Do we need a Peoples’ PMQs?

UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently floated the idea of a weekly “public question time” where an audience representative of the country would question the prime minister on any issue of the day.

Miliband was a bit short on details regarding how this would work. Apart from stating that the audience should be representative of the country, the only other details he provided was that the public PMQs should be held in parliament at least every two weeks, but preferably weekly.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, how would these people – representative of the country – be selected? Would it be a completely random process, you know, sort of like being chosen for jury duty? Or would interested persons be invited via a website or social media to put their name in? If the latter, self-selection, then you’re not going to end up with an audience “representative of the country.” You’re going to end up with an audience full of political partisans and people with specific causes and agendas.

As Dan Hodge rightly notes in this column:

The vast majority of British voters have zero interest in Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor, once the initial novelty had worn off, would they have any more interest in watching People’s Questions. It’s only politicians who think the weekly interrogation of politicians is of major national significance.

This is the reality of our times: most people – most ordinary people “representative of the country” just don’t care enough – or at all – about politics. They’d have no interest in participating in a Peoples’ PMQs. The only people who would be keen on participating, as I stated above, would be partisans and people with vested interests. The sad truth is that people who are really keen on politics aren’t the majority. And if you end up with an audience full of partisans, the questions won’t be any more enlightening than what you currently get in PMQs. Case in point: when this story came out in the UK, the Guardian put up an open thread column asking “What would you ask David Cameron?” If you’re not familiar with the Guardian, suffice it to say that the vast majority of its readers do not like the Tories. The paper is strongly associated with the Labour Party, and its readers are decidedly left-of-centre. A quick perusal of some of the suggestions quickly demonstrates what sort of questions partisans would ask.

I admit that I am very leery of “real people” questions. There has been an extremely annoying trend here in Canada regarding leaders’ debates during election campaigns, where the normal practice of having the party leaders face questions from a panel of seasoned journalists has been replaced with asking questions from “ordinary” Canadians. The problem with this is that, as I’ve said, most people aren’t really into politics, and the questions that are asked often tend to be rather non-specific, and often inappropriate. A lot of “ordinary” people will ask federal party leaders questions about education and healthcare, which aren’t federal responsibilities. Yes, the federal government provides funding to the provinces to be used for education and healthcare, but Ottawa’s ability to do much in those areas is quite limited. I do miss the days when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would simply sneer at those questions and dismiss them with “That’s not a federal responsibility, it’s provincial” and refuse to say more, while the other federal leaders would try to wax poetic about grandiose plans over something they really couldn’t do much about. I would think any sort of “Peoples PMQs” wouldn’t be much better.

Another issue is simply that this idea looks like an attempt to by-pass Parliament. MPs are elected to represent people – it is their job to hold the PM and the Cabinet to account. If citizens have certain concerns about a government policy, they can (and should) contact their MP and that MP should try to get answers on behalf of his or her constituents from the relevant government minister, including the PM. There are a number of UK MPs who, once they learn that they’ll be allotted a question during PMQs (because the names of MPs are drawn in a lottery), ask for suggestions for questions on Twitter and other social media. Whether or not they actually use any of the questions suggested to them by their followers, I don’t know, but I do regularly see them on Twitter inviting people to suggest questions.

UK party leaders are already quite accessible to the public (especially compared to Canadian party leaders). Before he became PM, David Cameron held a regular number of Q&A sessions in marginal ridings. He has continued this practice since becoming PM (here’s a recent one from this year). Yes, these aren’t always public events or televised, so not the same as a Peoples’ PMQs, but my point here is that at least the PM is regularly going out and talking to people, being questioned by them. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has a weekly radio call-in show.

Every single minister regularly appears before his or her department’s select committee for questioning (including the PM, who appears before the Liaison Committee a couple of times each session – you can watch his most recent appearance here. More and more of these committees have also turned to Twitter and other social media to invite “ordinary people” to submit questions to be put to the Minister. They will often reserve the last 20 or so minutes of the session for questions submitted by the public. Here’s an interesting assessment of the very first time this was attempted back in 2012, by the Education Committee.

I don’t disagree with Ed Miliband and others that there is too often a disconnect between elected officials and the general public, but I don’t think that a Peoples’ PMQs will really do much to change that. My gut feeling is that a lot of people, probably a majority of people, will never be that interested in politics in general, and gimmicks won’t change that.

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On reforming PMQs

The UK’s Hansard Society released a report examining public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) and asking whether PMQs is a ‘cue’ for their wider negative perceptions of Parliament. Some of the key findings include:

  • 67% of respondents agree that ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’ – 5% disagree
  • 47% agree that PMQs ‘is too noisy and aggressive’ – 15% disagree
  • 33% agree ‘it puts me off politics’ – 27% disagree
  • 20% agree that ‘it’s exciting to watch’ – 44% disagree
  • 16% agree that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs – 48% disagree
  • 12% agree that PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’ – 45% disagree

Reaction to the report in the UK has been quite interesting. Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has long called for an overhaul of PMQs. For example, he delivered a speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies back in 2010 wherein he provides an interesting history of how Prime Minister’s Questions has evolved, looks at past (failed) attempts to reform it, and outlines what he considers to be the main problems with PMQs today:

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. If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screetch which is a very strange concept to my mind. The academic analysis does not make for enjoyable reading either. A survey by the Regulatory Policy Institute of all PMQs posed in 2009 concluded that the Prime Minister had answered only 56 per cent of all questions asked of him. If it seems harsh to cite Gordon Brown in this fashion then it should be observed that the same survey determined that only 56 per cent of the questions asked of him were actually genuine questions in the first place. What the detailed exercise revealed, depressingly, was that PMQs had become a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum. It was emphatically not an act of scrutiny conducted in a civilised manner.

Speaker Bercow also identifies three steps that could be taken to address what ails PMQs, namely:

  1. Change the culture. “It would require the Prime Minister and a new Leader of the Opposition, as so nearly happened in 1994, to agree on a common understanding of behaviour, one which offered teeth to our existing code of conduct which states unequivocally that “Members shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner which will tend to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertake any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute”.”
  2. Shift the focus back to backbenchers. “If the session is to remain 30-minutes long, the next Leader of the Opposition could usefully ask whether he or she truly needed as many as six questions of the Prime Minister in order to land a blow or whether, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, three or four would do instead.”
  3. The content of the encounter. “Is it the right device for ensuring effective scrutiny? Does it need to be supplemented by other institutions? Are open questions posed in the vain attempt to catch a Prime Minister out actually the best means of inquiry?”

