Monday, September 27, 2010

History of Question Period

The return of Parliament stimulated a lot of discussion about "making question period work.” Not much of the discussion seemed very encouraging.

Much of the current issue of Policy Options is devoted to the question period question.  Something called the Public Policy Forum held a one-day workshop in Ottawa last week and came up with “top 10 ideas to improve Question Period.”  Many political reporters and columnists also took up the subject. Today Neil Reynolds in the Globe was recycling old Westminster anecdotes, as if Winston Churchill were the only person ever to say anything clever in a legislature.

The PPF’s top ten includes irrelevancies such as “reduce or eliminate the role of parliamentary secretaries in committees.”  And even the more practical proposals show a heavy reliance on what seem like tweaks and gimmicks: adding a few seconds to the length of a question, assigning ministers specific days to answer, forbidding the use of scripted questions.

MP Michael Chong (pdf in Policy Options) begins to approach the fundamentals when he notes that in 1977 the then-Speaker delegated control of question period to the party whips. Party organizers, not the Speaker or the MPs themselves, determine who asks the questions and what they ask about. But the problem that points to is not likely to be solved by the tinkering with the rules he advocates.  

An effective question period requires an effective legislature that has power and responsibility and that needs serious questions and answers in order to do its work. There are 308 MPs in today's House of Commons, but only four who are authorized to think and act: the four party leaders. So how can the others be expected to pose meaningful questions, or even to take the whole thing seriously?  Canada needs to build its legislature before it rebuilds question period.

In a perverse way, it make a kind of sense that today’s MPs cannot ask questions without permission, for today’s MPs cannot do anything without the leader’s permission. If MPs cannot speak, cannot hold opinions, cannot vote, except as directed, how can we expect them to care enough either to ask serious answers or to listen to the answers? Why shouldn't MPs bray and catcall, when there is nothing meaningful they could do even if they got useful and respectful answers?  If they are only there to prop up the leader, why do they get to ask questions in the first place?

We cannot expect serious questions and answers in parliament until we have serious parliamentarians who hold real and serious responsibilities. Men and women who have no freedom to act on what might come out of question period are not going to begin asking useful questions just because they have an extra minute in which to pose them.

Susan Delacourt, veteran reporter for the Toronto Star, has a knack of thinking what bien-pensant Ottawa is thinking. Her take on the question period problem is instructive.  She proposes not more independence for MPs to think and speak, but less. You want to improve question period, she says. Well, who do you know in the PMO?

“The PMO, regardless of stripe, is capable of exercising great control over MPs. If this PMO, or previous ones, had been interested in making QP better, it did/does have the clout to do so.”  

I can just see this at work. The boss walks into the next caucus meeting.  “I want searching serious, insightful respectful questions out of you all from now on. And if you don’t deliver, I’ll kick you right out of the caucus.”

Yeah, that’s going to work fine. “Yes, sir.  What do you want us to be serious and insightful about first, sir?” 

Surely it is the other way round. MPs will not have an incentive to ask meaningful questions until they have power to act on the answers they get, because you cannot empower question period unless you empower the questioners.  Anyone who wants to reform question period needs first to reform the relationship between MPs and leaders.  But I think Susan Delacourt knows what Ottawa is thinking. And that doesn't even make the top 10.

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