On stage-managed oral questions

The British daily, The Telegraph, has revealed a series of emails from the Prime Minister’s parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to government backbenchers suggesting questions they could ask the PM during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Luckily, most backbenchers refused to play along.

Canadians are well aware that party whips fully control Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons. They not only control which members of their caucus will ask questions by providing a list to the Speaker of which members to call, and in what order, but they also control what those members will ask by providing them with the question. This is why it is extremely rare to hear any MP ask a question specific to their constituency or concerning a problem faced by one of their constituents.

The process for oral questions in the UK is very different.

First of all, the parties have no control over which MPs will be able to ask questions, either during PMQs or during the daily departmental questions. MPs who want to ask a question of a minister have to submit their question in advance, usually about three business days. Once a Member tables a question, it is included in a random computer shuffle used to determine the order in which questions will appear on the Order of Business. You can see the Order of Business for future Oral Questions here.

Once the deadline for receipt of questions has passed, all of the oral questions received in time are put into a ballot, essentially a lottery to determine which ones will be asked. This lottery is completely random and blind to such things as party affiliation of the Member, seniority, method of tabling the questions, time of submission, or even the results of previous lotteries, meaning that one MP could be very lucky and be drawn several weeks in a row, while other MPs will go weeks without being drawn. This lottery is conducted not once, but twice, using two distinct, sequenced and individually random processes (one physical and one electronic), to produce the final list. Once the questions have been shuffled they are numbered consecutively up to the quota. Even the slots for the topical questions are drawn, even though the questions themselves are not pre-submitted.

So the party leadership has no control over which of its members will be asking questions of a minister. The Speaker does follow a list, but it is the list drawn up through the ballot process, not determined by the party whips. And the Speaker has full control over which Members to call for supplementary questions.

At the start of that day’s oral questions, the Speaker will call the Member whose question is first on the printed Order of Business. The Member stands up and says, “Number one, Mister Speaker.” As the text of the question is set out on the Order of Business it is not necessary for the Member to read it out. To follow the proceedings clearly it is necessary to have a copy to hand. The Minister then answers the question.

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. This is known as “catching the Speaker’s eye”. 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 process for PMQs is the same, except the questions aren’t pre-submitted. The first question is always the same one:  “If he will list his official engagements for (the day’s date)”  and all of the other questions are technically supplementaries to that first question.

The only exception to this process occurs during PMQs, where the Leader of the Opposition is guaranteed six questions. During departmental questions, the opposition shadow critics aren’t guaranteed any slots. They will either gain a spot via the ballot process, or else come in on supplementaries.

It is largely due to this process that it is very common to hear British MPs ask ministers questions about issues facing their constituencies, or to raise problems facing constituents, and why ministers, including the PM, can’t take their backbenchers for granted. While some government backbenchers will ask questions designed to flatter the government moreso than hold it to account, the situation is nowhere near as bad as it is here in Canada. Maybe it’s time we got the party whips out of our nation’s question period?

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Other reforms of Parliament are more urgently needed than electoral reform

A reader left the following comment on my post about the Reform Act’s proposals for party leader selection:

While there is much to be said for the concept of MPs having more weight than the average party member in selecting a leader, this assumes that the MPs are properly representative of the party’s voters. Because of our skewed winner-take-all vopting system, this is far from the case. As Stephane Dion never tires of pointing out, our voting system “makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.” It “artificially amplifies the regional concentration of political party support at the federal level. This regional amplification effect benefits parties with regionally concentrated support and, conversely, penalizes parties whose support is spread across the country without dominating anywhere.”

The Conservative “equality of ridings” provision ensures that representative from Quebec cast about 25% of the votes in a leadership contest. If the caucus elected the leader, Quebec representatives would cast 3% of the votes. Stephane Dion would be quick to say that this “weakens Canada’s cohesion.”

First things first. Once we have a fair, modern voting system that lets all votes count equally toward electing MPs, the caucus might be entrusted with more weight in selecting a leader. Not until then.

Many others have expressed a similar view, that electoral reform is a far more pressing issue. However, I disagree, and I think the above misses a couple of critical points: first, that the Canadian Parliament does not work properly; and second, that electoral reform will not only fail to address those very major problems, but might even exacerbate them.