In response to the recent Hansard Society report, Speaker Bercow sent a letter to the three party leaders asking them to curb the “yobbish” behavious of their own MPs during PMQs. He has received favourable responses from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, and a more cautious reply from Prime Minister Cameron. Some MPs are in full agreement with both the Hansard Society report and Speaker Bercow, while others have essentially told him to stop whining about PMQs.

There have been many suggestions put forward regarding how to improve PMQs, both on blog posts and in the comments section on media coverage of the Hansard Society report. Some of the suggestions put forward on this blog post on the Liberal Democrat Voice blog are quite typical. The most popular seems to be giving the Speaker more power to make the PM actually answer the question asked/allow the speaker to decide that a question hasn’t been answered. While understandable that people get frustrated by non-answers that don’t directly address the content of the question asked (and the problem is far greater during the Canadian House of Commons Question Period), there is a problem here. In some instances, it will be very obvious that the PM’s answer completely ignores the main (or entire) thrust of the question. In other instances, however, this will be less obvious. The reality is that the Speaker is not in a position to know if a question has been “properly” or “fully” answered because he or she is not the minister and is not briefed on that matter and simply does not know how much information the minister is in a position to make public at that time. That would call for a subjective judgement call by the Speaker, which no Speaker would want to have to do.

In fairness, Speaker Bercow has shut down the Prime Minister on a few occasions when his answer has started to deviate into obvious non-answer territory, for example, in this exchange from 6 November 2013:

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Many women face discrimination at work when they become pregnant, so how will charging them £1,200 to go to an industrial tribunal help them? Before the Prime Minister has another attack of the Lyntons and starts talking about all the dreadful trade unionists on the Opposition side of the House, I should like to make it clear that I am a trade unionist and damn proud of it.

The Prime Minister: Millions of people in our country can be very proud of being trade unionists. The problem is that they are led so badly by bully-boys—[Interruption.] They are led so badly by people who seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the Leader of the Opposition. That is what we have come to with Unite. They pick the candidates, choose the policy, pick the leader and bully him till they get what they want.

Mr Speaker: Order. Actually, I think the question was about tribunals, if memory serves. [Interruption.] No. It is a good idea to try to remember the essence of the question that was put.

There has also been much concern expressed over “planted” questions. It’s important to understand that planted questions in PMQs aren’t quite the same sort of planted or lob-ball questions Canadians witness from government party backbenchers in the Canadian House of Commons. It is important to remember that which MPs get to ask questions during PMQs is determined by a lottery, therefore the party whips have no control over which or how many of their MPs will get called on. Yes, there are attempts by Number 10 to suggest questions Conservative MPs might want to consider asking, but as I explained in that post, few MPs agree. However, that doesn’t stop some government backbenchers from willingly asking questions that are framed in a way to highlight something positive that the government has done. They do this for a couple of reasons: first, it can be an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the party leadership in the hopes of future promotion, and second, they often use them to highlight something in their own riding and thus promote themselves to their constituents. An example of this could be this question from the Conservative MP from Portsmouth North on 29 January 2014:

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): Portsmouth is an entrepreneurial city, delivering a drop of 25% in jobseeker’s allowance claimants over the past year. With this in mind, is the Prime Minister aware of a commercial plan put forward to the Department of Energy and Climate Change to build a number of specialist vessels designed to revolutionise and facilitate the industrialisation of the tidal energy sector? Does he agree that Portsmouth would be an excellent place to build those ships?

The Prime Minister: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything she has done in recent weeks to highlight the importance of Portsmouth and all matters maritime, in the broadest sense of the word?

I am aware of this interesting project, and I understand there will be a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. It is testament to the excellent reputation of Portsmouth that there is so much interest in this commercial sector, which my hon. Friend, I and the whole Government want to see expand. The appointment of a Minister for Portsmouth, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), will make a big difference. It is good news that the youth claimant count has fallen so quickly in Portsmouth, but we must stick to the economic plan and keep delivering for Portsmouth.

Who is to say if that was a planted question, or one that the Member willingly wanted to ask as it highlighted both her government’s work and her constituency? It certainly isn’t as blatantly “planted” as this exchange from the Canadian House of Commons question period (19 November 2013) which is little more than an excuse to attack the leader of the Liberal Party:

Ms. Joan Crockatt (Calgary Centre, CPC): Mr. Speaker, when it comes to protecting children, our government’s record is unequivocal. We have already passed mandatory prison sentences for child sexual offences, including aggravated sexual assault and Internet luring. Unbelievably, yesterday, when the Liberal leader was asked whether he would repeal these tougher sentences, he said, that he wouldn’t rule out repealing mandatory minimums for anyone. While the Liberals waffle, can the Minister of Justice explain how our government will strengthen sentencing for child sexual offenders?

Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, CPC): Mr. Speaker, while sexual assault against children in Canada is actually on the rise, hearing that the Liberal leader is talking about repealing mandatory sentences for sexual predators is, frankly, appalling. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have passed mandatory prison sentences. This includes an omnibus crime bill that was introduced in 1968 by—wait for it—the then justice minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Our government will soon introduce legislation to ensure multiple child sex offenders serve consecutive sentences. I hope that the Liberal Party and all parties present will support this important protection for Canadian children.

The BBC ponders if PMQs really is getting worse in this rather lengthy piece. The consensus seems to be that things have indeed deteriorated since the 1980s. In another BBC piece, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman looks into the issue, essentially arguing that passionate debate is to be preferred over decorous, consensual debate. She raises the example of Winston Churchill refusing to rebuild the bombed Commons with a circular Chamber because too many earnest parliaments had been destroyed by “the group system.” She also notes that parliament offers plenty of decorous, respectful debate – and no one turns out to watch it. This last point is very true. The House of Commons is always packed for PMQs, with some MPs even sitting in the aisles because there isn’t enough room on the benches to accommodate them all. This presents a sharp contrast with almost all other proceedings in the House – including the departmental oral questions, which are often quite sparsely attended.

My main concern is the fascination Canadians have with PMQs, and the quite prevalent desire to adopt something similar here. In my view, PMQs is the least interesting procedure on offer in the UK House of Commons. I would much rather see the adoption of the rota system for questions to ministers, the introduction of urgent questions, reformed ministerial statements, and changes to the committees system. I don’t see how adopting the most boorish proceeding the UK House of Commons has to offer will improve anything here in Canada.

