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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.


Stand Up for Accountability


Do you remember this section from the 2006 Conservative Election Platform?


Stand up for Accountability  


Strengthen the power of the Auditor General


• Increase funding for the Office of the Auditor General to ensure she has the necessary resources to conduct a complete audit of grant and contribution programs and of any such departments, agencies, and Crown corporations as she deems necessary.


While not a perfect fit with the Auditor General’s wish to examine the books of MPs and Senators, it certainly implies an openness to cooperate with her.  If some provincial jurisdictions and some other countries such as the UK open the books of their elected officials to an audit, why won’t our MPs open theirs?

Could it be because they know that the improper spending habits of elected officials in those other jurisdictions were exposed to public view and legal consequences?

In one media report Shawn Murphy, the Liberal Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is quoted as follows:

“Still, Murphy fears it would be folly to subject the expenses of 308 federal politicians to a uniform accounting standard. The way a politician conducts his parliamentary business is, by definition, political and “murky,” he said.” (Toronto Star, May 1, 2010)

“There has to be the leeway because every riding is different. Members come to the Parliament with different backgrounds, different interests, which is a good thing. They approach it in 308 different ways.” (Toronto Star, May 1, 2010)

“Political and murky” is exactly why the AG needs to look at the spending of our MPs and yes, our senators too.

Having MPs approach spending in 308 different ways, each thinking their riding is special and different, is a receipt for disaster. This is exactly the reason we need a uniform accounting code. This is why taxpayers need an independent audit and full public disclosure, on a yearly basis of each MP and senators spending.

Murphy feels elections give Canadians a chance to pass judgement on MPs spending habits. That would be true if we actually knew what they were spending our taxpayer’s dollars on. As they keep their spending secret, we can’t pass judgement which is probably the point in the first place.

If the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy won’t cooperate with the Auditor General, then individual MPs, who actually believe in accountability, should take the initiative and post on their web sites a list of their expenses. Maybe they can shame their colleagues into doing the same thing. As taxpayers, we should make this a condition for each candidate wishing our support in the next election.

Perhaps a media outlet will poll each and every one of our 308 MPs and ask if they support a full audit of their books by the Auditor General. A simple yes or no answer is all that is needed. Then the results can be published for all Canadians to see how their elected representative feels about accountability.

MPs of all parties demand the government of the day be open and transparent. So tell us how each representative of each party on the Board of Internal Economy voted on this request by the Auditor General? Come clean and tell us which party or parties are blocking this request. Time for MPs to practice what they preach or do they have something to hide?



Throwing mud is not the answer

A couple of recent polls show the Conservatives edging back up to their previous levels of support around 31%, although a Leger poll yesterday shows them 11 points in front of the Liberals. Polls are just a snap shot in time and should be treated as such, but there are some interesting points here. Far from being "Guergisized", the Conservative brand is proving to be pretty resilient.

For the past three weeks the Conservatives have been pounded in Question Period over the Jaffer affair. Each minute detail that has been revealed blasted nation wide in headline type. One would think the Liberals would be the ones moving upward in the polls, but that is not the case. This time it’s the NDP which is back up into the 20’s.

So what has happened?

Clearly Canadians made up their minds at the beginning of this issue and they are now ignoring the Official Opposition attempts to smear the Conservative brand. They saw the PM do exactly what they would have done under similar circumstances. He received news of questionable activity by a former MP and that former MPs wife, a junior Conservative minister. He acted immediately and turned the information over to the RCMP and Ethics commissioner and fired the minister. That’s what ordinary Canadians would have done too.

Their early talk points and Question Period answers made sense to Canadians, although their recent change to throwing old sponsorship charges back at the Liberals is just plain dumb. What is the point of trying to prove to the public that your accuser is just as guilty as you are?

The PM gets bonus points for acting fast and ruthlessly, especially as they could have no idea as to what would eventually come out. In the meantime the Opposition and media are engaged in naval gazing and trying to dissect the clauses and sub clauses of the Federal Accountability Act (FAA).  Once the Liberals moved off their general message and got bogged down in details, Canadians eyes glazed over and they began thinking about BBQ season. Outside of the Queensway, the Official Opposition’s focus on Jaffer doesn’t get them any points. He is an ex-MP! Not a sitting MP! He is old news.

Plus, the Official Opposition is learning something about mud-slinging politics, IE some of the mud lands on the person throwing it. It is the NDP, not the Liberals that are benefitting from the Liberal attacks on the Conservatives. Layton and his party, to their credit, are still asking questions about issues that matter to Canadians. The Liberals should never have let their Leader get down in the mud, that role should have been left to their attack dogs. Layton has the right game plan. 

And where is Guergis in all of this? She is quiet and watching this all unfold. What is the bet she is learning almost as much as you and I about what Jaffer was up to?