Let me begin by stating that I am not against the idea of electoral reform; I have written a number of posts outlining some of the problems inherent with the use of single-member plurality (or First-Past-the-Post – FPTP as it is more commonly known) in a multi-party state such as Canada (and the UK). However, the problems facing the Canadian House of Commons have very little to do with the electoral system. The main problems (in my view at least) are as follows:

  • the absolute control of party leadership over caucus members;
  • the absolute control of political parties over too many proceedings;
  • the abuse of certain procedures such as time allocation by the Executive.

When people talk of the need for electoral reform, most refer to PR — proportional representation — without specifying exactly what they mean by that. Unlike FPTP, proportional representation is not a single voting system — there are probably as many variations of PR as there are countries which use it. Most, if not all, forms of PR enhance the role of the party, in that you end up with some MPs who are not directly elected by anyone. Those who advocate for electoral reform above any other reform regularly criticize FPTP by hauling out the usual “In the last election, 39% of the vote resulted in 100% of power” or “millions of votes didn’t count!” arguments.

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore how our system works. We don’t vote for a government. We don’t elect a government. We elect individuals to represent each riding as an MP, that collection of individual MPs forms a Parliament, and the Parliament determines who will form the government. Rather than view a general election as one election, it really should be viewed as 308 (soon to be 338) individual elections.

This is why the argument that “39% of the vote shouldn’t equal 100% of the power” misses the point. You can’t focus on a “national” percentage of the vote for each party – it’s irrelevant because there is no national party or government vote on the ballot. You have to focus on each individual race in each individual constituency.

If you take this approach to it, then yes, every vote most certainly did count. In a very close three- or four-way race, as in Ahuntsic back in 2011, where the final tally was:

  • Bloc Quebecois – 14,908 or 31.8%,
  • NDP – 14,200 or 30.3%,
  • Liberal – 13,087 or 27.9%

every vote most certainly did count, was counted, and at the end of the count, the BQ candidate ended up with the most votes. Now you can certainly make the argument that no one should be elected with less than 50% of the vote, but it doesn’t change the fact that Athuntsic was very competitive and every single vote mattered and was counted and a winner emerged — the candidate with the most votes. And that was repeated in the other 307 separate elections that were held. Some were runaway victories for one candidate — and in those cases, that candidate would have won the seat no matter what voting system we had in place, while others were like Ahuntsic. Others were even closer still, tight two-way battles won by a handful of votes. How can you argue that in those instances, votes didn’t matter? Each one did — a lot. The winner may not have won with over 50% of the votes cast, but every single vote was counted and mattered.

It’s really not fair (or right) to say “votes don’t count” under FPTP — they do. Even if we had a preferential ballot (where candidates are ranked in order of preference, and votes transferred based on those preferences until one candidate has over 50%), there would be people who would not have ranked the candidate who ultimately wins, or maybe would have ranked that candidate last — yet you wouldn’t say their vote didn’t count. Under most forms of Mixed-Member Proportional, the bulk of MPs are still elected using FPTP — the only difference is that each party’s seat total is then topped up with list MPs (whom NOBODY votes for) based on the party’s percentage of the overall vote.

The problem with most forms of PR, because they involve list MPs chosen by the party leadership to fill seats assigned to the party to ensure its percentage of seats in the House more closely matches the overall percentage of the vote received by that party, is that the party becomes even more dominant. Look at New Zealand, for example. As one extreme example, in New Zealand, party votes — which are most votes in the House — are cast based on the number of MPs that party has. If a party has 10 MPs and indicates it will support a certain bill, the party vote is an automatic 10 in favour – and the MPs don’t even have to be in the Chamber when the vote occurs.

