On helping the Speaker clean up Question Period

The CBC’s parliamentary reporter, Kady O’Malley, has put forward a few suggestions on how to encourage the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons to take on a more activist role during Question Period.

Her first suggestion is that once elected Speaker, the Speaker should resign both caucus and party. Currently, the Speaker does resign from caucus, but he or she does not resign from their political party. While they do tend to stay away from purely political party events, Kady’s new rule would require that they go further, avoiding all partisan activity including attending party conferences and local federal funding announcements, which currently is not the case.

In the UK, the Speaker of House of Commons resigns from his or her party. They do not partake in any political activity. Come the general election, a UK Speaker runs not under a party banner, but as “Mr. Speaker” (or Madam Speaker as the case may be) on the ballot paper. By convention, the larger parties will refrain from running a candidate against the Speaker, although this is not always observed and smaller parties do not feel bound by this convention. Here in Canada, Kady proposes that come election time:

it would be up to the Speaker’s former party to determine whether to allow rejoining the team for the campaign; otherwise, the Speaker would have to run as an Independent, although almost certainly with a higher profile than is the case for most non-cabinet candidates.

In most cases, however, it’s likely the party would happily allow a once-and-future Speaker to carry its colours, even if he or she intended to run again as Commons referee. It would be up to the individual to decide just how partisan to be on the campaign trail.

It should be noted that this was attempted once before. Upon becoming Speaker in 1966, Lamoureux, a Liberal, resigned from his party. Lamoureux chose to run as an Independent in the 1968 general election; both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives agreed not to nominate candidates in his riding, but the NDP refused to withdraw its candidate. Lamoureux again ran as an Independent in the 1972 general election, and this time both the PCs and the NDP ran candidates against him. Without all party agreement to not run against sitting Speakers in general elections, however, Lamoureux’s wish for Canada to follow the British precedent was doomed, and future Speakers would not repeat his attempt to run as an Independent.

Maybe Kady’s solution would work, letting the Speaker temporarily rejoin his or her party for an election, but it would be better if the Speaker remained completely independent and that our major parties could agree to not field candidates against Mr or Madam Speaker. While I’m generally in favour of the Speaker resigning from his or her political party, I’m not entirely clear how this would have any impact on the conduct of Question Period, unless Kady thinks it would avoid accusations of bias or partisanship. If that’s her point, I would have to point out that UK House of Commons Speaker Bercow, a Conservative before he became Speaker, is regularly accused by Conservatives of showing bias in favour of the opposition. Simply resigning from one’s party will not avoid accusations of bias.

Kady’s second suggestion is that unruly MPs be hit with a monetary penalty. The current problem (one of many) is that the only real option available to the Speaker to penalize a particularly disruptive MP is to name him or her. Once named, the MP is then banned from the House for the remainder of the day (at a minimum). This has been viewed as a rather extreme penalty by previous Speakers, and former Speaker Milliken would also point out that a named Member would actually garner more publicity because they would leave the Chamber and immediately go talk to the media. They would then get the rest of the day off to do as they wished. To many, this didn’t really sound like much of a penalty.

Kady’s suggestion would see an MP called to the Bar of the House and forced to pay a small fine – the parliamentary equivalent of a swear jar. The point here is that being thus publicly humiliated, the MP would be less likely to engage in disruptive behaviour. Another option would be to adopt a procedure used in the Australian House of Representatives – sin binning. You can read about it in detail in that post, but essentially, rather than ban an MP for the remainder of the parliamentary day, in Australia, they are sent off for one hour – a parliamentary version of a time out, shall we say. This might have some impact; certainly the public outcry over recent events during Question Period in Canada seems to have goaded MPs into taking the procedure a bit more seriously, at least for now.

Kady’s last suggestion is the one I find most problematic. She suggests electing Speakers for a session rather than the full parliament:

Once elected, it is effectively impossible to hold a Speaker accountable to the House. Their rulings cannot be appealed, nor their actions or reactions publicly criticized without risking a contempt charge.

Holding a new election at the start of each new session, and not just at the opening of a new Parliament, would virtually guarantee MPs would have at least one opportunity to render a collective verdict on the Speaker’s performance midway through a parliamentary term.

(The rule could even include a proviso that an election be held not more than three years from the start of a new Parliament, on the off chance a particular government doesn’t get around to proroguing the House.)

That would ensure a Speaker remains keenly aware of the need to maintain the confidence of MPs should he or she want to keep the job.

I don’t see how this would strengthen the Speakership at all, much less do anything to improve Question Period. If anything, I would think it might make the Speaker more submissive. The problem for the Speaker would be to determine if MPs really did want him or her to crack down on abusive behaviour in Question Period. Perhaps the Opposition would, but maybe the Government side would not. If the Government side has a majority, they alone could easily dispose of a Speaker who was trying to better enforce existing rules. I just think that this would leave the Speaker trying so hard not to displease anyone that in the end, he or she would be even less likely to take decisive action.

My ideas for improving Question Period would include the following.

1. Get rid of the party quotas/rotation

Currently, Question Period in Ottawa is organized around parties. Most days, the Official opposition gets 26 questions, the 3rd party gets 9, government backbenchers get 3 and one question is reserved for the various “independents”. Why? All MPs should get an equal chance at questioning ministers. Party affiliation shouldn’t matter at all. The easiest way to by-pass this system is by adopting reform #2.

2. Adopt the UK’s shuffle to determine which MPs would get to ask questions

This would make it more difficult for whips to control what gets asked and give MPs more freedom to ask questions that they might actually want to ask — questions that might actually be of interest to their constituents. It would also empower backbenchers from all parties since opposition frontbenchers wouldn’t dominate Question Period they way they currently do.

3. Change the time limits

Currently, MPs have 35 seconds to ask their question, and ministers have 35 seconds to deliver their answer. I would cut the time for the question to maybe 10-15 seconds – whatever it takes to eliminate all possibilities of any sort of preamble or context-framing. It shouldn’t take more than 10 seconds to ask a simple, straightforward question. I would also give more time to ministers to deliver an answer that consists of more than just a soundbite.

4. Ban parliamentary secretaries from answering questions

I don’t know why parliamentary secretaries are allowed to answer questions. Overall responsibility and accountability lie with the Minister, not the parliamentary secretary. The Minister also remains responsible for the direction of public servants and departmental resources, and has authority to initiate departmental actions, which is why only ministers should be answering questions. If a certain minister is not present one day, then another minister should be designated to take questions on his or her behalf.

5. Questions should be tabled in advance

This would ensure that 1) questions were in order, thus eliminating questions about matters that do not fall under a minister’s area of responsibility (e.g. questions about the opposition party’s policies or the Senate, etc.);  and 2) that ministers would have some advance notice of what they would be asked and could prepare comprehensive responses.

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