A paper was released in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations this week, titled Conflictual behavior in legislatures: Exploring and explaining adversarial remarks in oral questions to prime ministers. The study compares the behaviours in the Parliaments of Canada, the UK, Australia, and Ireland, and how they dynamics can differ between them both in terms of tone, types of questions and attacks, and interventions by their respective Speakers during the oral questions. While it’s an ambitious project, it does nevertheless have a few of the limitations of doing a more quantitative analysis than a qualitative one, particularly because it relies on Hansard transcripts rather than in-person observation or observing the video broadcasts. As the only journalists in the Canadian parliament who has attended very nearly every Question Period over the past twelve or so years, I was interested to see what the paper has to say about the Canadian context.
One of the things I noticed first was that the Canadian portion was based on the 39th Parliament, from 2006 to 2008, being the first hung parliament of Stephen Harper’s government. This meant that Peter Milliken was the Speaker, so his particular style and temperament when it comes to the interventions he made in the Chamber are relevant to what was captured in the study, and there is very much a difference from Speaker to Speaker in terms of what sorts of things the Speaker will police within the Chamber and what he or she won’t (and if we’re talking about the current Speaker, Anthony Rota, well, he polices very little). This time period also means that Bill Graham was serving as interim Liberal leader and hence Leader of the Opposition for much of that time, and because this study doesn’t include the prorogation crisis of 2008, it doesn’t capture some of the absolutely explosive, drag-out exchanges between Harper and Stéphane Dion during that event.
One other observation I would make is that because this was a parliament that saw a new government, the prime minister was far more frequently available during QP, particularly in the early part of this Parliament, because everyone is so fresh and new, and full of energy. As time went on, Harper attended less and less, and you were lucky if he showed up twice a week, but oftentimes it was just Wednesdays, because that is caucus day. Something else that is particularly relevant to this study is that when Justin Trudeau formed government, he instituted a proto-Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesdays, whereby he answers every question on that day, with the intention that it allows anyone in the Chamber to ask him a question. That being said, it mostly gives opposition leaders more rounds to preen for the cameras rather than just the first round, but it can give more backbenchers the ability to ask questions, which is something that this study did look at.
With all of this in mind, one of the tables in the report looks at interventions by the Speaker, and on what grounds. The number of interventions around things like calls to order were fairly low, which surprised me, but it also could be that Hansard didn’t record nearly as many as happen live. In terms of interventions based on the content of the questions, Canada was second-lowest of the four, with only five recorded over the period studied, which seems unusually low in the current context, which could be an indication that MPs are pushing the limits more these days than they did back then. The other surprising statistic was that of directions to leave the Chamber, which only Australia had any, and they had a lot of them, in particular because of a rule that they gave their Speaker that allows him or her to oust someone for disruptive behaviour on a more explicit basis, and which their Speakers seem to exercise more frequently than what happens here.
As for questions containing conflictual remarks, Canada was the country that came out on top, with around 70 percent of questions containing such remarks. This compares to around 40 percent in both Australia and the UK, with Ireland coming in well behind at around ten percent of questions. Similarly, when it comes to questions that contain policy criticisms versus criticisms of the prime minister, government, or party, Canada ranked the lowest on policy criticism, where only about five percent of questions had policy criticism, but in this particular case, Ireland was not much better at around ten percent, while the UK was about 15 percent, and Australia close to 30 percent. And this one feels very true—we do focus more on personal failings than policy criticisms, which is one of the reasons why our Parliament has become increasingly less serious as time goes on.
One of the other interesting statistics tracked was the number of backbench questions to the prime minister that contained some kind of conflictual question. During that Parliament, there appeared to be a mere one in Canada (and now I’m curious to know what it was), which is unusual because the Conservatives, especially in the early days, were very, very restrictive in terms of message discipline and control, because they had seen how loose lips from candidates like Cheryl Gallant helped to sink them in the 2004 election, so in 2006, they clamped down hard on message discipline and haven’t much let up since. (Notably, in the past two elections, it was the leaders who largely helped sink themselves because of their own comments). The UK had much higher number of conflictual questions to the prime minister, but that’s also not surprising because of the culture there where a number of backbenchers in safe seats have the latitude to criticize the government, which is not the case in most Parliaments. Also of note was that Australia and Ireland didn’t record any such backbench questions in the study.
There is more to delve into with this study, but it does point to a much more adversarial political culture within Canada, and one with strong opposition. I would be curious to see if future studies differ in their results, both because of changes that Trudeau made to QP, and with different Speakers in the big chair, but this does start to help position how we treat our QP in relation to how it works in other similar Parliaments, and points to ways in which we can and must do better.