Recently in the Canadian House of Commons, the Leader of the Official Opposition vented his frustration over the repeated non-answers to questions he was receiving from the Government side during Question Period on the Speaker. After first pleading for the Speaker to enforce the House’s rules on relevancy and repetition, he then openly questioned the Speaker’s impartiality. This caused the Speaker to deny the Leader of the Opposition his final two questions in the rotation.
The next day, before Question Period began, the Speaker delivered a statement to the House in which he explained that the rules on relevancy and repetition did not apply to Question Period, and that the numerous rulings in the past had clearly established that it was not up to the Speaker to decide if the content of an answer satisfied the question asked. Indeed, the Speaker has no say over the content of answers unless they contain unparliamentary language or a clear attack on another Member. He reminded the House that he had previously suggested to them that if they were not happy with the rules governing Question Period, the House was free to modify them and he invited them to do just that in order to provide the Chair with clearer, stronger rules to enforce. He also repeated the oft-heard “It is called question period, not answer period,” as if that alone justified everything.
But would it make any difference if it was called “answer period”?
Interestingly enough, in the UK House of Commons, the daily oral question time is actually called “Oral Answers to Questions”. Regular readers of this blog know that I am very fond of how the UK does oral answers to questions. Overall, I think UK MPs do receive better quality answers to the questions they ask. Is this attributable to the fact that they call their question time “Oral answers to Questions”? If we go by Canadian belief, then yes, that would be the reason. Obviously, if we changed the name of Question Period to Answer Period, everything that is currently wrong would become right overnight, yes? Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated.
There are a myriad of procedural and cultural differences between oral questions in the UK and oral questions in Canada that explain why I personally think the UK system is better. One of the problems in Canada has to do with the questions themselves. The subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the Government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions. Too often, in the Canadian House of Commons, opposition MPs will ask questions that have nothing to do with government business. Examples include questions about the internal administration of the Senate or questions about the internal workings of the political party currently forming the government. Neither of these are government business, and the Speaker, even with our apparently very lax rules surrounding Question Period, would be well within his or her right to disallow such questions. Similarly questions from MPs from the same party currently forming the government frequently ask questions which are nothing more than attacks on the opposition’s policies or leader. These too should be disallowed by the Speaker.
In the UK, MPs have to table their questions with the Table Clerks for review before they can be included in the lottery. Inappropriate questions will be disallowed. Of course, this procedure applies only to the main questions which will then appear on the Order paper – MPs are free to ask any supplementary question once the Minister has answered the main question. While there are many rules governing tabled questions, there are few rules for oral supplementaries. However, the Speaker will call the MP to order if the supplementary is wide of the original question, if they refer to matters sub judice, or if they clearly have nothing to do with the minister’s responsibilities.
This is one of the biggest problems for Speakers, both in the UK (regarding supplementaries only) and Canada. The reality is that it is often difficult to tell if a question will be out of order until the MP asking it is a fair way into asking it. That said, it should be relatively easy to quickly identify questions from the government side which invite Ministers to comment on Opposition policies.
Because the main questions asked to Ministers in the UK are tabled a minimum of three days in advance, this gives ministers time to prepare actual answers. And for the most part, MPs do receive actual answers to their questions. MPs in Canada can give notice to Ministers of specific questions they intend to ask; I don’t know if any of them do actually do this, and I don’t know if it would result in an actual, factual answer if they did. But even when questions are pre-submitted, as is the case in the UK, the reality is that the Speaker is, most of the time, not in a position to judge if the answer provided adequately addressed the question asked. He or she is not privy to the Minister’s briefing notes; he or she does not sit in on cabinet briefings, etc. Granted, in some cases (particularly here in Canada), it will be blatantly obvious that the Minister is simply not answering the question asked; but in most cases, the Speaker is not in a position to make that assessment, and that is why repeated rulings here in Canada have maintained that is is not the Speaker’s role to judge the content of answers.
The UK House of Commons also favours a strong Speaker. I have not done a side-by-side comparison of the Standing Orders to ascertain if the UK House of Commons’ rules actually do give more power to the Speaker, but there seems to be a greater respect for, and expectation that the Speaker will ensure that the rules of the House and proceedings in the House are respected. The UK House of Commons Speaker can and will cut short over-long supplementary questions and ministerial answers. He or she has full control over how many supplementaries are asked. In Canada, this is all pre-decided by an established quota and rota between the parties – the Speaker can’t decide to give more questions to one side or the other, or extra supplementaries. In the UK, while 2-3 supplementaries is the norm, if the subject of a question is one on which the government is vulnerable, the Speaker is free to decide to allow several more supplementary questions, including often hostile ones from the government’s own side – which would never happen in Canada.
Another issue in Canada is the time limits. Questions and answers in Canada are limited to 35 seconds each. That reality alone will severely curtail how detailed an answer a minister can give, assuming he or she wanted to provide a detailed answer in the first place. In the UK, there are no fixed time limits. In 2002, the Procedure Committee conducted a review of parliamentary questions, including the tendency for both supplementary questions and ministers’ replies to be on the long side. The Committee fully supported the Speaker’s attempts to restrain MPs and ministers from abusing the time of the House, and in encouraging “more incisive, tightly focused exchanges.” The reality is that shorter questions are more focused. They have to be. Questions asked in Canada, even with the 35-second time limit, too often included pointless preambles. Rambling, unfocused questions make it easier for ministers to provide equally unfocused answers.
I could go on, but there is something else that we should maybe consider. It is repeatedly said (and I have said so myself) that the point of oral questions is to allow the opposition to seek information from the government and to hold the government to account. And, in the past, this was probably accurate. The question is, is this still the right way to look at Question Period? The former Clerk of the UK House of Commons, in his seminal guide “How Parliament Works” (6th ed 2006 – a 7th edition will be released later this year), takes a different view:
Question Time is above all a political exchange; it is not about seeking information, which is what written questions are for. Oral questions are about exposing and criticising, or helping and supporting. (p. 327-8)
We frequently dismiss Question Period as nothing more than a show, or a circus — and maybe that’s all it is now. Maybe Sir Robert Rogers is right; it’s not about seeking information, it’s a contest of duelling party manifestos. It’s the only part of the parliamentary day that receives any real media attention, therefore are we really surprised that MPs will favour soundbites over substance? This is another advantage the UK system has over Canada’s: Prime Minister’s Questions. PMQs is the circus, the weekly equivalent of our daily Question Period. The other daily answers to oral questions in the UK House of Commons, the ones to ministers other than the Prime Minister, remain very respectful, informative, affairs – if somewhat boring. Is that the answer for Canada? Isolate the show – the Prime Minister – have him questioned separately once a week, and adopt a departmental rotation for the other ministers as they do in the UK? It seems to work pretty well over there and certainly, things couldn’t possibly get much worse over here, could they?