FPTP is not the real problem. The UK uses FPTP and their Parliament — while certainly not perfect — operates so much better in so many ways than does the Canadian Parliament. If you follow UK politics closely, as I do, you will reguarly see both political analysts and readers bemoaning how whipped their MPs are; yet compared to Canadian MPs, British MPs appear incredibly independent and even rebellious. If we had far more independent MPs — and by independent, I don’t mean persons elected as Independents, but MPs willing to act more independently/less like party automatons, then our current system could work better. If backbenchers from the governing party understood that they were not part of government and were willing to actually hold the the government to account and vote against it now and then when they believed it was in the best interests of the constituents to do so, as they do in the UK, then even a single-party majority government wouldn’t be able to exercise the same level of power that they currently do. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for governments with even large majorities to see legislation to pass by only a handful of votes because a good number of the governing party’s own backbenchers vote against it. This has been particularly true with the Coalition government (for obvious reasons — Conservative backbenchers feel less “loyalty” to the government since it’s not a Conservative government), but was also true on more than one occasion during the Labour majorities. Blair suffered a number of important backbench rebellions on key pieces of legislation, which in some cases passed by only a handful of votes, or because there was enough support from MPs from other parties to make up for the number of Labour MPs who dissented. Our problem isn’t so much FPTP, but a combination of excessive and abusive party discipline and a need to reform some of the House of Commons’ current practices to lessen the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature.

What reforms do I think would be needed here in Canada?

First, increase the number of MPs. While the next election will see a larger House – 338 MPs instead of the current 308, I would like to increase the number of MPs by a significant margin – at least by 100, preferably by as many as 150. One of the biggest problems here is that it is too easy for the party leadership to “reward” their MPs with positions, thus ensuring their compliance. In the UK House of Commons, with its 650 MPs, the leadership of the two main parties simply cannot exert the same level of control – there simply aren’t enough positions to hand out. Let me illustrate the problem.

The current Conservative caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa numbers 162 MPs. One of those is the Speaker, which brings the total down to 161 MPs. Of that number, 70 would be what is called the “payroll vote” – the PM, Cabinet and the parliamentary secretaries. That is 43% of the caucus. On top of that, 24 of the House of Commons’ 28 committees are chaired by Conservatives. Now, committee chairs are elected by the committee members, but the committee membership is appointed by the party leadership. There are only 44 Conservative MPs who are NOT members of any committee — those who are in Cabinet (39), the Speaker, and four other MPs — two of whom were elected in by-elections only in November of last year and probably haven’t had a chance to be assigned to a committee yet. That means that there are only 4 members of the Conservative Party caucus who have no role in the House other than being an MP (not counting the Speaker). More importantly, this means that there are only four members of the Conservative caucus who haven’t been “awarded” a role by the party’s leadership. The situation would be similar (and even worse) for the other parties in the House given that they have smaller caucuses. However, it matters more, perhaps, for the Conservatives since they form the government. The Conservative backbench MPs are not part of the government; they are simply MPs whose task it is to hold the government to account — same as the Opposition parties. However, because all but a handful of them have been appointed to one position or another by their party leader, they don’t do this. The issue of the payroll vote is one that is regularly raised in the UK — even by MPs themselves (see this article from 2011 by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston). I can’t recall seeing much, if any, discussion of the issue here in Canada.

This would lead to my second reform: change how committee members and chairs are selected. In the UK House of Commons, the issue of the pay-roll vote is a major one, as explained in detail in this article. That said, however, recent reforms all but eliminated the influence of the party leadership in committees. I have explained these reforms in detail in this post, but to summarize, Select Committee chairs are now elected by the whole House using ranked ballots. Party caucuses elect which of their members will sit on each committee. This has led to Commons Select Committees being far more independent, willing to engage in a series of important inquiries, newsworthy, and, in many ways, far less partisan. There is a greater sense that they are accountable to the Commons as a whole, rather than trying to advance their parties’ respective interests. A Private Member’s bill has been put forward in Ottawa proposing a similar reform for the Canadian House of Commons.

Reform #3: Get the parties out of Question Period. Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons is, at best, a farce. It is completely controlled by the parties. Each party decides which of its MPs will ask a question, in what order they will ask the question, and even write the questions out that the MPs will ask. The Speaker has the power to call on any MP in any order, but rarely does so; he or she follows the lists provided by the party whips. In the UK, MPs submit their questions in advance, and these questions are drawn in a shuffle to determine which MPs will get to ask a question and in what order. What difference does this make? MPs are free to ask questions that matter to them and to their constituents. It is very common to hear MPs in the UK House of Commons ask ministers — including the PM — questions that are about a problem in their riding, or about a problem facing one of their constituents. You never hear that in the Canadian House of Commons. Also, questions in the UK are submitted at least three days ahead of the scheduled departmental question time to allow the ministers to prepare thoughtful answers. This in turn means that the questions do actually get answered, unlike in the Canadian House of Commons where a minister is as likely to answer with an attack on the opposition rather than address the actual question.

