Contrasts in Question Periods

Today during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the UK House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron was asked a question by a Labour MP about his government’s plans to combat rising child poverty figures. Rather than explain his government’s policies, Cameron launched an attack on the previous Labour government’s financial record. This prompted the Speaker to cut Cameron off in mid-sentence and move on to another question. You can watch the incident in this clip:

This is not the first time that Speaker Bercow has intervened in such a way, and while he is sometimes criticised in the British press for such actions, it was the right thing to do. The point of PMQs, and the daily questions to ministries, is to provide an opportunity for the House to hold the government of the day to account and to seek information. While rules vary somewhat in various jurisdictions, in general, the questions asked by MPs of government ministers are supposed to focus on government policy and the administrative and other responsibilities of the minister being questioned. In return, the answers are supposed to provide insight and information about the government’s/minister’s policies and actions. Speaker Bercow was quite right when he said “We will concentrate on the policies of the Government. Nothing further requires to be said, so we shall move on.”

This presents a sharp contrast with how Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons unfolds. See for example, this recent exchange wherein the leader of the third party attempts to question the government about an ongoing scandal involving the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff and money paid to a Senator:

Mr. Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, when the House rises, the government will have deliberately left crucial questions answered on the $90,000 cheque—the government will have left unanswered questions on the $90,000 cheque in the—

The Speaker: Order, please. The hon. member for Papineau has the floor.

Mr. Justin Trudeau: Mr. Speaker, the unanswered questions are as follows. What was the secret agreement? Will they release the correspondence? When did the PMO tell Mike Duffy not to co-operate with the Deloitte audit and, most of all, why? What real reason did Nigel Wright give the Prime Minister for cutting that $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy?

Hon. James Moore (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, CPC): Mr. Speaker, of course, I agree with the first half of the first rendition of his question, where he said our government has indeed answered these questions. What is also important to note is that when the House does rise, our government will be very proud not only of the questions we have answered, but the actions we have delivered for Canadians. Just yesterday, we passed Bill S-2 to provide aboriginal women with equal rights to non-aboriginal women in this country. That was reported equally last week. That is great news for all Canadians. It was reported last week by Statistics Canada that the Canadian economy has created over a million new jobs since the recession. On all these questions and on all these answers, we are proud to go into summer standing up as—

The Speaker: The hon. member for Papineau.

Mr. Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, there is more spin, bluster and blunder, but not answers. No answers to those or to these. How could the PMO put out a statement on May 14, about the deal, when on May 15, the Prime Minister still said he did not know about the cheque? Secondly, why did the PM give Nigel Wright his full confidence, instead of firing him on the spot? When will the government release a copy of the cheque? Most of all, why? The excuse of wanting to repay the taxpayers does not jive. What real reason did Nigel Wright give for writing that cheque?

The Speaker: Order, please. There is still far too much noise while members are putting forward their questions and ministers are answering. Members have to come to order. The hon. Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages.

Hon. James Moore (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, CPC): Mr. Speaker, first of all, the real question is can I have the last 30 seconds of my life back? The leader of the Liberal Party puts forward a number of questions. Indeed, those questions have been answered by the Prime Minister directly and by me. We have our own questions for the leader of the Liberal Party.

Does he still believe, for example, that Canadians who do not speak both of Canada’s official languages are lazy? Does the Liberal Party leader still believe that the Senate should not be reformed because it benefits the province of Quebec? Does the leader of the Liberal Party still believe that it is okay for Liberal Senator Mac Harb to owe $50,000 in payments that he took from taxpayers and be welcomed back as a Liberal member of their caucus?

Mr. Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, yet again, we are not getting an answer. The real question remains: why? No one is buying the pitiful excuse from the chief of staff that he wrote a $90,000 cheque to a parliamentarian to supposedly save taxpayers money. There were other ways of doing that. What real reason did Nigel Wright give the Prime Minister for writing Mike Duffy a cheque for $90,000?

Hon. James Moore (Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, CPC): Mr. Speaker, we have already answered that question very clearly. There are other very simple questions that we as parliamentarians want answers to.

The House leader of the NDP has put forward a motion.

We are very curious for the leader of the Liberal Party to answer his own questions on his expenses on the taxpayer’s dime. Did taxpayers foot the bill for the cost of him travelling to his speaking events and his private speaking business while he was a member of Parliament? Did he bill taxpayers for the cost of his speaking tours while having the worst voting attendance record of any leader in the House?