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Towards a Parliament 2.0

UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow delivered a speech to the Hansard Society (PDF downloadable here) outlining his plans for a Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.

The first part of his speech highlighted the Westminister Spring – the remarkable revival of the UK House of Commons as an institution since the 2010 general election. Mr. Speaker noted that when he became Speaker in 2009,

the House of Commons as a meangingful political institution, an effective legislature, had been in decline for some decades and was close to reaching the point wher eit had become, to distort Walter Bagehot slightly, a diginified part of our constitution without any dignity.


Parliament appaered to have been reduced to the status of a small green room in which men, overwhelmingly men, shouted at each othe rfor relatively short periods of the working week and then disappeared from sight thereafter to do Lord Knows What. Certainly, it was not to strike terror in the hearts of Ministers or offer considreed criticism and surgical scrutiny either of proposed legislation in the Chamber or via the Select Committee system of the implementation of executive policy.

However, as Speaker Bercow explains, “the virtual corpse has staged an unexpected recovery.” He attributes this miracle to three facters: procedural reform, fresh blood and the novelty of coalition government.

In the dying days of the previous Parliament, the House adopted many of the Wright Committee recommendations (of which I have written about many times). These reforms were implemented for the first time in May 2010, following the general election. They include the election of the Deputy Speakers, the election of Select Committee chairs by the whole House, the election of Select committee members by their respective caucuses, and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee.

Added to this is Speaker Bercow’s revival of an existing, but almost extinct, procedure, the Urgent Question UQ), which Speaker Bercow describes as a “parliamentary intrument of inquisition.” I explain Urgent Questions in some detail here, but simply put, it is a procedure which allows any MP on any day to petition the Speaker to demand that a ministry send one of its Ministers to answer some issue or matter that has arisen very suddenly. In the 12 months under Speaker Bercow’s predecessor, only two UQs had been allowed. Since becoming Speaker, Bercow has granted 154.

The revival of the UQ has had another unexpected benefit – Ministers are now far more likely to take the initiative and deliver statements to the House “because they know that if they do not the chance of a UQ is now high.”

The 2010 general election saw a very large intake of new MPs – 227 (out of a total of 650 MPs). These new MPs were more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, career background, etc., that had been true previously. They also brought with them a new attitude – not content to simply sit quietly and do what they were told by party Whips.

Add to this mix the formation of a coalition government – the first in some seventy years, which forced both the government and Parliament to “make up new norms as we have gone along”:

The uncertainty as to what exactly is the correct way to proceed has offered the breathing space for backbench creativity and parliamentary originality which the House Backbench Business Committee chaired by the redoubtable Natascha Engel MP has eagerly exploited. It has also, I conclude, further convinced Select Committees that a more forensic approach to scrutiny is not an act of rebellion or disloyalty to their own political party but a civic obligation.

Speaker Bercow acknowledges that there is still more to do, particularly in the area of setting up a House Business Committee, improving Private Members’ Bills, and perhaps reforming Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). And beyond that, one enormous challenge remains, not only for Westminster, but for all legislatures in the 21st century, namely,

how to reconcile traditional concepts and institutions of representative democracy with the technological revolution which we have witnessed over the past decade or two which has created both a demand for and an opportunity to establish a digital democracy.

And this is where the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy comes in. The Commission will have a core membership supplemented by a circle of around 30 expert Commissioners and will solicit input by the public. it will begin its work in 2014, reporting in early 2015, just before the next general election. Digital democracy initiatives could include:

online voting, e-dialogue between representatives and those they represent, increased interconnectedness between the functions of representation, scrutiny and legislation, multiple concepts of what is a constituency, flexibility about what is debated when and how, and a much more intense pace for invention and adaptation.

Speaker Bercow goes on to explain that digital democracy is a form of “in-reach encouraging and enabling the public to become more involved in the work of Parliament and Parliament responding as a result.” In-reach used to consist of voting once every 4-5 years, but this no longer suffices. He concludes by admitting that his plan is ambitious:

The structure is one which is unfamiliar to the House of Commons, the agenda is potentially vast and the timetable for publication is tight. Universities and even our schools, because this should not be an area deemed exclusive to so-called adults, might not necessarily respond to the call to e-arms, although I suspect that they will not need to be conscripted. The recommendations might not make the impact that they should arriving as they will but a few months before a general election, although I believe that when the new Parliament assembles it will be truly interested in what it means to become a new Parliament more broadly. And technology might turn up in 2020 or 2030 that renders all that we thought before redundant.

None of which should be an alibi for inaction. When I was elected Speaker I made it clear that while I would be a non-partisan figure withinour democracy, I would not be neutral about our democracy. Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative has to be re-examined constantly. It is a process, not an event. I am a passionate advocate of democracy. I do not feel that it is stretching the  nature of the office in which I serve to champion that democracy. I am by choice politically celibatebut I am not a political eunuch. The fantastic people who work in and for the House of Commons arenot party political figures and should not be either but from the top downwards they share my desire to see Parliament and the people connected as closely as humanly possible and we recognise that technology can be our best friend and ally in this regard. All those who care about Parliament, and I  appreciate that with this audience I am preaching to the long-time converted, should want to embrace this  cause and deliver us their thoughts on the development of digital democracy. I am convinced that we can really make a difference.

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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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A video is worth a thousand words

I have written many posts about various procedural measures used in the British House of Commons that I think would be welcomed additions to the Canadian House of Commons. While I have attempted to describe these measures in detail, viewing them in action would probably be far more enlightening. The BBC’s Democracy Live website makes available clips of specific proceedings from the UK House of Commons (and Lords), making it quite easy for me to provide readers with clips of urgent questions, ministerial statements and other proceedings.

Note – I don’t expect anyone to watch any of these in their entirely, but even if you watch them for only 10-15 minutes, you will gain a better sense of what is an urgent question, how oral questions to departments and ministerial statements differ from what we have in Canada, and why I prefer British procedure to what transpires in Canada. Some readers may disagree and prefer Canada’s chaotic (and in my view, rather unproductive) Question Period. That is fine. At the very least, you will better understand these procedures when I write about them in the future.

Oral Questions

When it comes to Oral Questions in the UK House of Commons, most people will immediately think of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) – the weekly half hour where the Prime Minister alone takes questions from the House. The “highlight” of that is of course the 6-question exchange between the PM and the Leader of the Official Opposition.

However, in my view, PMQs is not that interesting, and more of a distraction than anything else. I much prefer the daily Oral Questions to ministers other than the PM. Each day, it is a different ministry (or group of ministries/agencies in the case of some of the smaller departments) which take questions. You can read more about the process here.