Reform #4: Bring in Urgent Questions and UK-style Ministerial Statements. You can read about both of those procedures in this earlier post.

Reform #5: Adopt the proposals put forward in the Reform Act. You can read my various posts about the Reform Act for more information.

The pressing problem here is that the Canadian House of Commons cannot carry out its duties of scrutiny and seeking information effectively. Changing the voting system will not address this; in fact, depending on which form of PR were to be adopted, it could worsen the situation by making the role of parties even more central to everything. The most democratic voting system in the world will mean nothing if the legislative body to which MPs are elected cannot function efficiently and effectively. Parliamentary and procedural reform are needed far more urgently. And the simple reality is that it might be easier to address the party control and discipline issues and need for Standing Order changes than to ever get any type of PR adopted.

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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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Parliamentary reform would work

In a recent article, Don Lenihan argues that parliamentary reform won’t “force a government to engage in meaningful debate” and reverse the fact that Parliament is, in his words “broken”. Lenihan writes:

MPs like Michael Chong and Nathan Cullen remain hopeful. They think that the right combination of rules and procedures can fix Parliament. Unfortunately, if “fixing” it means rekindling meaningful debate, they are wrong. House Speaker Andrew Scheer’s ruling on the F-35s last week inadvertently shows why.

Scheer argues that a minister cannot be charged with misleading the House unless it can be proved that he/she intended to do so. Intentions, however, are slippery things.


Scheer’s point is that, when a minister declares that he/she is not lying, it is very hard to prove otherwise, which usually results in a standoff between the government and the opposition.

The disconcerting lesson for parliamentary reform is that no package of rules or procedures can force a government to engage in meaningful debate. As long as its members pretend to be sincere, they can weave and bob, dance and spin, and there is little anyone can do to stop them. Good politicians have this down to an art.

I disagree heartedly with Mr. Lenihan. I strongly believe that there are a number of procedural and Standing Order changes which could be implemented in the Canadian House of Commons which would not only greatly improve the quality of debate, but also make it much more difficult for the ministry to shirk its responsibilities and force them to be much more accountable to the House. I will leave aside the matter of Speaker Scheer’s recent ruling referred to above, since the issue of misleading the House is in many ways completely separate from simply making Parliament more effective and functional.

I have written in depth about many of these in earlier posts, and so won’t go into great detail herein. I will provide links to my earlier posts, so that any reader interested in some of these changes can read the older posts. Most of what I will propose are practices which currently exist in the UK House of Commons. I know Mr. Lenihan writes that a similar trend to what he describes here in Canada is occurring in the UK, but again, I disagree. As someone who follows the UK House of Commons very closely (much more closely than I do the Canadian parliament, I must admit), the reality is that ministers in the UK are far more accountable to the House, and the House has been greatly empowered in the past few years.

The first procedure Canada could borrow from the UK is the UK format for Questions to ministers. I have written extensively about everything that is wrong with the current Question Period in Ottawa. The biggest problem is the time limits on both questions and answers (35 seconds for each). How anyone thinks for one instant that they’re going to solicit any sort of detailed exchange of information in 35 seconds is quite beyond me. The UK format sees one ministry only face questions each day (or the one-hour time slot can be split between two or more smaller agencies and ministries). Questions are submitted three days beforehand to give ministers the time to prepare comprehensive answers. They are very civil, even dull at times, exchanges, but at least actual information is exchanged. Ministers must answer the questions. They cannot refuse to do so, as they can here, nor can another minister from a different ministry answer on their behalf, as occurs here.

Along with the UK format for Questions to ministers, we should also adopt both Urgent Questions (UQ), which don’t exist here at all, and revamp our ministerial statements. UQs are initiated by any backbench MP – if the Speaker approves the question, a minister is hauled before the House on relatively short notice to address the question. Other MPs can also question the minister on that particular matter. This normally lasts about an hour. (Urgent questions are described in the blog post linked to above.)

