Recently, I had the opportunity to attend in person a session of Question Period at one of Canada’s provincial legislatures.
I have watched television coverage of this legislature’s proceedings, including Question Period, and knew that it could be rather raucous at times. I was informed afterward that this had been a relatively quiet day, which made my observations that much more distressing.
When you watch this legislature’s proceedings on television, it seems to be a fairly orderly process, most of the time. The cameras focus only on the person speaking, meaning that you very rarely get any wide angle shots that allow you to see what is going on in the chamber as a whole. Also, the television broadcast picks up mostly only the sound from the microphone of the person speaking, so while you can hear some background noise (meaning comments, jeers, etc., from other members), this doesn’t drown out the person speaking. Consequently, this leaves the viewer with the impression that people in the Chamber are actually paying attention to what is going on.
Sadly, what you experience live is very, very different. What hits you first is how loud it is in the Chamber. In fact, you really cannot hear anything, not the questions, not the answers, not even the Speaker when he intervenes, because of all the heckling, chatting, clapping, jeering and everything else going on. I was sitting in the visitors’ gallery on the government’s side of the Chamber, which made it that much more difficult to hear the ministers when they stood to answer questions, because their backs were to me. However, it was also very difficult most of the time to hear the questions coming from the Opposition side over the heckling from the government side.
The next things that strikes you is that no one seems to be paying any attention to what is going on. I wish this was an exaggeration, but it isn’t. When a member from the Opposition benches would ask a question of a minister, more often than not, that minister would be engaged in a conversation with the colleague sitting next to them, or even worse, sitting behind them, meaning they literally had their back to the person asking the question. The Opposition side is little better, however. They rarely seemed to show any interest in the answer the minister provided. Instead, they too would be busy reading notes, or chatting with colleagues. In fact, the few times someone did seem to be paying close attention to what was being said really stood out because it was the exception, not the norm. I must add, however, that I doubt any of them could have heard much of the exchange over all the jeers, clapping and general cacophony.
What these two points drove home to me was just how scripted, formulaic and, sadly, pointless was the entire exercise. The ministers delivered scripted answers that barely touched on the subject of the questions asked of them, or if they did “directly” address the question, they did so in the most superficial way. The Opposition, meanwhile, didn’t seem to care what answer they received. Their supplementary questions simply harped on the same point over and over again. On rare occasions, they would pick up on something in the answer provided, and pursue it in their supplementary, which would force the minister to move away from their script somewhat and actually engage in a slightly more meaningful exchange, but those instances were few and far between. The worse aspect of Question Period, however, has to be the planted, softball questions that government backbenchers are forced to ask. These are nothing but blatant attempts by the government to score PR points by boasting of its own accomplishments. The Opposition greets these questions with utter scorn. I can’t help but feel that this is a completely humiliating experiencing for a backbencher. They can’t ask questions that might be relevant to their own constituents, about issues facing their constituency; they aren’t granted that right by their party. They are heckled by the opposition members for doing so, and the ministers get extra insults thrown at them for taking such easy questions, but the irony is that should the Opposition party find itself in power, it will do the very same thing with its own backbenchers.
In the end, Question Period is simply one big show for the lights and cameras. There’s no real exchange going on, there’s no real holding the government to account – which is the whole point of oral questions – it’s simply an opportunity for Opposition and government alike to get their soundbites du jour on the air.
I felt particularly embarrassed and bad for the school groups who were there watching. It’s not really anything that’s going to boost anyone’s opinion of politics and politicians.
I’ve never attended Question Period in the federal House of Commons, but after attending this provincial session, I have to think the situation is identical, perhaps even worse in Ottawa. The only real plus with the television coverage from Ottawa is that some camera angles do show the other side’s front bench, which perhaps forces the front bench at least to at least pretend it’s paying more attention. But in this provincial legislature, the members who aren’t speaking know they aren’t on camera, and so there is no attempt to even look remotely interested in the proceedings. To be fair to them, the answers are so scripted, and the questions so fixated on certain talking points, the entire proceeding is excruciatingly boring. That said, I can only imagine how alienating it must be if an Opposition member was trying to ask a serious question (rather than simply trying to score a cheap shot) of a minister, and that minister had their back to them the entire time as they engage in conversation with colleagues instead of paying attention to the question being directed to them.
I think what made it worse is that the members all know it’s just a big show. They lob insults and jeers at each other, but then you see them laughing and grinning at each other (and getting up to talk to each other). To me that indicates there would be no serious interest in trying to make Question Period better in any way – they’re not interested in a serious back and forth exchange. It’s all about cheap shots and soundbites and that suits them all just fine.
I regularly live-stream both Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), and other Oral Questions sessions from the UK House of Commons, and my overall impression of what transpires at Westminster is infinitely more positive. I don’t doubt now that it’s probably a different experience in person, but there are several factors that I think make the entire process more productive at Westminster. At the top of my list would be the seating arrangements. In Canada (both federally and in the provincial legislatures), our politicians sit behind desks, at assigned seats. At Westminster, the front bench (and everyone else) really do sit on a bench. They have no desks, so can’t sit there with newspapers and briefing materials and other distractions spread out before them. There aren’t assigned seats – whichever ministry is up for Questions that day positions itself accordingly. This has benefits beyond Oral Questions. During debates on other matters, when most cabinet ministers are not in the Chamber, the front benches are filled by other MPs. In the Canadian House of Commons and in provincial legislatures, members must stay in their assigned seats, making the absences of top ministers glaringly obvious. In fact, it makes the absences of many members very obvious to the viewer. At least in the UK, members can reposition themselves to occupy the main benches on both sides of the House.
I like the dispatch box. Of course, it’s only the minister answering the question and the members of the shadow cabinet that actually go to the dispatch box to ask and answer questions – other MPs ask questions from where they are sitting – but it results in a much smaller divide between the two. This smaller space, combined with benches gives me the impression that there is a more genuine willingness to both ask serious questions and a greater onus on the government side to provide actual answers. The desks uses in Canada act as a barrier, a defensive line each side can hide behind.
Government backbenchers at Westminster can also more freely lob questions not only at ministers, but also at the Prime Minister during PMQs. I’m not saying there aren’t ever any “planted” questions of the kind we have in Canada, but if a government backbencher has a legitimate concern affecting their constituency, they can freely question the minister or PM.
Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the Atlantic. While I might find what transpires in the UK preferable to what we experience in Canada, that doesn’t mean everyone in the UK is satisfied with the state of their Question Period, as I’ve previously posted about.