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Question Period Reform Part 3: Civility Required

As mentioned previously MP Michael Chong has taken on the daunting task of trying to reform Question Period. One proposal which will be very controversial is the suggestion that the Prime Minister only show up one day a week, on Wednesday. The catch is that he would answer all questions for the full allocated time. Not a bad idea as any PM’s schedule is packed and sitting in Question Period for the full 45 minutes everyday is a waste of time.

In practice a Prime Minister answers about three minutes of questions each day they are in the House. And for the other 42 minutes they sit and watch. The Opposition will try to goad him into rising and taking additional questions with the hope that he can be provoked into a misstep in his reply. Paul Martin was one PM who fell into this trap a number of times. But is this a productive use of any Prime Minister’s time? That is what MPs on the Procedures and House Affairs Committee should be thinking about?

Even when the PM is obviously not in the House, this doesn’t stop MPs from asking a question that is clearly designed for the Prime Minister to answer. Liberals guilty of doing this over the last 5 days of Question Period include Ignatieff, McGuinty, Easter, and Zarac. Perhaps the Speaker can find a way to suggest to them that they direct their questions appropriately.

Some of the best questioners in the House are the Bloc. Other MPs should pay more attention to them. All of their questions are well researched. They rarely ask one without having documentation and facts to back up their question. They follow Joe Clark’s Question Period rule, never ask a question unless you know the answer first.

For the Liberals, pay more attention to Bob Rae and how he phrases and asks his questions. They are well thought out, to the point and don’t leave much wiggle room for anyone answering.

Chong also suggests that ministers be required to be present on a rotating schedule two days a week. I can’t see the opposition parties accepting that as it makes it very difficult to sustain any type of attack on a particular minister. It could work if a mechanism was built in that would allow them to add one minister’s name to the schedule each day.  This way if a scandal was brewing they could get at that minister every day as they do now.

Members Statements which are also called an SO 31, precede Question Period. They are one minute statements by an MP on a topic of their choice. Often they are about their riding. It's time for the Speaker to put his foot down on the Conservatives use of SO 31s to make personal political attacks on the Leader of the Opposition. This is not what they were designed for and these types of attacks certainly help set the tone for what is to follow in Question Period. To illustrate, Ignatieff gave a very good tribute to the armed forces on VE day, he received applause from all parties. Then up pops Conservative MP Earl Deeshan to deliver another attack on Ignatieff. This was low class and totally unnecessary.

Along with the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, five other people can change the tone in Question Period: The Speaker, Ignatieff, Harper, Duceppe and Layton. They are the ones who can change MPs behaviour in the House.

A sixth person, Michael Chong, has decided not to be part of the silent majority of MPs who want QP changed. He has taken a public stand and suggested changes that you may not agree with, but at least his motion if adopted will force MPs to look at changing QP for the better. He deserves the support of the public and the media.

Write your MP and ask them to support Chong’s motion. If it’s a free vote it just might pass. And while you are at it, why don’t you write Michel Chong and let him know that you appreciate his efforts to try to reform Question Period. Email him at


Question Period Reform Part 2: Just Answer the Question

Michael Chong’s Motion 517 to reform Question Period will be debated later this month. While it only directs the Procedures and House Affairs committee to study his proposals, they offer a glimmer of hope that perhaps Question Period can still be saved.

Question Period is crucial in that it offers one clear opportunity for opposition parties to hold the government and its ministers accountable. Generally when a minister is asked a question that minister will answer it. I think most voters would expect that, although there are some traditional exceptions.

The question must be about the minister’s present portfolio, not one that they held previously and if the question is directed at a junior minister, on occasion the senior minister for that department will respond.

Over the past few years two more exception were added. When you are in trouble another minister gets assigned to take your questions. It could be the House Leader or it could be whoever is filling in for the PM. This is a great defensive tactic but it is just that, a defence mechanism that lets a minister off the hook. In the Chretien years to use a Liberal example, when a minister was under attack, they took the heat, day after day. Just think of Jane Stewart and what she went through for quite a few weeks.

If the situation got serious in QP, Chretien would rise and defend the minister. That was a big media story. And the story was Chretien rescued the minister or that he had to defend that minister and express his confidence in them. Over the last couple of years questions about ministerial expenses for an example, have been answered by the House Leader. Why? If they spent the money, they should be able to tell voters why. A minister is supposed to be responsible for their department and it seems logical that this include ministerial expenses incurred when performing departmental duties.