The above is the clip of the one hour questions to the Treasury of 8 February 2011. The first thing viewers will notice is that unlike for PMQs, the Chamber isn’t full. There is always sparser attendance for the department-specific oral questions, but at least the MPs who are present are there because they have specific concerns they seek to raise with the Minister. Unlike during Oral Questions in the Canadian House of Commons, where most ministers are present and take questions, only the Minister and parliamentary secretaries associated with the specific ministry facing questions are present. In this clip, we see Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, seated to his right is Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander (the ginger-haired bloke with the glasses), to Osborne’s immediate left are MP Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary, David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, and Justine Greening, who was then Economic Secretary (Ms. Greening has been promoted to a different ministry since, and this position is now held by Chloe Smith). These ministers will alternate answering questions, taking the ones which fall under their areas of responsibility within the ministry.

What you won’t see is a minister refusing to answer a question, or a minister from a completely unrelated department answering a question – common occurrences in the Canadian House of Commons.

Urgent Questions

Because government departments face oral questions on a rotating schedule, with each ministry facing questions once every 2-3 weeks, when an urgent matter arises that falls under the purview of a given ministry, any MP may request an Urgent Question. If the Speaker grants the request, the minister responsible will be summoned to the Chamber immediately following that day’s oral questions and will field questions relating to the urgent matter. These sessions normally last about an hour, but on some occasions, have lasted longer than that.

On Monday, 23 January 2012, the European Union agreed sanctions banning all new oil contracts with Iran and freezing the assets of Iran’s central bank in the EU. The following day, Foreign Secretary William Hague was in the Chamber to answer an urgent question tabled by Conservative Robert Halfon, who wanted to know what action was being taken against the country over its nuclear ambitions. Again, what Canadian viewers will note is that we have one minister taking questions on a specific matter from MPs from all parties.

Ministerial Statements

Ministerial statements in the Canadian House of Commons are, in my view, rather pointless affairs. In Canada, ministers are expected to make brief and factual statements on government policy or announcements of national interest. Members speaking on behalf of parties recognized by the House are normally the ones who speak in response to a Minister’s statement. In responding to the statement, Members are not permitted to engage in debate or ask questions of the Minister. Most ministerial statements tend to focus on commemorative matters (i.e. commemorating Veterans’ Week or the anniversary of some event) and explaining key pieces of government legislation. You can read more about ministerial statements here.

In the UK House of Commons, ministers use ministerial statements to actually brief the House on ongoing developments such as a disaster relief effort, an on-going military engagement, the economy, etc. The minister makes a brief-ish statement to the House, the Shadow minister responds, and asks a series of questions in his or her response, and then any MP can rise and ask a question of the minister. Like urgent questions, ministerial statements usually last about an hour, but the Speaker is free to let them go on longer than that is there is strong interest from a great number of MPs.

For example, on 21 July 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled the House of Commons (which had adjourned for the summer recess the day before) to make a statement to the House in which he updated MPs on the remit of the judicial inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, which will be led by Lord Justice Leveson, and named the members of the panel for the inquiry. Mr. Cameron took questions from MPs for over two hours.

You will note that the House is very well attended for that particular ministerial statement. This isn’t always the case.

Prime Minister’s Questions

For anyone who may not have actually ever seen PMQs, you can catch up with the most recent ones on the UK Parliament’s youtube channel.

Related Posts:

Comparing UK and Canadian House of Commons procedure

Going by the keyword search activity on this blog, there seems to be much interest in comparisons of parliamentary procedure in Canada and the United Kingdom. I have written many posts about various parliamentary proceedings which differ notably in both countries, and so I thought I would regroup that information into one post, with links to the more detailed posts for those who wish to find out more. Please note that this is not a comprehensive explanation of all of the differences between the two countries – I am looking only at major areas of interest. Read more

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PMQs – The Game

For political geeks, summer is tedious. The Canadian House of Commons adjourned for the summer recess back in June, and they won’t be back until 19 September. Luckily, we still had the UK House of Commons sitting into July, but alas, they too adjourned on 20 July. UK MPs will be taking a shorter break than their Canadian counterparts – they’ll be returning to work on 5 September.

However, this still leaves us with six weeks of political void. No debates. No bills to ponder. No Oral Questions to entertain us. It’s enough to make one consider watching archived committee hearings of the Communities and Local Government Committee as they conducted an inquiry into the audit and inspection of local authorities.

Fear not, my political geek friends – someone has come to our rescue. It is with great delight that I share with you Prime Minister’s Questions – The Game.

This was brought to my attention curtesy of the kind souls at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. John Walker provided this entertaining review of the game, and at the end, there is the link to download the zip file. The game is free, simple to install and play, and quite endearing. It features real sound clips of UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow calling everyone to order. You play as Prime Minister David Cameron, deciding how best to reply to the questions put to you by Opposition Leader Ed Miliband. Occasionally, you might also get a question from a backbencher. As Walker notes in his review:

It’s rather clearly a satire on the complete pantomime of PMQ, and its inherent pointlessness since the purpose of the event is for no one to actually answer anyone’s questions at any point. So it is for each question from Ed Milliband, you as David Cameron are required to pick the answer from a list that best sort-of-fits the question asked. None of which actually answer it, of course. Should you not have a question to match you can always try a special move, such as blaming it all on the previous Labour government.

A matching answer is one that in some way loosely references the question without answering it, while ideally insulting the opposition or boasting of your own party’s superiority.

The game’s developer, Mark Richards states in the comments section that:

There is one unique question-answer routine you can do in the game that causes a little upset and Mr. Bercow has to tell them all: “The public don’t like it. And neither do I.”

Anyone who follows UK politics regularly knows that this has become Speaker Bercow’s catchphrase.

I have played through the game a few times now, but haven’t managed to cause said upset. So for all of you out there suffering from PMQ/Oral Questions/Parliamentary Politics withdrawal during the ho-hum days of summer, you now have something to help you survive the next few weeks.

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Perceptions of parliamentary procedure: is the grass really greener?

Last week’s appearance by Rupert and James Murdoch before the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport (which you can view here if you missed it) as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement in the House of Commons the following day (viewable here) received global media attention. Many Canadian journalists who normally report on proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons seemed enthralled by the often small, yet significant differences in how the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons function – the very same differences which I have been writing about here for over a year now.