A quick perusal shows that the Minister in question deflected every question and “answered” by questioning the actions and statements of the Liberal Party leader. This is far from a isolated example. Indeed, the times where government ministers actually do answer questions openly and thoroughly in the Canadian House of Commons seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

There is also the problem in the Canadian House of Commons of government backbenchers asking extremely partisan scripted questions which more often than not attack one of the opposition parties while also effusively praising the government. Questions such as this one:

Mr. Brian Storseth (Westlock—St. Paul, CPC):  Mr. Speaker, our government supports Canadian jobs from coast to coast to coast. We have a plan for jobs, growth and long-term prosperity. Our message does not change, whether we are in Canada or abroad. The leader of the NDP on the other hand, pits one region against another by referring to our natural resource sector as “a disease and a curse”. Could the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources update the House on the work the minister is doing to promote Canada’s natural resource sector?

Mr. David Anderson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Westlock—St. Paul for this timely question. The Minister of Natural Resources is in Europe this week to advocate in favour of Canadian jobs and Canadian natural resources. The Leader of the Opposition takes a very different position. He said yesterday that he agrees with the claim that our resources are a curse. First a disease, then a curse. This is a real embarrassment to all of us that the NDP never misses a chance to oppose Canadian jobs. Our government is determined to defend Canadians, Canadian jobs and Canadian communities.

I am not saying that scripted questions never occur in the UK House of Commons. They do, of course, as we can see from this exchange from today’s PMQs:

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Occasionally, one should be grateful. May I warmly commend my right hon. Friend for being the first Conservative Prime Minister ever to commit to a referendum on Europe and for leading a Government who have done more than any other to tackle welfare dependency, to reduce immigration and to bring in academies, thereby showing that one can be Conservative, popular and right all at the same time?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and may I, on behalf of everyone in the House, congratulate him on his richly deserved knighthood? He has served in this House for many decades and also in the vital role of overseeing the Public Accounts Committee, which does such important work in our parliamentary system. I am grateful for what he says about the referendum and I would urge all colleagues to come to the House on 5 July and vote for this Bill.

I don’t know if the above question was scripted for the MP, but it certainly is a very friendly one. Other Conservative MPs, however, don’t shy away from raising concerns they have with the government’s stated policy:

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Some of us on the Government Benches believe that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars, including the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, with 30,000 reservists will prove a false economy. The present Territorial Army mobilisation rate of 40% suggests instead that we need 50,000 reservists, and financial incentives will mean that an ex-regular reservist will be on a better scale of pay than a serving brigadier. Given that we have already raised this matter with the Secretary of State, and further to our letter to the Prime Minister on 9 April, will my right hon. Friend meet us to discuss this and other concerns, including the wisdom of this policy in this increasingly uncertain world?

The Prime Minister: I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss these and other issues. In the spending review, we produced £1.5 billion to provide the uplift for the Territorial Army that it requires. I am absolutely convinced that it is right to have a different balance between regulars and reserves, as other countries have done, but obviously it is absolutely vital that we get that new recruitment of our reserve forces. That is why the money is there.On the wider issues of defence that I know my hon. Friend cares about, we will have some of the best equipped forces anywhere in the world. We will have the new aircraft carriers for our Navy, the hunter killer submarines, the joint strike fighter and the excellent Typhoon aircraft, and the A400M will soon be coming into service. Our troops in Afghanistan now say that they are better equipped, better protected and better provided for than they have ever been in our history.

In fairness, it should be noted that the current Standing Orders of the Canadian House of Commons do not require that a minister answer a question put to him or her. Consequently, as Andrea Ulrich observes, “many  of  the  responses  do  not  contain  an  answer.” While many regular observers of Question Period in Ottawa would like to see the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons disallow questions and, more importantly, answers the way Speaker Bercow does, given that ministers here aren’t even obligated to reply at all, what rule would the Speaker be attempting to enforce?

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  • pp549

    In all fairness, this is a very new move for Bercow. Before now, Speakers have traditionally ruled that ministers’ replies are their own business (more fool them).

    New Zealand does it far better than any other model I’ve seen though; under Speaker Lockwood Smith, ministers would be forced to actually substantively answer the question they were asked. Now that would be a real change!

    • http://thoughtundermined.com Radical Centrist

      PMQs aside, which I consider to be more of a show than an actually useful proceeding, I do find that during the ministry-specific daily questions which start each parliamentary day in the UK, the ministers do give substantive answers to the questions they’re asked. The daily oral questions are very staid affairs compared to PMQs – the chamber is often fairly empty depending which ministry is up for questions that day – but at least the MPs who are present are there because they have an interest in what that ministry does, and the ministers do provide actual answers.

      • pp549

        You’re quite right; most departmental questions are answered very well, but PMQs should be about more than theatre. However useful questions to departmental ministers are (and they are very useful), a question to the prime minister can provoke a more powerful government response, elicit more information and promote the questioner’s cause further than in a departmental question time. For that to be denied to opposition members simply because of the purely theatrical partisanship on these occasions is inappropriate and quite unfair.