One has to also question if using a regional minister with a portfolio unrelated to a question, should be answering on behalf of another minister. This is usually done as a courtesy to francophone MPs and viewers and to provide French media clips for Quebec. But, in reality, what does that minister know about the issue other than the talk points in front of them. There is such a thing as simultaneous translation and while the optics might look better the minister responding is not “responsible” for that department. 

Chong’s motion asks that the Procedures and House Affairs Committee look at a procedure that directs the minister asked a question to answer it. Providing the first two exceptions are maintained it makes sense. If you can’t take the heat, maybe you shouldn’t be there in the first place.



Procedures and House Affairs

Michael Chong’s Motion M-517 to reform Question Period shines the spotlight on a relatively low profile Standing Committee of the House of Commons, namely the Procedures and House Affairs Committee.

This committee works away with out much fanfare or publicity, unlike some of the other high profile committees which are often in the media spotlight.

While the odds of Chong’s motion being passed are pretty slim, let’s take a closer look at the committee. It appears to be a good mix of MPs. There are certainly some pretty hard working members on this committee.

Chair: Joe Preston (C)

Vice-Chair: Michel Guimond (B)

                  Marcel Proulx (L)

Members: Harold Albrecht (C)

                 Yvon Godin (NDP)

                 Guy Lauzon (C)

                 Claude DeBellefeuille (B)

                 Marlene Jennings (L)

                 Scott Reid (C)

                 Roger Cuzner (L)

                 Randy Hoback (C)

                 Tom Lukiwski (C)

Excluding the Chair, the Opposition hold the majority hand on any vote. This is the committee that could bring forward suggestions to reform Question Period anytime it wants. If it wanted to, the committee could initiate a study of Question Period; solicit advice from all MPs or from the public. Considering the vast disenchantment with Question Period it’s a wonder that they haven’t already done so.

Rather than wait for Chong’s motion to come to a vote, if it ever does, why not send out a survey to all MPs asking them to rank Chong’s proposals along with any other suggestions that they might have received.

One would hope that MPs would give any such survey serious consideration and respond in a nonpartisan manner. Assuming the various leaders’ offices butt out and don’t interfere, we might see some real progress made on reforming Question Period.


Reforming Question Period, Part One

Yesterday, Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton, introduced Motion #517 to reform Question Period. The odds of any of his suggested reforms ever happening are pretty slim if other MPs don’t put partisanship aside, or if the media doesn’t line up behind him.

I have known Chong since he was first elected in 2004. He is a quiet, hard working MP with a love for Canadian history and parliamentary tradition. He doesn’t grandstand or throw himself in front of a camera just to get his name in lights, but he does work darn hard for his constituents. Exactly the type of MP most Canadians would want representing them. His proposals deserve serious thought. Today, I will look at two of his six points.

I spent some 16 years, involved with Question Period on either the government or opposition side of the House and I thought it might be interesting to take a close look at what he suggests as his proposals would fundamentally change Question Period, mainly for the better. First let’s look at QP as it plays out right now on a daily basis, and then see how Chong’s proposals would change things.

To most Canadians, Question Period is that 10 sec clip on the TV news or the newspaper article that expands on the questions asked in the House. Behaviour in the House has deteriorated for years, to the point that most of what you see is theatre, IE MPs performing for the camera and that hoped for clip.

Few Canadians realize the amount of preparation involved for those 45 minutes of show time. Generally speaking, across the government, (and on the opposition side) the day starts with staff going through every conceivable news item in the early hours of the morning. Anything impacting on a minister or PMO is flagged and work started on finding out what does the minister need to know about the story and what are the answers required.

Sometime in the morning there will be a briefing session and QP issues will be discussed. Fine tuning of answers will take place and the daily QP briefing book prepared and updated. In total several hours work.

Around lunch time there will be a ministerial practice session with staff and then it’s off to the formal practice session at 1 PM with all other ministers and parliamentary secretaries present. At 2:15 when the Speaker rises and announces Oral Questions, its show time and bedlam is unleashed.

Most ministers won’t get a question, especially if the opposition is focused on just one or two issues. The present Prime Minister tries to take questions from the other party leaders. He is not required too, but out of courtesy he usually does. Questions and answers are 35 seconds long. This means the PM will spend about 3 minutes out of 45 minutes directly involved in QP.

True, Opposition MPS stand up and in each and every question demand the PM answer them. It’s a bit foolish as they all know full well that this PM or previous Liberal ones will rarely do so. Instead the appropriate minister will stand and answer.

