Late last week, the Liberals put out an infographic to brag about how much Justin Trudeau has been on the road to meet “real Canadians” instead of being in the House of Commons. And yes, the inforgraphic mocked Thomas Mulcair for asking five questions per day and not getting answers. Not to be outdone, the NDP put out their own, orange-coloured infographic to try and point out that while Mulcair has also been on the road, he still shows up at the Commons. When I remarked over Twitter that Mulcair is barely there more than Harper or Trudeau, his handlers bristled and insisted that he’s there 33 percent more than Harper – which is a cute way of saying he’s generally there three days per week instead of two.
Wow. A whole extra day. And if you really think about it, it’s really just a whole extra hour per week.
It’s been a downward spiral when it comes to leaders attending QP. Stephen Harper stopped attending on most Mondays early in his government, barring the odd exception when he had something else going on later in the week. But that exception has largely fallen by the wayside, and these days, he’s usually only there Tuesday and Wednesday, because that’s apparently him doing his job of being held to account by the House to which he is responsible to under our system of government. In more recent times, Thomas Mulcair has largely decided that Mondays apparently don’t matter on the Parliamentary calendar, with the odd exception, and Justin Trudeau, well, has not only taken that to heart but also added in Thursday as well, largely only showing up when Harper does (minus the exception for when he took a couple of weeks’ parental leave).
What is galling about this decline, however, is the way in which parties – and the Liberals in particular – have started to boast about how little time they’re spending in the House. Apparently, they’re getting out of the “Ottawa Bubble” and spending time with “real Canadians,” because apparently Ottawa is a rarefied fairytale kingdom which is both disconnected from reality, but which is also “broken,” and any other epithet that one might think. Such criticisms tend to be lazy and populist, and ignore some of the actual strengths that the national capital has to offer – things like the fact that it is a place where people and experts from around the country – and indeed around the world – come together to work on policy and to share their subject matter expertise. Many a politician could learn a thing of two by actually engaging with those subject matter experts that are right here, and who have regional knowledge of their own. But shh! Don’t tell them that they’re not real!
Other crass populists will roll their eyes and say that Parliament doesn’t really matter because the government won’t answer questions anyway. My problem with that line of reasoning is that it lets the opposition off the hook for not actually doing their jobs. Yes, we are dealing with a government that doesn’t like to answer questions, but in watching Question Period daily for well over five years, I can tell you for a fact that it’s almost unheard of for the opposition to actually press the government on any topic long enough to get an answer. Instead, they tend to stick to scripts, not press the government where answers have not been given, move on to other topics that they want a news clip from, and generally not work hard enough in shaming the government into answering. Attempts at shaming the government only wind up in rhetorical questions with everything but the kitchen sink is loaded into them, leaving the government free to shrug it off and make a not terribly clever quip instead. In other words, if the government isn’t answering, it can be equally said that the opposition largely hasn’t been doing a terribly great job of asking the questions either.
If people, and most especially those Liberals who are now boasting about Trudeau’s absences, seem to think that the best solution to not getting answers is to simply stop showing up, then they are guilty of abrogating their responsibilities. The opposition, under our Westminster system, has a duty to hold the government to account, and the daily mechanism by which that happens is Question Period. They have an obligation to press the government for answers, and to ask clear and coherent questions and to keep at it until they get an answer (the caveat of course being that the questions should be in order and should have to do with the administrative responsibility of the government. We’ve seen an awful lot of questions lately that are neither). Being in opposition isn’t an easy job. It’s not supposed to be. That doesn’t mean that they should just take their ball and go home or on tour because Harper makes it tough. It also means not leaving the real work to Officers of Parliament so that you can have a few more meet-and-greets with “real” Canadians.
Fundamentally, this whole issue boils down to the question of whether Parliament matters? Parliament is, after all, the grand inquest of the nation, where the act of holding government to account takes place, and it is the heart of our democratic system. To actively denigrate it raises serious questions about the commitment to the responsibilities that you were elected to perform, whether you’re in the cabinet, the government backbenches, or the opposition. There is more to being elected than the notion that it’s just “winner take all” and that everything else is a distraction. Rather, opposition and accountability are constant, daily processes that MPs need to be present for. It’s the whole reason Parliament exists, and it’s why it matters. If you can’t make the case for why it does matter and show up to demonstrate your being serious about your actual role as an MP, then why are you seeking election?
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