Stop the madness

Fixing question period would help the country, writes Paul Wells. Here’s where to start.

by Paul Wells

Stop the madnessWe are not an awful people, but we have an awful politics. How’d that happen? Any chance we can make it better?

We are not an awful people, and we don’t elect unworthy representatives. This doesn’t get said often enough, but your members of Parliament are good people. They are decent men and women who upend quiet lives, endure the indignity of electoral campaigns, leave their loved ones at home and jet weekly to Ottawa. They bring big hearts and steady purpose. They want nothing better than to help their constituents.

Then they get here and bray like jackasses for an hour every day. They hurl vile calumnies, unleavened by wit, across the centre aisle of the Commons. They’re shocked when the other side does the same. In the galleries above, strong men and schoolchildren avert their gaze.

Recent highlights have included an afternoon spent debating whether Pierre Poilievre, the government’s utility infielder, was right to describe carbon taxation as a “tar baby.” On another day, opposition members called 22 times for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to be fired. Probably after, oh I don’t know, the 15th time they could have moved on. A few days before that, the Liberals got tired of baseless Conservative accusations that they’re planning to raise taxes, so the Liberals decided it was their turn to accuse the Conservatives of planning to raise taxes. Also without any basis in truth.

Nor is this daily wallow an accident. It is meticulously planned and rehearsed by hundreds of politicians and their staffers across the parliamentary precinct. They rise before dawn to pore over the headlines and plot the day’s stratagems. Opposition members start bidding at breakfast for a part in the show. Government members meet over lunch to rehearse their evasions and their outrage.

Question period isn’t the root of what ails our politics. But it is most certainly the hub, the swamp, the KICK ME HERE sign where everything we hate about our politics converges every day. The half-truths, the confected fury, the mayfly attention span, the ritual humiliation of the thoughtful or eccentric. And above all, the waste: of time, energy, hope.

So what say we fix it?

This is easier said than done. Most MPs are superstitious about changing question period because they are afraid of giving somebody else an advantage. So sweeping reform is out of the question. But maybe we could inch our way toward sanity, the way we inched our way into this mess, with a series of apparently minor decisions. Anywhere but in Ottawa, my suggested changes would seem small indeed. Together I think they could change the culture of Ottawa. And not a moment too soon.

1. Stop Rushing. Since the mid-1990s, question period has been run by a strict 35-second shot clock. No question may last longer than 35 seconds. No answer may last longer than 35 seconds. The rules of decorum are, to say the least, loosely enforced. But that 35-second rule, boy, they watch that one like hawks.

Here’s a fun experiment: the next time you’re arguing with your spouse, use a stopwatch and forbid everyone from speaking longer than 35 seconds. No, wait. Bad idea. It won’t end well.

The rigid enforcement of the 35-second limit is a relic of the ’90s, when the advent of Reform and the Bloc Québécois produced a five-party Commons. More parties meant less time for everyone in the daily circus. But since 2003 there have been only four parties. That should give everybody more time.

So the first tiny change, the minimal condition of civility, is to increase the time for every question and every answer to 45 seconds. That’s a 29 per cent increase in the time for every intervention. Enough time to calm everyone down.

2. Don’t let them cover for one another. Did you know that in the U.K. the prime minister is only expected to show up for one question time a week? True story: prime minister’s questions, or PMQ, happen only once a week in London, on Wednesdays for half an hour. It used to be twice a week, for 15 minutes each, but Tony Blair consolidated it into one session in 1997.

Hard to believe. Harder still to imagine anyone agreeing to such a set-up in Canada. But the advantages are obvious for everyone.

Let’s say we agreed that Canada’s prime minister would only be needed for one question period a week. And let’s split the rest of the week up, so economic ministers would face questions on another set day, and social policy ministers on another, and foreign, defence and trade ministers on yet another.

Suddenly it’s a lot harder for the government to give the opposition the familiar run-around. Questions would have to be taken by the responsible minister because nobody else would be there. Putting only the PM on the griddle, or only a few of his ministers on any day, would spread the scrutiny around. It would allow more issues to be discussed in a week. It would let the PM get out of the Commons, where he could spend more time visiting the rest of this enormous country—or even travel abroad.

True, the opposition could no longer use one hapless minister as a pinata for months on end. And the government couldn’t have one hyperactive utility player (hi there, Pierre Poilievre) stonewall every question while the rest of the cabinet snoozes.