CBC reporter Kady O’Malley, who regularly liveblogs proceedings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, has since written two posts outlining some of the differences which she observed and, for the most part, would like to see adopted in Canada (first post on committee procedure, second post on procedure in the House of Commons). One highly respected political commentator, Andrew Coyne, national editor of Macleans Magazine, tweeted on July 20 “Everyone should be watching the UK phone-hacking debate, if only to see what a real parliament looks like”.

O’Malley’s post on committee procedure ignores one very important difference between Canadian and UK House of Commons committees: the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental committees and the Environmental Audit, Political and Constitutional Reform, Procedure, Public Administration and Public Accounts committees. Canadian committee chairs are elected by that committee’s members. Similarly, committee members in the UK are elected by their respective caucuses, while members of Canadian committees are appointed by their party whips. I have discussed this in detail in this post, and so I won’t repeat myself here, but it should be fairly obvious to most why having elected chairs and committee members would make for a more responsive and less partisan committee.

There are also a couple of other inaccuracies in O’Malley’s post on committee procedure. UK select committees do allow witnesses to make opening statements or general comments. Some witnesses decline to do so, but others take advantage of the offer. To her credit, Kady notes:

The following observations were inspired by what I saw when I was liveblogging the Home Affairs and Culture Select committees on Tuesday; as we are so often reminded, committees are, of course, masters of their own respective destinies, which means it is distinctly possible that other select committees operate on slightly – or even substantially – different rules.

O’Malley also writes that there aren’t time limits for questions and answers, nor on the length of time witnesses are expected to stick around to answer. Again, this isn’t entirely true. Each committee hearing has a set duration, for example, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30. The committee may well decide to go on longer, or to cut proceedings short. Some witnesses do have to leave at a certain time because of other commitments, and so the committee knows it has only a half hour, or an hour, etc., with that specific witness. It is true, however, that unlike the Canadian House of Commons committees I have watched, the UK committees don’t have time limits for questions and answers.

While Kady O’Malley highlighted some key differences (based on having observed one committee hearing), a recent piece on the BBC website questions if MPs are really up to the task of questioning witnesses, stating that “[T]here had been criticism of earlier hearings for not asking sharp enough questions, or following up lines of enquiry.” One MP defended MP inquiries this way:

“We are asking questions as non-experts, as representatives of the public.

“You can’t prepare those questions in advance because you can’t always anticipate the way that the discussion will go.”

The comment by UK MP Nicola Blackwood that MPs are asking questions “as non-experts” also reminds me of former Prime Minister John Major’s recent calls for reforms to increase the number of MPs with expertise in specific areas, which I discussed in this post.

This is a legitimate criticism of parliamentary committees. For example, there has been much criticism of one MP on the Culture, Media and Sports committee, Louise Mensch, for making some comments during the July 20 hearing accusing former News of the World Editor Piers Morgan of phone hacking because he had supposedly admitted to this in his autobiography. This led to a fierce row between Morgan and Mensch, who refused to repeat the allegations outside of Parliament, where she would no longer be protected by parliamentary privilege. Here in Canada, other committee investigative hearings have been less than stellar. In 2007, the Canadian House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics conducted an investigation into the Mulroney Airbus settlement. The questioning of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by MPs appeared often amateurish and boorish, and Mulroney’s legal counsel, Guy Pratte, described committee hearings as “damaging”:

“At a parliamentary committee there are absolutely no rules. Zero rules. At least at inquiry commissions some rules of fairness apply. Parliamentary immunity means things are said that never would be said if MPs were subject to defamatory libel.”

He remembers New Democrat MP Pat Martin saying to Mulroney: “I won’t call you a liar, but I don’t want anyone here to think that I believe you.” Pratte says, “That sort of thing would never be tolerated in a court of law. Never, never, never!” Mulroney fumed at the insult and his son Ben, the television host, had to be restrained in the audience. “Parliamentary committees play with peoples’ reputations sometimes in a very dangerous and damaging way,” says Pratte. “I understand they have work to do, and it is a political forum. I suppose there is a political advantage to be gained from getting a big headline the next morning.

“I’ve said it many times in the Mulroney affair. It should resemble an ordinary court.” Pratte says. “We should at least try to respect the basic principles of fairness. I wanted to present myself in politics several times, but my experience as much with Mr. Pelletier as Mr. Mulroney left me discouraged by the performance of certain, but not all, MPs and the lack of concern with which they threw out any sort of accusation.”

Kady O’Malley’s second post looked at differences between the UK and Canadian House of Commons in general. On Twitter on July 21, many Canadian journalists were enthralled by the ministerial statement delivered by David Cameron on the phone hacking scandal and the questions and debate which followed. I have also explored the vast differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements, O’Malley, for some reason, did not comment on that at all. While UK ministerial statements are always far more productive affairs than their Canadian counterparts, this one was quite noteworthy: Cameron took 136 questions from MPs during his statement.

It was interesting to see the many comments from Canadians on Twitter, some of whom lamenting that Canada doesn’t have a Prime Minister’s Questions (not that there was a PMQs on 20 July). It reminded me that only days earlier, the Independent had run an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of PMQs. The sub-headline of that article reads: “No other parliament has anything like Prime Minister’s Questions.” Quite a few readers took exception to that and rattled off a series of countries that they said had PMQs: Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, to name a few. It was clear to me that people were confusing a general oral question period where all ministers, including the PM, take questions, which is what both Canada and Australia have, with a questions session where only the PM and no other ministers takes questions. It made me wonder if the Canadian journalists on Twitter, who were expressing such enthusiasm for PMQs, were aware of the UK House of Commons’ other daily questions – the department-specific oral questions, which I’ve written about in detail here. I don’t know if they’d be as impressed by those since they are such staid affairs when compared to PMQs. They should be, however, since again, they are far more productive than the Canadian version of Question Period for both getting information from the government and holding it to account.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally believe that the UK House of Commons functions far better than its Canadian counterpart, but as we all well know, the grass usually does look greener on the other side of the fence – or in this case, ocean. At least one very prominent figure in the UK believes there is still room for further reforms at Westminster.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow spoke to the Guardian and stated that while “MPs and peers have “rediscovered their collective balls” over the phone-hacking affair”, more could be done to strengthen Parliament. First on his list is finding a way to allow Parliament to compel witnesses to appear before committees.