How does Chong suggest we address some of the flaws in our present Question Period format? First he suggests we change how questions are asked. Few Canadians realize that questions are tightly scripted by the House Leaders offices. Which MP asks a question, what they ask about, what order they are asked and even the words used are controlled.

The Speaker has a list of questioners. If you aren’t on that list, you aren’t asking one, no matter how important your proposed question might be for your constituents. The exception is Friday which has generally evolved to become a regional Question Period day when MPs who don’t get a chance to ask questions in the rest of the week have a chance to get up. Providing the are on the Speakers list that day.

If you are a government backbencher, forget it. No questions for you unless it’s a lob at one of your ministers. IE the ministers office wants to say something, writes a question and answer, its approved by PMO and the backbencher stands up to applause from his side, asks the questions and the minister dutifully answers in a most positive manner.

Chong wants to give all MPs the chance to ask something in Question Period. He is asking for part of every Question Period to be set aside for uncontrolled questions. MPs from all parties stand and the Speaker decides who gets a question. I can remember this happening in the 1980s, when some of our own MPs would take on our ministers for issues in their ridings.

Think of a question that you would ask the Prime Minister today if you had a chance. Now write it in such a way that you can ask it in 35 seconds or less. Go over the time limit and the Speaker stands and your mic is cut off. How meaningful is that question that you just wrote?

Now imagine that you are a minister and try to answer your question in 35 seconds. Could you give a meaningful answer? Chong wants the 35 seconds allocated extended, at this point by an undefined amount.

Meaningful thoughtful questions force a minister to reply in kind. There will always be MPS and ministers who prefer to go over the top vocally, but a substantive question forces a minister to think before spitting out an answer.

Both of these items that Chong wants changed are valid. They give individual MPS a chance to better represent their constituents. At the same time the changes would allow your elected MPs to shake off  some of the controls their party has over them in Question Period. They might actually get a chance to represent you, which is the reason you elected them in the first place.







Respect is earned

MPs of all parties bemoan the lack of respect shown to them by the public. They feel that the hard work they do on behalf of their constituents gets little recognition as does their work on various committees in Ottawa. This is all to true. Canadians are turned off with politics in this country as is shown in each election when fewer and fewer even bother to vote.

This disinterest in politics has allowed the role of the elected representative to slip from the public's sight. PMO over the last couple of decades has centralized more and more control over the everyday life of government MPs, committee reports are routinely shelved or ignored and the public rolls their eyes at the antics in Question Period.

A decade ago, a party leader would have had a fight on his hands if he was to dictate how an MP would vote on a Private Members Bill or PMB. It just wasn’t done. This was one of the last freedoms an MP had and they guarded it closely. Today the Liberal Leader can tell his caucus how to vote on the PMB to repeal the gun registry and no one cares.

MPs are your voice in Ottawa. The vast majority of them work long, hard hours and they are very careful about how they spend their budgets and your taxpayer’s dollars. I wish I could say that I know they all spend wisely, but I can’t, as they won’t allow taxpayers to see the details of how they spend their budgets. Neither will they allow the Auditor General to look at their books. Why?

If there is nothing to hide, let Sheila Fraser look at them. If they are worried that some MPS may have been a little loose in their spending habits over the last few years, then start fresh. Invite the Auditor General to examine the books at the end of this fiscal year and in the years going forward. MPs should be looking at ways to build up a little trust between the public and themselves.

So far, we know that the Liberals don’t want the Auditor General looking at MPs accounts. We know that because that is the position of Mr Ignatieff, who was quoted yesterday as saying “Our expenses are publicly available already in aggregate form. We already have an independent audit and the only question is whether that audit is made public and that is a matter for the Board of Internal Economy.”

This bafflegab simply means the round numbers are available and any details go to the secret Board of Internal Economy which is run by MPs, and which so far has refused the Auditor General’s request to conduct an audit.

Thanks to Mr Ignatieff’s comments, we know the Liberals are opposed to the Auditor General conducting an audit of MPs expenses. What about the other three Leaders? Where do they stand on this issue? Does the Liberal caucus agree with their leader’s position?

MPs need strong support from the public if they are to reassert themselves and play a more important role in the day to day activities of Parliament. Milliken’s ruling was one step forward, opening their books to public scrutiny would be another.  MPs can rebuild the political clout and respect they once had in Parliament, but they will have to do it one step at a time.

Respect isn’t just given, it is earned.