Ministerial statements in the UK are also very useful, unlike their Canadian counterparts. While initiated by the minister, MPs are then able to question the minister following his or her statement. This isn’t allowed in Canada. Ministerial statements also normally last about an hour, but the Speaker can let them go on much longer if there is sufficient interest. Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance minister) was kept at the despatch box taking questions following his statement for close to three hours. This post has video clips from the UK of oral questions (not PMQs), an urgent question and a ministerial statement, to give you a better idea of how these procedures actually work.

Canada would also do well to get rid of time limits on debate and members speeches. Again, these don’t exist in the UK, and the quality of debate reflects that. We should return to the practice of giving way, which we used to do, until time limits on speeches were brought in. By allowing members to interrupt the MP speaking to ask a question or comment on what they’ve just said, the debate becomes much more interactive. Our debates tend to sound like a rota of read speeches.

Make all MPs refer to each other as “honourable”. This may sound quaint, but I think it contributes greatly to a greater sense of decorum and respect in the UK House of Commons. All members refer to each other as “the honourable lady”, “my honourable friend”, “the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister”, etc.

Ban the reading of speeches. The rules already prohibit this, but it is never enforced. No one reads from prepared texts in the UK House of Commons, and any MP who wishes to participate in a debate must refer to comments made by the 3 or 4 MPs who spoke before they did before moving on to their own comments. This is a sign of respect that one was in the Chamber, following the debate, paying attention, etc. Members must also stay around after they’ve delivered their comments to see how their comments are received by the next few speakers. Participating in debates should not be some form of torture or punishment – it should be something MPs want to do and look forward to doing.

The biggest problem in the Canadian House of Commons is the dominance of the Executive, and in particular the Prime Minister, on the one hand, and party discipline on the other. MPs are so whipped in the Canadian House of Commons, they don’t dare speak out against their own party’s position on anything. The Whips have virtual control over everything – when they speak, what they say, if they participate on a committee, etc. This is not healthy and greatly undermines the effectiveness of our Parliament.

The UK has a huge advantage on that front simply because of the sheer number of MPs – 650 compared to 308 in Canada. Most backbenchers in the UK know they will not sit on committees or be on the front bench, and so it is more difficult for the Whips to exert total control over them. Consequently, MP rebellions are very common – on both sides of the House. But while we don’t have the same numbers of MPs here in Canada, there are still many things which could be done which would lessen the dominance of party Whips.

First, Canada could introduce the UK’s system of one- , two- and three-line whips, which would allow MPs more freedom in how they vote on various measures.

Next, committee reform. I’ve written at length about the committee reforms in the UK, but to summarise: committees chairships are divided up amongst the main parties roughly in proportion to their representation in the House. Chairs of most of the select committees are now elected by their fellow MPs. Members of the committees are now elected by their respective caucuses. This has made the committees much more independent and much more accountable to the House, rather than to party Whips. I’ve written about how Committees in Ottawa could be strengthened.

The UK now has a Backbench Business Committee which determines what business will be debated on 35 days each session. This will be business that is of interest to backbenchers. There are plans to bring in a House Business Committee, which in theory would program all business in the House – which is currently controlled by the Executive.

In the UK, ministers regularly appear before the Select Committee oversees their department. Even the Prime Minister is not immune from this: the PM appears before the Liaison Committee, which is a sort of super-committee whose membership consists of the chairs of all of the other select committees, and is grilled by the committee for a couple of hours. You can see Prime Minister David Cameron’s most recent appearance before the Liaison Committee here. (Side note, around the 37:30 mark, they start discussing accountability in general, then more specifically ministerial accountability.)