3. GET QP OUT OF THE WAY. With more time for each question and answer, and with the scrutiny spread more evenly among the PM and his assorted ministers, question period would already be more useful and less lurid. But it still looms too large in the parliamentary day. It still draws too much energy away from productive work.

I can hear the objections already. Too much energy? How can you say that? It’s the ultimate accountability mechanism! The one chance opposition MPs have to get some information out of the government.

Of course this is nonsense. First, if question period ever was our system’s only accountability mechanism, those days are long gone. Access-to-information legislation and the Internet have done more to open up government than a bunch of theatrical posturing in the Commons ever could. Second, to the extent that question period distracts from those other mechanisms—and from the legislative process in general—it hinders their proper operation.

The time devoted to “QP prep” in every party is time that can’t be devoted to anything else. Because it bisects the workday, it swallows the whole day: parliamentarians work until 2 p.m. to get ready for the horrible spectacle, then the remaining time after 3 trying to recover.

So schedule question period for first thing in the day, usually 10 a.m. Suddenly everyone has four fewer hours to get ready for the carnival, and four more hours to recover from it and move on to something else.

Taken together, these three simple changes conspire to turn the temperature down on Parliament’s most overheated hour. If the prime minister doesn’t have to be there every day, he’ll have more time for the rest of his duties. If the spotlight is shared along the whole front bench, problems won’t fester unexamined until they become crises. If everyone has more time to think like adults, they might act like it. And if the whole thing is over before lunch, everyone can spend the afternoon thinking about something else.

Now I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve been pitching these changes as simple ways to improve the way politicians do their jobs. But I hope they’ll help us reporters pick up our game, too.

Staffing cuts at most newspapers and TV networks have left too many well-meaning reporters frazzled and unable to concentrate on complex stories that evolve slowly. Far easier to report on confrontation and accusation, which need no context or explanation. Far easier to take the video feed from question period, where you can always count on somebody to shout and point. If we lower the temperature of the daily circus and tuck it out of the way, then just maybe reporters will be forced to cover other stories.

And if they don’t? Then cut out the middleman. MPs should give the Speaker’s office the trivial budget allotment it would need to ensure that every debate, every committee meeting, every news conference in the Hill precinct’s two press theatres is covered by webcam, so any citizen who wants to watch any part of the parliamentary day can see it for himself. Some people complain that the problem with question period is that it’s on television. But since there’s no chance of taking those cameras away, the solution is more cameras, watching every part of Parliament, accessible by anyone who cares.

Taken together, these reforms would begin to drain the swamp in the middle of Canadian democracy. Can we make these changes? Not in mid-session. Everyone’s too afraid of change. But if parties came forward with their plans for reform now, and promised to implement them if elected, a new election could bring a mandate for change.

But first of all, a few brave souls in Parliament need to admit what’s obvious to the rest of us. Question period is broken. It poisons the rest of the day and our democracy with it. We’re not protecting accountability by preserving this charade. We’re mocking it.




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Stop the madness

  1. Your suggestions might change the tone of QP but I doubt they'd fix its major problem; it serves no purpose. Lots of questions are asked but rarely are they answered with anything more than boilerplate rhetoric. It serves no purpose to keep hearing the same answers over and over again.

    I'd rather see QP eliminated–freeing up all that time for MPs to do their jobs–and replaced with ministers facing monthly hearings of some sort in which they and questioning MPs are sworn in under oath so all of them can be held accountable if they lie. I think that would be far more productive and useful to the Canadian public.

    • Funny, I was just musing about the paucity of legalized proceedings on the Hill. More lawyers, more cross examinations, more potential lititgation, and more debates about the extent to which the "whole truth" was honoured would surely add to the productive and cooperative tenor of conduct.

    • How do you answer a serious, complicate question in 35 seconds? QP is not meant for answers just hyperbole. I rest my case.

  2. 4. Turn the cameras off. Leave the audio. Turn the cameras off.

    It won't take them that long to realize how stupid they sound.

  3. These are sensible suggestions. I'd like to add a fourth one though: actually enforce rules of proper civility.

    The speaker can and should be removing people who can't stop acting like little children. Any adults in the House quickly get drowned out by the nonsense. Changing the rules so the adults actually want to show up is great, but you also need to keep the whiny brats from taking over again.

    We certainly need to do something, though. As it stands right now, QB stands along with eHealth Ontario as the great examples of why ordinary Canadians don't take politics seriously.

    • This is what I don't get. Why won't this work? We don't need new rules we need to enforce actual existing rules of decorum.