Parliamentary committees (both in the UK and Canada and other jurisdictions) have the power to request witnesses to give evidence to them via an informal invitation issued by the committee clerk or the committee chair. They can also draw on their formal powers to summon witnesses via a Speaker’s warrant. That power is unqualified, “except to the extent that if conflicts with the privileges of the Crown and of Members of the House of Lords, or with the rights of Members of the House of Commons.” (Erskine May, 24th edition, p. 820). Should a witness fail to comply with such a warrant, however, they will be found in contempt of Parliament. In theory, the House of Commons has the power to send for persons whose conduct has been brought before the House on a matter of privilege by an order for their attendance. In practice, however, as Bercow notes, this isn’t really an enforceable power:

“If the Murdochs had refused the warrant to attend, we would have been in an extremely awkward situation. I don’t think there is much we could have done. There has been a complete ambiguity, a lack of clarity, an uncertainty about what our powers are.”

Bercow says select committees should have enforceable powers to compel witnesses in British jurisdiction to attend, and not, as at present, “depend on a toxic blend of bad publicity and the entirely implausible threat of imprisonment.

“I don’t think frankly it should be the Speaker on behalf of the house imprisoning a witness. We have got a creche in the parliamentary estate, but not so far as I know a cell.”

I sort of agree with Bercow that there probably needs to be a better way to compel witnesses to attend when summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee. Currently, the most likely outcome of a witness’s refusal to appear before a committee will be for that person to be found in contempt of Parliament. They may be called before the Bar of the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker or asked to apologize, but again, there is no way to compel them to do so:

The problem is that the sanctions – involving fine or imprisonment – to enforce any punishment are constitutionally somewhat rusty. Vernon Bogdanor, the former professor of government at Oxford University, has suggested they may have fallen into “desuetude” [disuse]. The House of Commons is not believed to have fined anybody since 1666 and has not “committed anyone to custody”, apart from temporarily detaining them, since the 19th century.

The last time the Commons attempted to reprimand anyone at the bar of the house was in 1957 when the Sunday Express editor John Junor was criticised after offending MPs by publishing an editorial accusing them of abusing their petrol allowances. “Such a sanction would now appear high-handed,” the recent standard and privileges committee report acknowledged.

Another MP, Adrian Bailey, who chairs the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has called for new laws to be introduced to force witnesses to appear before select committees. In the US, a federal act makes contempt of Congress a misdemeanor “punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100 and imprisonment.., for not less than one month nor more than twelve months.” Perhaps something along these lines would be what Bailey and Bercow have in mind.

Bercow also would like to see witnesses before committees examined under oath “as a matter of course”. Committees do have the power to administer oaths to witnesses, however, more often than not, they aren’t. This too has ramifications. If a witness was not sworn in before testifying, and then found to have provided false evidence or misled the committee, the worse that will happen is that they may be found in contempt. However, again according to Erskine May (p. 824), “[B]y the Perjury Act 1911, s 1, where evidence is given upon oath, the giving of false evidence is punishable as perjury. The power of either House to punish for false evidence is not, however, superseded by this Act.” Meaning that it would still be up to the house to administer any punishment – the range of which are similar to those available for anyone deemed to be guilty of contempt. And again from Erskine May:

it should be borne in mind that in 1978, the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible, and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so. Thus many acts which might be considered to be contempts are either overlooked by the House or resolved  informally.  (p. 251)

And while Canadian journalists and political watchers were so enthralled by PMQs, that item of business remains a source of great frustration and embarrassment for Bercow:

“I cannot think of any business that would put its worst product in the shop window and in some respects it’s our worst product. I think the level of heckling, the extent of catcalling, the sheer decibel level, are not conducive to reasoned debate.”

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The media and oral questions

Contemporary mediated democracies may have enlightenment trappings, but in the Twenty-first century Question Time is essentially a media event. Especially if you’re, say, helping to turn it into a collective viewing experience on the #qt stream, there’s not much point complaining about that. (source)

It was a shocking experience – the first nice prime minister’s questions I can recall. This was a huge disappointment for everyone in the public, press and peers’ gallery and for MPs themselves. (source)

But the painful truth is that, while the theatrics of Question Period in the past may have debased the House of Commons, they enlivened it as well, generating heat if not often much light. This week QP mostly generated a refreshing afternoon nap. (source)

Question period, Questions, PMQs, Question Time, Oral Questions – by whatever name you want to call it, is the part of the parliamentary day where the government is held accountable for its administrative policies and the conduct of its Ministers, both individually and collectively. How effective oral questions can be at achieving this goal depends on various factors. The opposition must ask clear, relevant questions – too often they ask rhetorical questions that really can’t be answered, or use the question to highlight their own party’s position; sometimes they ignore questioning the government on policy and instead look to score points by focusing on personalities or other less relevant matters. The government should provide clear, factual answers; too often, they reply with quips, or turn the question asked into a criticism of the opposition’s policies, or simply refuse to answer the question or defer the question to another minister.

There is another factor that affects the effectiveness of Question Period, and that is the atmosphere in the House and the behaviour of the members in attendance. We’ve all read countless opinion pieces bemoaning the conduct of MPs in the House – the catcalls, the insults, the hyper-partisanship. The more disruptive everyone’s behaviour, the more time is taken away from the actual asking of questions. Since oral questions in every jurisdiction that has one is often the only part of the parliamentary day that will make the evening news cycle, this proceeding has become the public face of parliamentary business for most citizens, and more often than not, it isn’t a very pretty face that is put forward. There is no shortage of opinion conceding that the overall boorishness that too often predominates has done much to undermine the public image of politicians.

Against this background, there was much buzz in the Canadian media when, at the outset of the new Parliament, the new Official Opposition party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), vowed to stop heckling and catcalling, and instead maintain the strictest decorum during Question Period. Some, such as Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, found the quieter, gentler Question Period a rather somnolent affair and said of himself and his fellow journalists: “we’re dyin’ here.” Sun News Reporter Bryn Weese labelled the new Question Period “boring as sin“. Others have commented on how many more questions get asked now because less time is lost to attempts to regain order in the House. However, a rather informal count on my part reveals that there aren’t really that many more questions being asked; on average, only about three additional questions are asked in the new session of Parliament, compared to the last session of the previous Parliament.

The first two quotes at the outset of this post refer to Question Time in the Australian House of Representatives and Prime Minister’s Questions in the UK, respectively. In both instances, the writers clearly favour a rough and tumble oral questions over one governed by order and decorum. From a journalistic point of view, this makes sense. Most debate in the House of Commons (not only in Canada – pretty much in any deliberative body) is, to be blunt, boring. That is why the media very rarely covers anything outside of oral questions. Oral questions devoid of insults, jeering, cheap shots and other forms of grandstanding are also boring – because then all that is left are questions and answers about legislation, policy and programs, which are complex matters, and, as I’ve stated in previous posts, often of little interest to the vast majority of voters, and, it would seem, most political reporters.