There are undoubtedly more rules from the UK House of Commons which would be of interest, but as you can see from the above, it is false to say that different rules wouldn’t improve things. If the House of Commons were empowered, if MPs were less whipped, the Ministry would have to adopt a different attitude towards it and engage more fully. The simple reality is that the current government here in Canada wouldn’t survive two minutes in the UK House of Commons if they attempted to conduct themselves in Parliament there the way they do here. They’d be ripped to shreds by the Speaker, the Opposition, and perhaps more importantly, the press and the general public. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

And that is another important difference. I think there is a greater public awareness of Parliament in the UK, and greater media focus as well. If you take the time to look at any UK media source online, there is no shortage of political liveblogging and detailed coverage of happenings in Parliament (well beyond PMQs). Perhaps that is in part because it is the only parliament (not counting the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Canadians – those who bother at least- find their attention divided between City Hall, their provincial or territorial legislature, and Ottawa. And for many, Ottawa is very, very far away.

Finally, regarding Mr. Lenihan’s references to the problems of ministers lying or misleading Parliament, this isn’t really the issue. The Canadian House of Commons is very weak, and it is very easy for the Executive to undermine it – even without outright lying. Adopting any or all of the measures described above of course would not stop a minister from lying, but they would go a long way towards empowering the House vis-à-vis the Executive, and giving backbenchers more freedom from their own parties (it’s not just the government that is the problem here – all of our parties need to stop controlling their MPs to the degree that they currently do). It would be more difficult for a minister to mislead the House, deliberately or otherwise, if the House wasn’t so impotent.

Also, as I explained in this post, charges of misleading the House are extremely difficult to prove. I know that there has been a lot of criticism of Speaker Scheer over the 7 May 2012 ruling, but it was a given that he wouldn’t be able to find that the minister had lied or deliberately misled the House. To the best of my knowledge, there has been only one instance anywhere in the Commonwealth of a minister found in contempt for misleading the House, and that was in 1963, the case of John Profumo in the UK. And he was only found in contempt after he admitted to the House that he had indeed lied, and deliberately so, with intent to mislead. You may disagree with this, but procedural convention is what it is.

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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.

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Thoughts on “Saving the House of Commons”

Aaron Wherry of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine recently wrote a blog post proposing a series of reforms to “save” the House of Commons. Some I have previously discussed on this blog, such as changes to Question Period. Readers proposed other reforms and ideas the comments. I thought I would offer my own thoughts on some of what was proposed.

1. Wherry proposed amending section 67 of the Elections Act “to remove the requirement that any candidate wishing to run for a party must have the signature of that party’s leader to do so”.

This is not something I have looked at or considered to any extensive degree, but on the surface, I don’t have any issues with it. I think it would complement open primaries very nicely.

2. Reform of Question Period as per the changes suggested by MP Michael Chong (fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker; lengthen the amount of time given for each question and answer; allocate half the questions each day for Members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected; dedicate Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister; dedicate Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for questions to other ministers).

I have written many posts about Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons and in favour of adopting a format more akin to that used in the UK House of Commons (see this one, for example). Chong’s proposals are based on the UK model, but don’t go far enough. Rather than simply lengthening the amount of time for each question and answer, do away with time limits completely. The UK House of Commons had a target quota for questions – if a ministry gets the full one-hour of questions to itself, the target is 25 questions and answers (note, that’s a minimum). Rather than allocate “half the questions each day for Members … randomly selected”, make it completely open to all MPs. If only one ministry is up for questioning at a time (rather than the whole cabinet as is currently the case), of course each opposition party’s critic for that portfolio will be present, but they certainly shouldn’t be entitled to half of the questions. Any MP should be free to ask questions (non-scripted), including MPs from the government party. There could certainly be a dedicated PMQs on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t also be questions to a ministry that day as well. In the UK, one of the smaller departments gets a half hour of questions before the half hour dedicated to PMQs. The same could be done in Ottawa.

Side note to this, as I’ve repeatedly stated, adopting a UK-version of Questions would only work if we also adopted Urgent Questions and revamped Ministerial Statements.

3. Wherry proposes getting rid of Members’ statements.

For those who aren’t familiar with this proceeding, Members’ statements is a daily occurrence which precedes Question Period and lasts 15 minutes. During this time, backbenchers have a minute to make a statement on any topic of their choosing. Normally, this is used to promote an event in their riding, or to bring attention to the achievements of a person or school or organization, etc., in their riding. Increasingly, however, these statements are used to make partisan attacks on other parties or politicians, which is contrary to the rules. I’d have no issue with getting rid of Members’ Statements.

