View From The Hill – December 10th, 2013

Senate

I don’t even want to talk about what happened in Question Period today.  Suffice it to say that it involved Paul Calandra telling the House that everyone but the Tories hate Santa.

Instead, here is a list of ideas on how to reform Question Period.

1. Empower the Speaker

What’s the problem?  It occurs often, including today, that MPs ask the Speaker to rule on the content and quality of answers from the Ministers.  The Speaker, this one especially, almost always throws that back in the members’ face — it is not the Speaker’s job to establish the quality of questions.  Well, this oughta change.  The Speaker should be able to interject and ask the government Minister to answer the question if they, say, start meandering about Santa.

What do we do?  The House has, in the past, passed a set of instructions for how Question Period should work.  Without passing something like that, it would be up to the Speaker to take the initiative on his own, and try to set a precedent.  That seems less likely.  Current constraints are almost entirely on the questions themselves — that they mustn’t be too long, that they must be about government business, that they must be to a Minister, etc.  There are virtually no coded rules on what the content of answers should contain.  We could change that by requiring the answer meet a reasonable expectation of accuracy, barring Ministers from referencing activities of opposition members, and requiring a substantive answer.  What’s more, the changes could allow members to raise points of privilege if they feel the answer fails to meet those criteria.

2. Abolish the list

What’s the problem?   Currently, parties have the unfettered ability to pre-ordain which members ask questions of the government.  While any member that wishes to stand up and ask a question of the government can do so — including government backbenchers as well — they need the recognition of the Speaker, which isn’t always forthcoming.

How do we fix it?  Naturally, party leaders should receive opening slots in QP, but that’s where party control should end.  This could be done by motion of the House, but it could also be done much more simply — since the Speaker is not required to use lists submitted by the parties, the parties could simply neglect to submit the lists and have their members rise as they so please.  That could start tradition and, eventually, kill the list altogether.

3. Death to the Parliamentary Secretary

What’s the problem?  A Parliamentary Secretary, once, was a fill-in for an absent Minister.  Now, as evidenced by Paul Calandra, they’ve become punching bags for the opposition.  Question Period was intended to hold Ministers to account, not to have responses written by the PMO to be read out by ambitious monkeys.

How do we fix it?  Well, it would be made quite simple if the government simply did not use Parliamentary Secretaries to answer questions that could be readily fielded by the Minister.  But don’t hold your breath.  Our Question Period rules are pretty obviously lacking provisions to give the Speaker the power to designate a Minister to respond.  That would be helpful.  It would be a great boon to democracy to not have questions on a possible breach of trust in the Prime Minister’s Office answered by the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

4. Kill the backbenchers!  Long live the independents!  (and leaders of unrecognized party caucuses)

What’s the problem?  The smart kids in the back are far too timid.  Between Maria Mourani, Bruce Hyer and Elizabeth May, there is enough grey matter to make for a very interesting Question Period.  Unfortunately, they sit and wait their turn until the end of Question Period to try and get an answer from the government.  They usually only get one, without supplemental, and often sit down, discouraged.  Yet, invariably, every QP, a government backbencher stands up with a big, stupid grin on their face and asks the Minister of something-or-other why the opposition hates puppies.  That Minister puts on mock gravitas to thank that member for their hard work and assure that this government is kicking no puppies at all.

What do we do about it?  Elizabeth May (or Hyer, Mourani, Plamandon, etc.) ought to stand up when they want, and not sit down until the Speaker recognizes their right to ask a question.  Simple as that.  Meanwhile, the Speaker should refuse to recognize any government backbencher that appears on their party’s list.

5. Table your notes

What’s the problem?  Every day, after the first line of leaders do their dance, the second line comes on.  Opposition backbenchers stand up and start with profound outrage. Then they glance at their speaking notes.  There’s a pause.  They find their place.  Ah!  Outrage again.  The Minister, then, reads a statement.  As they will do to any vaguely similar questions that arise.

What do we do to fix it?  If they’re just going to read from notes, we may as well have access to them.  Force every MP who uses speaking notes during Question Period to submit them to the speaker and have them readily available for journalists and the public.

There you have it.  Five reforms that may well have prevented…whatever that was.

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Other articles by Justin Ling

Stephen Harper – The Seeker

The Taming of the Prime Minister

Harper’s Lincoln Continental

The last MP out can turn off the light

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

 

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