Why a Canadian PMQs isn’t a good idea

The new Canadian Liberal Government led by Prime Minister Trudeau is exploring creating a “Prime Minister’s Question Period”. While no details are available yet — they are in the process of negotiating with the opposition parties — one assumes it would be similar to Britain’s Prime Minister’s Questions, or PMQs, that weekly half-hour where the Prime Minister alone takes questions from MPs from all sides.

Much of the punditry discussion of implementing a similar procedure here in Canada tends to focus on the issue that, if he appeared in the House only once a week for questions, the Prime Minister would be less accountable to the House. Currently, for those who don’t follow Canadian politics much, all Ministers, including the PM, appear daily for Question Period. At least in theory they do. The reality is that Prime Ministers in the past don’t attend every single day. The previous Prime Minister tended to avoid Mondays and Fridays (in fairness, most ministers avoided Friday’s Question Period — leaving mostly parliamentary secretaries to answer on their behalf). A Canadian PMQs (which I will refer to as CPMQs to distinguish them from PMQs) would further limit the PM’s appearance at Question Period, and this is what concerns most people. What if, for example, the CPMQs  takes place on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, some Big Thing happens that the House would likely want to raise with the PM during Question Period? Would they have to wait until the following week to be able to do so?

I don’t wish to belittle this concern, as the Canadian House of Commons does not have two other procedures used in the UK to hold ministers, including the PM to account, namely the Urgent Question and Ministerial Statements. Yes, yes, I know we do have ministerial statements, but as I’ve explained in detail previously, our ministerial statements are rather pointless. They certainly do not provide any opportunity for questioning of the minister delivering the statement by MPs, as is the case in the UK. So yes, replacing the potential of having the PM attend Question Period on a daily basis (which wouldn’t happen anyway), with a once-a-week appearance would create a void, unless we also reformed ministerial statements (or went back to the way we used to do them), or introduced something like the UK’s Urgent Question.

That said, there are a number of other issues with the proposal for a CPMQs that no one is talking about, and I want to address those.

First, I have to admit that I don’t really get Canadians’ fixation with PMQs. PMQs in the UK is generally not well liked, as it shows off the House of Commons as its most boorish worst. Speaker John Bercow has said of PMQs:

As far as most of the public is concerned, Prime Minister’s Questions is the shop window of the House of Commons. The media coverage of that thirty minute slot dominates all other proceedings in Parliament during the rest of the week. If the country comes to an adverse conclusion about the House because of what it witnesses in those exchanges, then the noble work of a dozen Select Committees will pale into insignificance by comparison. If we are serious about enhancing the standing of the House in the eyes of those whom we serve then we cannot ignore the seriously impaired impression which PMQs has been and is leaving on the electorate. It is the elephant in the green room.

There will be some of my colleagues who I expect, very sincerely, to disagree with me. They argue that PMQs is splendid theatre, that it is secretly loved by those watching on television and that it is even therapeutic for parliamentarians to let their lungs loose on a weekly basis. I have to say that I find this argument utterly unconvincing. On the basis of its logic, bear-baiting and cock-fighting would still be legal activities. To my mind, the last nail in the coffin of the case for PMQs as it occurs today was hammered in by the leaders’ debates during the general election campaign. The rules for those encounters included, you may recall, a prohibition on cheering or chanting from the audience. Does anyone plausibly contend that the cut and thrust of debate between messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg suffered as a consequence? Did anybody at home feel short-changed by the absence of cat-calling?

Later in the same speech, Bercow notes:

We reached the point where almost nothing was deemed beyond the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day, where the party leaders were responsible for a third of all the questions asked (and often more like 50 to 60% of the total time consumed) all set against a background of noise which makes the vuvuzela trumpets of the South African World Cup appear but distant whispers by comparison.

This is the first issue I have with the idea of a Canadian PMQs: that almost nothing will be deemed beyond the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister. In my view, this is already the case. The PM is typically asked questions that would best be addressed to and answered by another minister. The problem is that there is no job description for the post of Prime Minister. The now-defunct UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee produced a report in the 2014-15 session entitled The Role and Powers of the Prime Minister. In that report, the Committee attempted to clarify exactly what the PM is responsible for. To that end, the report includes a draft Prime Minister (Office, Role and Functions) Bill, which  attempts to identify the functions for which the Prime Minister ” shall be accountable to Parliament”. I honestly can’t say I fully agree with their list, but that only highlights the problem — is it even possible to define the role of the Prime Minister?

We are early into this new Parliament in Canada, and, as of writing, there have been only three Question Periods. The Prime Minister has attended all three, answering a total of 31 questions over the three days (out of a total of 120 questions — 40 each day). Most of those were from the Leader of the Official Opposition and the leader of the third party, but he also answered a few from actual backbenchers. Of the questions put to the Prime Minister, I would argue that only a handful were actually rightly put to him. The rest should have been put to the Minister responsible for the subject matter of the question. Granted, this is largely subjective on my part, so let me provide a few examples.