4. No reading of speeches during debates.

As Wherry notes, the rules already prohibit the reading of speeches and has been in place since Confederation.  The purpose of this rule, is quite simple: it exists to maintain the cut and thrust of debate, which depends upon the speeches of successive speakers referencing the arguments of previous speakers to some extent. If this rule is ignored, debate becomes nothing more than a series of set speeches prepared beforehand without reference to each other. However, as we learn in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (pp. 607-8), by 1886, it was clear that the convention was often being ignored, which prompted the House to adopt a resolution condemning the very prevalent practice of Members reading their speeches. Little changed, however, and several Speakers addressed the issue in statements to the House and rulings against the practice of reading speeches. The 1956 statement by Speaker Beaudoin remains the definitive statement on established practice in the House of Commons:

A Member addressing the House may refer to notes. The Prime Minister, the cabinet ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, the leaders of other parties or Members speaking on their behalf, may read important policy speeches. New Members may read their [maiden] speeches. The Members speaking in a language other than their mother tongue, the Members speaking in debates involving matters of a technical nature, or in debates on the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne and on the Budget may use full notes or, if they wish, read their speeches.

The use of extensive notes, even prepared notes, by Members delivering their remarks is still prevalent in the House of Commons and the Chair has been disinclined to insist that Members not read their speeches. This is in sharp contrast to what transpires in the UK, where you never see anyone reading from texts. In the UK House of Commons, the principle has been quite strongly reinforced by recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which recommended, among other things, that Members who wished to take part in a debate should be in the House to hear the opening speeches, and if not, they should not expect to be called upon to participate. If they were called, they should make some effort to respond to and reference previous speeches before pursuing their own line of argument, and remain in the Chamber after they’d finished speaking to listen to at least two more speeches in order to ascertain the reaction to their own comments. Speakers regularly reinforce the views of the Committee in a letter to Members.

Debate in the UK House of Commons perhaps also benefits from the fact that there aren’t any time limits on speeches (unlike in Canada), and because of the practice of giving way, while in the Canadian House of Commons, we have Questions and Comments. As well, Samara.org found that many MPs are told at the last minute that they are to speak in a debate and are given prepared texts by the party whips to read. This certainly doesn’t help the situation.

5. Requiring justification for the use of time allocation and/or closure

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. While the political parties in the House may disagree on what a ‘reasonable period’ might be, they would all agree that eventually, debate must end and the House must decide a matter. Therefore, time allocation and closure motions do have their place; the problem is that they are often used to avoid debate and scrutiny. Therefore I don’t have any real objections to what Wherry proposes: require a Minister “to provide justification for the curtailment of debate; the Speaker would be required to refuse such a request in the interest of protecting the duty of MPs to examine legislation thoroughly, unless the government’s justification sufficiently outweighed said duty; criteria would be set out for assessing the government’s justification, which would provide the Speaker with the basis for a decision to allow for the curtailment of debate.”

6.  The Aucoin/Turnbull/Jarvis reforms

I admit to being less familiar with these proposals, which Wherry sumarizes thusly: “Codify the following: that elections occur every four years on a specific date unless a majority of two-thirds of MPs approve a motion to dissolve Parliament for a new election; that  the opposition can only bring down the government via an explicit motion of non-confidence that also identifies the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government that has the support of a majority of MPs in the House; and that the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons be required to prorogue Parliament.”

This sounds somewhat similar to what the UK recently adopted with its Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. That Act fixes elections at every five years and stipulates that while a motion of confidence in the Government will still require the current 50%+1 to pass, this now won’t automatically trigger the dissolution of Parliament. There will now be a 14-day period to see if a new Government can be formed which will command the confidence of the House. If no alternative Government emerges, then Parliament would be dissolved. If the House wanted to dissolve Parliament before the 5-year term was up without recourse to a motion of non-confidence as described above, this would require a majority of tw0-thirds of MPs to approve a motion to dissolve Parliament.

I am not a strong supporter of fixed-term parliaments. I am not convinced that they solve the problems they are supposed to address, and I do think that they create new problems while exacerbating others. I do like the UK changes re: non-confidence motions not automatically leading to the dissolution of Parliament, and I don’t have objections per se to requiring a super-majority vote in favour of a motion to dissolve Parliament before the usual end of a parliamentary term. I don’t think a motion of non-confidence would need to identify “the name of the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government”.