Yet the point of oral questions is not to be entertaining, it’s to hold the government to account. The Australian blogger responsible for the first quote believes that this notion is passé, and that Question Time has evolved in the 21st century to be purely a media event. That may be so, to a certain extent, but is that a good thing? If oral questions were always as civil and uneventful as most other business conducted in Parliament, would the media simply stop covering it? Is the real problem not whether politicians get rowdy during oral questions, but that the media isn’t really interested in reporting about the actual content of the legislative agenda of the House unless they can be guaranteed some sort of show?

The substance of questions asked, or the answers received, is almost never discussed in the media. Reporters look for soundbites, for clips that will play well. Members yelling across the room at one another, the leader of the opposition stabbing the air with their finger in mock outrage, the Prime Minister rolling his or her eyes in exaggerated exasperation, etc. What they’re so outraged about, does anyone ever remember? It’s all about the show, the point scoring. An insult caught off-mike will garner more air time than any policy-related matter that comes up during questioning. For the media, politics has to have a winner and a loser. This is always the assessment of the weekly PMQs in the UK House of Commons. Who won this week – the PM or the Leader of the Opposition? And even this focus ignores the bulk of PMQs – the Leader of the Opposition asks only six questions – the rest of the time is taken up by questions from other MPs. But those questions are, for the most part, ignored. PMQs comes down to a scoring match between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The language used in the media is telling: “Mr Miliband sank to the occasion with a surprise attack”, “next few minutes were enveloped in the fog of war”, “Cameron conducted himself like a Guards officer who finds himself ambushed”, ‘Cameron hadn’t anticipated this attack”, “[T]actical success was gained”, “two leaders continued to trade blows”, “Miliband had scored a clear points victory”. One wonders if one is reading the sports section and not the politics section.

I have to wonder if this reality is a sort of a “chicken or the egg” situation. Is Question Period/PMQs/Question Time rowdy because the media is covering it, or does the media only cover it because it is rowdy? The media rarely reports on other parts of the parliamentary process, which tend on the whole to be much more civil. If cameras were removed from the press gallery, would order and decorum return to oral questions? If the press suddenly decided to cover debates as extensively as they cover oral questions, would the usual decorum fly out the window?

Despite what our Australian blogger believes, Question Period is still first and foremost an attempt to hold the government to account and solicit information from it. Perhaps if the media made a concerted effort focus on the substance of the questions asked and answers given instead of who scored the most direct hits, all members participating – opposition and government alike, would strive to improve the quality of both their questions and answers. But as long as the media essentially ignores the content and focuses only on the performance, there will be little incentive for things to improve.

Our politicians know that it’s not a thoughtful, well-researched speech during a debate on some piece of legislation on agricultural policy that will get them headlines, it’s “scoring” during oral questions. We can’t expect voters to be interested in politics and the issues being debated by our legislators if their only exposure to Parliamentary business is the media’s interpretation of oral questions as being primarily about point scoring, who’s up and who’s down, conflict, us vs. them.

Oral questions is about holding the government to account – and that applies to the media as well. If the government regularly refuses to provide answers with any substance to them, that is what the media should focus on, not who got in the best one-liner. If some reporters feel that they’re “dyin’” because oral questions isn’t a fireworks display anymore, perhaps they could revive themselves by looking at what is being said rather than how it is being said. And if it’s “boring as sin”, then perhaps they should consider covering sports rather than politics.

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Fixing Ottawa: Question Period

(This is the second in a series of posts on Fixing Ottawa. Other installments are: Fixing Ottawa: Committees, Fixing Ottawa: Draft Legislation and Fixing Ottawa: Empowering Backbenchers.)

Canada’s Liberal Party released its election platform (manifesto) this weekend, and it included this pledge (p. 72):

Liberals believe that all parties must act to increase the civility and substance of Question Period. Many observers believe a model closer to that of the British Parliament would be better, with more time for both questions and answers, scheduled themes and rosters of required ministers, and a weekly Prime Minister’s question period (though the Prime Minister should still be expected to attend all days possible). A Liberal government will advance such reform in Parliament.

I’m maybe the only person in the country who has fixated on this one pledge. To me, it’s the most interesting proposal put forward by the Liberals. I firmly believe the British model for oral questions, while certainly not perfect, is still superior to what transpires in the Canadian House of Commons. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve written about Question Period many times. Two of my more recent posts can be found here and here. There will be some repetition in this post – I apologise in advance to those who’ve read the earlier posts.

As I’ve repeated many times on this blog, the purpose of Oral Questions is to seek information from the government and to hold the government to account. Please bear that in mind as you read the rest of this post.

How Question Period unfolds in Ottawa

Question Period is a daily occurrence lasting 45-minutes. It begins with the Speaker recognizing the Leader of the Opposition, or the lead questioner for the Official Opposition, who then asks a question of a minister. This lead question is usually followed by two others, called supplementary questions. Normally, the Leader of the Official Opposition will direct his or her questions to the Prime Minister, regardless of the topic of the question. By that I mean, they won’t restrict their questions to subjects that are specifically the remit of the PM, but will ask the PM questions about foreign policy, the economy, etc., – matters that fall under the mandate of specific ministers.

Each of the lead questioners of the other officially-recognized opposition parties is permitted an initial question and one supplementary question. Again, the lead questions from the other party leaders are generally directed to the Prime Minister. Throughout the rest of Question Period, other Members representing parties in opposition to the Government continue the questioning, and these questions are directed to the various ministers present. They may direct questions to the PM, but questions that are not from other party leaders will normally be deferred to the appropriate minister or Government House Leader.

Members representing the governing party, Members of political parties not officially recognized in the House and independent Members are also recognized to ask questions, though not as often as Members of officially-recognized opposition parties. Typically, the questions asked by government backbench Members are considered “softball” questions, meaning they are staged questions written by the government to allow the government to promote some of its policies and achievements. Some government backbench questions are nothing more than attacks on the Opposition parties. It should also be noted that while the questions of government backbenchers are scripted, so are the questions asked by opposition backbenchers. It rarely happens that an MP is free to ask a question of specific interest to them or their constituents.