    • Peter Milliken, our current speaker, shoulders a lot of blame for the recent childishness in the House. He's incredibly fair, which is in itself a remarkable trait for a politician, but he achieves that fairness by being as uncontroversial as possible. The odd time he gets some respect is when he tosses out a joke, and otherwise, he gets walked all over.

      • I agree. Last year I sent to emails to Milliken. His Secretary or Administrative Assistant, in response to my first email, replied that I would receive a written response to my questions. It was a boiler plate response that said nothing. I later emailed him again, stating that if he couldn't respond to my specific questions, not to bother replying. I never received a reply. It is rare that I watch QP, other than what I see of this charade on the Broadcast or the evening newscasts.

        Changes definitely need to be made.

  4. These are great rules. Unlike other two-cents pieces, these rules are enforcable, easy to adopt and could be done for the fall if the government so chooses.

  5. Question period may be broken but you are also right on about political reporting being broken. We have a bizarre situation where the gov`t elected by the people will not talk to the media who are responsible for filtering the news from the gov`t back to the people.

    Why would anyone in gov`t want to talk to someone like Wherry who has demonstrated absolutely no inclination to be objective in his writings. And it just gets worse—the more the media take indiscriminate pot shots at the gov`t the more time and effort the gov`t put into avoiding them. I mean c`mon—12 posts because a staffer left behind a binder full of statistics and not one post about our gov`t giving 10 billion of your grandchildren`s money to a multi-national corporation full of entitled blackmailers.

    So, yes let`s hope there is a few more brave souls out there that will admit that better political reporting might lead us to better government.

    • It strikes both ways William. How many post on Nanny Gate were there?

      The media is doing its job, scrutinizing our public officials. They should not be pandering or ignoring relevant issue just so the government of the day will give them an interview. The media's job is to dig out the truth, not to be the governments pet.

      "So, yes let`s hope there is a few more brave souls out there that will admit that better political reporting might lead us to better government."

      I'd say that it is up to our elected officials to lead us towards better governance. They are the ones we send there to do that job. Its easy to blame the media for the governments failing. Easy, but not accurate.

      • Here`s the problem. You are right about Nanny Gate—silly stuff—same as Tar Baby and Missing Binder. But if the opposition knows that the media will run with a story that might make the gov`t look bad, then they push it endlessly. So you have the gov`t avoiding the media and the opp. searching for anything to make the gov`t look bad and in the process missing the important stuff.

        The people see their gov`t through the eyes of the media. The elected officals know that. That makes for poor actions on all sides.

      • This one af advantages of studying in a vocational school. We’ll get a lesson about entrepreneurship for about 3 years. That’s really good even it’s just theory. I want to know where to find agenda 2012, do you?

    • Governments will always strive to keep their unpleasantness out of the media. That's hardly surprising.

      But the media contribution to the problem is that there are too many Wherry's out there who only look at one side of the problem. What incentive do the Liberals have to improve Parliamentary decorum if they can be as nasty and partisan as they want and the Conservatives get all the blame for retaliating? Everyone knows about Pierre Polilievere and John Baird, but ask people to name an overly partisan Liberal and most non-political junkies will struggle. Why? Mark Holland, Marlene Jennings, Ralph Goodale are all as viciously partisan as any Conservative…why are they not household names like Poilievere is? Why are the Liberal "Rat Pack" from the 80's, who as I recall are notorious for being partisan attack dogs, remembered with fondness rather than with disdain?

  6. The issue isnt parliamentarians, its the media. People yell and scream because thats the only clip that gets played on the highlights.

    If CTV and CBC decided to focus more on in depth policy discussions (not just the hot button, issue of the day garbage) there would be no benefit for people to behave like this.

    • "If CTV and CBC decided to focus more on in depth policy discussions (not just the hot button, issue of the day garbage) there would be no benefit for people to behave like this."

      Oh, please, get real. Nobody but nobody is interested in watching "in depth policy discussions" by politicians, not even policy wonks. They are, however, interested in watching the more gladatorial bits of political discourse. Just like they like watching hockey fights and Don Cherry.

    • Someday I hope to meet this mysterious person named "the media". I keep reading about him or her but, he or she is just so illusive.

  7. These are great suggestions. But in a Westminster style parliament that has spent the past three decade abandoning the concept of ministerial responsibility, what purpose would a civilized Question Period serve? Let the fireworks fly!