Ultimately, it is only the House of Commons itself which can initiate any sort of change in how it conducts its business. Also, a lot of the issues these suggestions are meant to address could be “fixed” by the political parties themselves if they simply decided to ease up on their control of their own members. It is interesting to see these issues debated in the media since it means that many Canadians are concerned about the health of their democratic institutions. The question is – do our politicians share this concern?

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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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Keyword post: Attending Question Period

Quite a few people seem to be looking for information on how to attend Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons.

That information is easily found on the Parliament of Canada website:

Groups of 10 individuals or more may reserve seats in the public galleries in advance through a Member of Parliament’s office.

Individuals may make arrangements through their Member of Parliament to request a seat in the Member’s galleries facing their Member of Parliament. Seating in these galleries is limited so seats are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Overflow of individuals with Member’s passes are directed to the remaining seats in the public galleries.

Remaining seats in the public galleries are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis to individuals who arrive without reservations or a gallery pass.

For more information, including the rules and gallery decorum, please consult the Parliament of Canada website link above.

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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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Keyword post: Some answers to search results

This post will provide answers to actual search engine queries that led people to this blog. None of these would really make a full blog post on their own, which is why I’ve decided to answer a few in one post.

1. How many people did/didn’t vote for David Cameron?

This one is very easy to answer. Exactly 23,796 people did not vote for David Cameron in the May 2010 general election. Cameron stood for election in the constituency of Witney, opposed by nine other candidates. Voter turnout in that riding was 57,769 (73.8%), and of that, 33,973, or 58.8% voted for Cameron, meaning 23,796 voters voted for other candidates.

It is important to remember that in parliamentary systems such as those we have in the UK, Canada, Australia, etc., people do not vote directly for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is simply whichever MP is also leader of the party which forms the government. Please see this post for more information.

2. Has the fixed term parliaments bill passed/been defeated?

The fixed term parliaments bill received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011. You can track the progress of any bill currently before Parliament on the Bills before Parliament page of the UK Parliament’s website.

3. What is the procedure to recall a Canadian Member of Parliament (MP)?

There is no procedure to recall MPs in Canada. There is only one jurisdiction in Canada (indeed, in the entire Commonwealth) which has recall legislation, and that is the province of British Columbia. The UK Coalition Government has introduced a draft bill on MP recall. You can read more about how recall works in British Columbia in this post.

4. How does one address the Lieutenant Governor in a speech?

“Your Honour” first, then “Sir” or “Madam” or “Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss (name)”.

Everything you ever wanted to know about styles of address can be found here. You may want to consult this post for other useful political resources.

5. How many people voted for the NDP?

For any elections-related questions, your first stop should always be Elections Canada. In the 2 May 2011 general election, 4,508,474 voters across the country cast votes for an NDP candidate, or 30.63% of voters who bothered to turnout for the election (turnout was 61.4%).

6. Does the government know what questions will be coming forward in question period?

Yes and no. In Canada, the opposition does not usually provide the government with advance notice of what questions it intends to ask, however, there is nothing preventing it from doing so. Indeed, if there is a question that an opposition MP feels the government might not expect to have come up, he or she might inform the Minister concerned beforehand that they intend to raise the matter during oral questions. In general, the government will have a good sense of what questions to expect because the opposition will hone in on any topic that is currently in the news. As well, the government carefully scripts the questions asked by its own backbenchers, so those questions (and their answers) are quite carefully rehearsed.

In the UK, questions for departments must be submitted three days in advance, specifically to give the concerned minister the time to prepare answers. However, the last 10-15 minutes of each day’s questions are reserved for “topical questions”, which aren’t submitted ahead of time, so the minister will not know exactly what questions to expect (although he or she, like their Canadian counterparts, can assume they will be on more current matters). Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) aren’t submitted ahead of time, although loyal government MPs will often give Downing Street advance notice of their question, or try to ask something ‘helpful’ – possibly to try to impress the PM or those looking out for future ministerial talent. But the PM can be asked about anything at all for which the government is responsible, which means they have to be up to speed on all areas of policy.

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