On the first day, December 7, 2015, the Leader of the Official Opposition led off with three questions about Canada’s withdrawal from conducting bombing missions against ISIL. My first instinct was that these questions should have been answered by the Minister of Defense, not the PM, but they were phrased in such a way as to emphasize Canada’s international relations and dealings with partner countries. Because of that, and only because of that, I acknowledge that it was acceptable that the PM answer the questions. These were followed by two more questions on the same topic from the Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, again framed against the larger context of Canada’s international relations and dealings with allied countries, so again, appropriate that the PM answer. Next up was the leader of the third party, who led off with a question about greenhouse gases. However, he framed the question (loosely) against the backdrop of the COP21 meetings the PM had recently attended in Paris, and so I will let that one by. His next two questions stayed on this same topic, but minus the international context — focussing more on domestic policy. Those questions, in my view, should have gone to the Minister of the Environment.

The leader of the third party’s next question dealt with restoring home mail delivery, but focused primarily on conflicting statements made by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Public Services. Because of that, I agree that it was appropriate to put to the PM. However, the next day, Mr. Mulcair returned to the same topic, but this time only pressing for a straight answer on whether or not home mail delivery would be restored. That, in my view, should have been put to the Minister of Public Services, not the PM.

On December 8, the Leader of the Official Opposition and the Deputy Leader both asked questions pertaining to financial matters, namely proposed tax cuts and reductions to the Tax-free Savings Accounts. None of those questions should have been answered by the PM, in my view; rather they should have gone to the Minister of Finance.

I could go on with this sort of detailed analysis, but suffice to say that of the 31 questions put to the PM over the first three Question Periods held in this new Parliament, I believe that 17 of those should not have been answered by the PM, but by the responsible minister. One question I think should have been ruled out of order because it dealt with internal party matters, but since it was allowed, then I suppose the PM should have answered it.

Given the above, my concern with an entire Question Period with only the PM answering questions will lead him answering an even greater number of questions that really should go to the appropriate minister. This is a huge problem with PMQs in the UK, as Bercow rightly points out and it is far more noticeable because their daily questions are conducted on a rota — a different ministry each day. Because of the rota system for all departments, the questions posed to other ministers are always on point — if only the Minister for Work and Pensions is taking questions, you aren’t about to ask him about environmental matters. But given the ill-defined yet seemingly all-encompassing nature of the role of the Prime Minister, it seems no topic is out of place.

Our current Question Period is already dominated by front benches of the opposition parties. In the UK, oral questions are considered an opportunity for MPs — backbenchers — to hold the government to account, and that is the striking thing about the departmental questions — the shadow critic is there, but maybe asks at most 1-2 questions. They don’t have a specific slot or quota of questions either since they aren’t included in the lottery used to determine which MPs will put questions to ministers. The Speaker will recognize them to ask a supplementary at some point. Departmental questions in the UK House of Commons are very much dominated by backbench MPs. PMQs is the exception to this. During PMQs, the Leader of the Opposition has a quota of questions (six). The leader of the 3rd largest party is entitled to 2 questions. As Speaker Bercow noted, that adds up to “a third of all the questions asked (and often more like 50 to 60% of the total time consumed)”, leaving less time for questions from MPs and ignoring the general rule that question period is supposed to be for backbenchers.

The situation is even worse in the Canadian House of Commons. Over the first three Question Periods of this new Parliament, only a third of the questions asked were asked by backbenchers. The majority were asked by frontbenchers — shadow critics. Caveat: technically speaking, only the Official Opposition party has shadow critics; the members of the third party, apart from the leader, would all be backbenchers. However, the third party has named critics, and every single member of the third party caucus has a critic’s role, which means there are no third party backbenchers. Consequently, I am counting all questions from third party MPs as “frontbench” questions.

My concern with a Canadian version of PMQs is that it would be even more dominated by the leaders of the other parties and their frontbenches. Unless some mechanism were introduced, such as the UK’s lottery system to choose who gets to ask questions, I fear that a CPMQs would morph into a weekly rehash of an election campaign leaders’ debate. And while that might actually appeal to some, that is not the point and purpose of oral questions.

Which leads me to Bercow’s last criticism of PMQs, that it is “set against a background of noise which makes the vuvuzela trumpets of the South African World Cup appear but distant whispers by comparison”.

As I attempted to explain above, PMQs is the most boorish of all proceedings that take place in the UK House of Commons. It is also very similar in tone and boorishness to our current Question Period. That is why I find it rather baffling that so many Canadians want to emulate what many will argue is the worst thing that currently takes place in the UK House of Commons. If we want to improve our Question Period, we’d be far better off adopting every other aspect of their oral questions procedure, but not PMQs. By that I mean having departmental rotas, using a lottery to decide which MPs get to ask questions (which would do away with those asinine party lists), having the questions (most of them anyway) pre-submitted so that ministers can prepare substantive answers to them, strictly limiting, if not all but eliminating, the role of frontbenchers and giving the Speaker full control over who to call on to ask supplementals.

Of course, we’d also need to develop some sort of mechanism by which a minister could be called to the floor of the House to address an urgent matter as needed, such as the Urgent Question. It would make no sense to force the House to wait for a week or two for that department’s next appearance at Question Period. But that is easily done.

So yes, while decreased accountability is certainly a valid concern with the possible implementation of a Canadian PMQs, it isn’t the only concern. I don’t think a CPMQs would do anything to enhance Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons and I cannot stress enough that of all of the UK House of Commons procedures to emulate, this really is the last one on my list.


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