  8. The mess of question period is a symptom, not a cause, of an outdated system.

    Perhaps you should go the whole hog, and concede that the House is no longer useful for either eliciting information on a particular issue, or for holding government accountable for how it spends money and the decisions it makes. It's only current useful purpose is to provide a location for voting.

    Getting information on government activity is much better managed through modern media. I would bet that we would get much better responses by having MP's post questions to a public website and getting written answers from the appropriate ministries. The public could then browse this at their leisure, and the press could dissect, analyze and report.

    Making government accountable would flow more easily from this, since incomplete or unsatisfactory answers could then be taken up by committees to dig deeper. I don't know if the current committee rules meet the case entirely, but they seem to be a more civil forum that QP.

    Just cancel QP and move on.

  9. Hear hear on the changes.

    As for enforcement of rules. That is up to Parliament itself, it elects the Speaker. It can either support the speaker or not. More often than not it doesnt.

    There is a better "debating tradition" in the UK. Here it is stand up comics and immeadiate put downs. I submit the Macleans comment board as evidence. That is something that cannot be fixed anytime soon.

    But if the opposition leader knew he/she had only one day a week to take a crack at the PM he might think longer about his questions…the PM, being on only once might also think harder about his/her

    I also like the idea of making it early in the day. Subtle change, but it would change the nature of the place.

    I dont know if you need to make any more structural changes to QP other than those suggested.

    Kudos to Wells for keeping a candle in the window on this issue

  10. 1. Increasing the length of questions and answers from 35 to 45 seconds would just give another 10 seconds for longwinded preambles and boilerplate (and often unrelated) responses. Giving written notice of questions like the British do might be a better approach.

    2. Making the Prime Minister available for only one Question Period per week would be a travesty of parliamentary democracy which reduces accountability in a Parliamentary system so dominated by the power of the Executive in general and of the Prime Minister in particular. Executive power is not as concentrated in the hands of the British Prime Minister as it is in the hands of the Canadian Prime Minister.

    3. Question Period draws time and energy away from what ? Committees which the current government is committed to sabotage ? 'Debates' on bills which are nothing more than Statements by Members writ large with little or no real discussion ? I don't see how changing the time Question Period will take place could make any difference in this regard in the current Parliament.

    Our democracy is not based on rules, it is based on a consensus on and the upholding of principles of democracy, principles which we transform into precedent and parliamentary traditions. We are not the Cartesian French who change their constitution from time to time when their system of rules becomes irrelevant, nor are we the legalistic Yankees who do everything through the courts. In other words, our democracy based on the consent of the governed combined with agreement amongst our political elites as to how the game is played. When that consensus breaks down, parliament doesn't work.

    The Liberals, NDP and even the separatist Bloc play by the rules and try to make Parliament work the way it was intended to. On the other hand, the Harper Conservatives, who take their political heritage from the Reform Party, never felt like they had a stake in our parliamentary system, so they don't hesitate to do everything to wreck it for what they believe is their partisan advantage. Their bad faith in all matters parliamentary is evident in everything they do. The best way to restore our democratic institutions so that they function as they were intended to is to sweep Harper and his gang of wreckers from power.

  11. Good comment. Blame the messenger.

  12. After reading this piece an hour ago I decided to tune into today's QP . So far it has been interesting, but the Members' Statements immediately before QP were much better. One statement even merited a Speaker intervention to which the MP essentially replied, I'm sorry for loving my country so much Mr. Speaker.
    My favourite part, as it got the most hoots and hollers, was a statement by an MP called( I think the subtitle said) Chris Wakentin "How dare he come back to Canada after 34 years!"

  13. "B..b..but if QP is at 10AM, then the questions asked in the house won't be as good, because the staffers won't have had as much time to prepare!! Or, G-d forbid, we have to get up earlier!!!" This, if you believe the Ontario argument, when this kerfuffle kicked up a couple years back.

    In any event, I agree that these proposed changes are valid, but I think the process begins with, as others have said, enforcing and respecting the rules of order and privilege that already exist in the House.

    I suspect the greatest argument against making any changes to QP is that it provides Canadians an opportunity to see just how astute / in touch (or not) their opposition members are, and how capable / competent (or not) their government is.

  14. Democracy is based on rules! One rule is that there are elections. Another rule is thast the questions are 35 seconds long in question period. Just because the rules are decided by consensus does not mean they are not rules. The charter itself is a sequence of rules.

