’s idea at one time to take this body on the road more often anyway (one such meeting earlier this year took place in Kelowna, B.C.). A combination of such regional visits (carefully aligned for climate, culture and votes), coupled with the sort of digitization of Cabinet materials and deliberations now in use in several places including Ireland, Finland and Estonia, should about do it.

There are signs that Parliamentarians are eager. A few weeks ago, two B.C. cabinet ministers were scolded by the Speaker of the Legislature for using wireless e-mail devices while in session. Rules forbid such connectedness with the outside world, as Ministers must face the lion’s den of opposition questions with only their intellect and paper (which is why the smart path is to reply not to the question asked, but rather to the question hoped for – if on topic – or to simply defer answering to another day; the problem with the latter being that it does not make for much of a media sound bite).

Taking Question Period online would help do away with the one-liners and other television shenanigans that so often make federal politics entertaining for the minority and distasteful for the rest. Why not make Question Period continuous, with Ministers given several days to formulate replies to questions that would ideally be more thoughtful and composed through broader public input and discussion.

The television media, forced to cover a more diverse set of viewpoints that may be less sensational but more faithful to the complexities of today’s public sector decisions, would eventually respond in kind. Only voting need be instantaneous in a virtual and more deliberative polity (and one need not fly for hours and stand up in a room to do it).

Financial saving aside, two additional benefit streams behind this plan merit attention. First, there is an opportunity to re-engage youth. With every federal politician maintaining his or her own web blog, linked to a digital Commons, politics just might begin to seem relevant and in tune with today’s music downloading, file swapping, text messaging generations (many of them in high schools that for budgetary reasons have long ago cancelled the annual pilgrimage to Ottawa to “experience” the pomp and importance of the country’s capital city, or perhaps Quebec City as the case may be).

Second, by deliberating virtually and tele-working across the country, Parliament and the federal government can begin to set examples for new patterns of governance and development more in tune with 21st century governance – and less constrained by geographic proximity. The alternative – congested cities, commuting gridlock and smog advisories – speaks rather loudly for itself.

By 2015 or so, when the buildings on Parliament Hill have been restored to all their glory, Canadians can then decide whether their utility in a digital world is anything more than ceremonial.

Jeffrey Roy (roy@management.uottawa.ca) is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

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