Participation in Question Period is managed to a large extent by the various caucuses and their Whips, and can be the subject of negotiations among the parties. The recognition pattern of questioners varies depending on party representation in the House and the number of Members in each party. As well, the parties may negotiate a maximum time limit for each question and answer. Currently this limit is 35 seconds for each (remember, the goal of Question Period is to get information and hold the government to account). On average, about 40 questions get asked.

Each party decides daily which of its Members will participate in Question Period and provides the Speaker with a list of their names and the suggested order of recognition. However, the ultimate authority to recognize Members rests with the Speaker.

There are a few other points worth mentioning. The Prime Minister usually takes part in Question Period from Monday to Thursday, but rarely, if ever, on Friday. In fact, few front-bench ministers and shadow critics take part in the Friday session; it is usually left to parliamentary secretaries and junior critics. Also, ministers do not have to answer questions; they can refer them to a cabinet colleague, or simply refuse to answer.

Question Time in the UK House of Commons

Question Time takes place for an hour Monday to Thursday, and each day, it is a different government department that faces questions. Smaller departments are grouped together and share the allotted time – either half an hour each, sometimes less. Each government department answers questions according to a rota called the Order of Oral Questions, which you can view here. The questions asked must relate to the responsibilities of the government department concerned.

Oral questions are tabled by MPs at least three days in advance of Question Time. This is to allow the  ministers responsible to prepare their answers. The questions are then printed in the Commons Questions Book. The order in which the questions are asked is determined randomly by a computer. You can view the Questions Book here.

MPs who are called by the Speaker to ask their question do not read it out, but simply call out its number. After the Minister has responded to the original tabled question, the MP who asked that question is normally the first to be called to ask a follow-up (supplementary) question on the same subject. When that supplementary has been answered by the Minister, the Speaker may call other Members to put forward supplementaries, usually alternating between the Government and Opposition sides of the House. Quite often, Members will rise from their seats in order to attract the Speaker’s attention. Sometimes, a Minister chooses to give a single reply to two or more questions on the Order Paper relating to the same topic. In that event, the Speaker will usually call for supplementaries from those Members whose questions have been answered together.

The last 10-15 minutes (depending on the length of that department’s question time) of question time is reserved for ‘topical questions’. During the topical questions slot, MPs can ask supplementary questions on any subject relating to the department’s responsibilities. Ministers do not have advanced notice of these questions, but must still be prepared to answer. There is no pre-determined time limit for questions and answers, but there is a quota for each department. For a department that gets the full 60 minute question time, the quota of questions is set at 25.

Note that each day’s Question Time features questions dedicated to a specific ministry or ministries only, and that the Secretary of State and junior ministers responsible must answer the questions asked. Other ministers from other government departments are not present (except maybe as spectators). The Prime Minister is not present during these sessions, but does answer questions during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Prime Minister’s Question Time

The Prime Minister answers questions from MPs in the Commons for half an hour every Wednesday. The session normally starts with a routine question from an MP about the Prime Minister’s engagements. This is known as an ‘open question’ and means that the MP can then ask a supplementary question on any subject.

Following the answer, the MP then raises a particular issue, often one of current political significance. The Leader of the Opposition then follows up on this or another topic. They are permitted to ask a total of six questions. The Leader of the Opposition is the only MP who is allowed to come back with further questions.

Most MPs will table the same question about engagements and if they do, only their names will appear on the question book. After the first engagements question has been asked, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled, supplementary question. This means, in theory, that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked of him.

Urgent Questions and Ministerial Statements

While the UK format seems to me to be far more productive, and succeeds better at providing the House with information and allowing MPs to hold the government to account, the obvious objection is that since a department will be scheduled to appear only once every 2-3 weeks, what if something urgent occurs that requires the House to question that minister? The answer to that is: Urgent Questions and Ministerial Statements.

The UK Question Time is supplemented very nicely by Urgent Questions and Ministerial Statements. Besides being subject to the standard rules for questions, Urgent Questions (UQ) are also judged against two additional and special criteria laid down in the rules of the House: they must be urgent and of public importance. Sudden developments or emergencies fulfill these criteria, although these can quite often be covered in the form of a Ministerial Statement. A Member must apply to the Speaker before noon on Monday or Tuesday, 10.30am on Wednesday, 9.30am on Thursday or 10am on a sitting Friday on the day in question, to put forward such a question. The relevant government department would be informed at once. It is up to the Speaker to decide whether or not to allow an Urgent Question, and if it is allowed such questions will be taken immediately after Question Time, or at 11am on a Friday.

The procedure on Urgent Questions is similar to ordinary oral questions.  The main question will be asked, the Member who has put the question down is then allowed to ask a supplementary. Other Members will then be called to ask further questions on the same subject.

Ministerial Statements are initiated by the Government rather than by a Member or Members of Parliament. The PM or one of his or her cabinet ministers will address the House on a given topic – usually to brief them on ongoing developments such as a disaster relief effort, an on-going military engagement, the economy, etc., and then will take questions from MPs. Ministerial statements exist in Canada as well, but could not be more different. In Canada, ministers are expected to make brief and factual statements on government policy or announcements of national interest. Members speaking on behalf of parties recognized by the House are normally the ones who speak in response to a Minister’s statement. In responding to the statement, Members are not permitted to engage in debate or ask questions of the Minister. Most ministerial statements tend to focus on commemorative matters (i.e. commemorating Veterans’ Week or the anniversary of some event) and explaining key pieces of government legislation. You can read more about the differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements here.

While the Liberal Party’s pledge to adopt an oral questions format more closely resembling the UK model, while a huge improvement over the current Question Period format, it alone won’t be enough. The UK practice of Urgent Questions would need to be adopted to deal for emergency situations that would require the immediate questioning of a specific ministry, and the current format of Ministerial Statements would have to be overhauled to mimic more closely what occurs at Westminister. The current ministerial statements format used in Ottawa is, to be frank, rather pointless and contributes little.

The Liberals also proposed changes to strengthen parliamentary committees, but sadly, these did not include changes to how membership on committees is determined. Still, at least there’s a faint hope for some reform of Question Period.

(Edit: After posting this earlier today, I learned that today in the UK House of Commons, after the usual hour of departmental questions, there will be an Urgent Question on armed forces redundancies, followed by no fewer than four oral statements by ministers: William Hague on the situation in Libya and the Ivory Coast; Andrew Lansley on NHS Reforms; Owen Paterson on the Omagh bomb; and Steve Webb on pensions. Remember that ministers take questions after delivering a ministerial statement to the House, which means a significant proportion of today’s proceedings will be taken up by questions and answers on key areas of policy.)

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