    • The essence of democracy is consent and agreement. You can make as many rules as you want, if there is no willingness to adhere to principles which inspire those rules, people will find a way to get around them. But when they agree on the principles, written rules are not needed. That is the basis of our still mostly unwritten Constitution. I didn't state this as clearly as I wanted to in the post above.

      • As for the concept of "principles" versus "rules", I'd have to find a dictionary to figure out the difference between a "rule" and a "principle", and which come first, the chicken or the egg, the principle or the rule.

        Anyway, I think I get the gist of your argument, which makes sense.

        • Principle comes first, as it is the moral or philosophical underpinning for what comes next, the rules, which are the codification of those principles in their practical application. For example, we agree as a society that to take the life of another is wrong – that is the principle. The rules concerning homicide are found in the Criminal Code.

          The problem is that you cannot codify goodwill, cooperation, honesty or altruism, amongst other qualities that we may find desireable in our politicians. There must be a fundamental agreement between our politicians that these are desireable and necessary qualities for them to possess and exhibit in their dealings with their peers in order to make the system work. If the willingness and good faith needed to make the system work does not exist, no set of rules can make up for this.

          This is not just confined to partisan politics and the working of elected assemblies. Our system of banking regulation is principle rather than rules based. That is to say, the regulatory authorities judge whether banks are compliant based on whether actions taken are in accordance with principles rather than long lists of complex rules. It seems to work well even if it causes banks' compliance departments some uncertainty.

          The Charter of Rights is not an elaborate set of rules as to what can and cannot be done. It is instead the expression of fundamental democratic principles in the form of a basic law i.e. a law by which the validity of all other laws are judged. The courts use these basic principles as expressed in the Charter to determine whether a law is valid or not, supported by fact and reason. For example, Section 8 says "Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure." but it doesn't set out the rules or situations in which the police and other authorities can execute search warrants or the mechanism for obtaining authority to do so, or when the police may have exceeded their authority.

          • I agree that you cannot codify principles of goodwill, cooperation, etc Mulletaur. If you look at Roberts Rules of Order and other variations of conducting effective meetings; it is the leader/chair president who is responsible for supervising the proceedings, and even setting the tone for the session. That could be the speaker of the house. It should also be the PM who oversees his lot and the leaders of the opposition(s) with their lots. Their unprofessional behaviour should be quietly reprimanded behind the scenes by their own leaders.

            It's tough. I think Iggy had started with the hope of not bowing to the same generally childish/ugly antics as Harper; but it doesn't take long for anyone to denegrate. There's got to be a concerted effort by all.

          • Agreed.

    • scf gets the steak knives for silliest comment.

      The 35-second rule is arbitrary, recent, and confined to Ottawa. It's not written into a bunch of 3,000-year-old stone freaking tablets. Watch Question Period in any provincial legislature and you'll see far, far longer exchanges between government and opposition. And — not coincidentally — far more civil exchanges.

      • "Watch Question Period in any provincial legislature …"

        Yes, but nobody does. Why ?

      • Actually, it's confined to the House of Commons — there are no time limits imposed during Senate QP on questions or answers.

      • Actually, it's confined to the House of Commons — there are no time limits imposed during Senate QP on questions or answers.

      • Not that I couldn't use a new set of steak knives, but my comment was a response to "Our democracy is not based on rules, it is based on a consensus". So I object to the idea that democracy is a "consensus", there are a lot of things in most democracies that are meant to stand the test of time, meaning that a consensus cannot overturn them (a consensus being whatever is the most popular idea at the time, in my definition).

        So the fact that you yourself has called it a "35-second rule" suggests that it is indeed a rule, albeit one that has not been around for long.

  15. This assumes that there was some previous time when QP was better, but the truth is that it has been getting worse for many years now, both here and in the UK.

    It is convenient to blame Harper but not very useful.

    • I remember when Question Period was first televised, I used to watch recordings of it late at night on TVO. Question Period has always been partisan and gladitorial. But political parties at that time treated Parliament, its institutions and rules, both written and unwritten, with respect and tried to make it work. Harper's gang of wreckers have never tried to make Parliament work. The most recent example of this is Diamond Jim stepping outside the House to announce his latest budget deficit forecast. That should have been done in the House during Question Period. Recall that Flaherty comes from the same Ontario gang who delivered the 'Magna Budget'.

      • In order to have any substantial improvement in the H of C both sides must be willing to admit to their past mistakes and improve accordingly. Your comments demonstrate your willingness to blame the gov`t 100% for the problems in the House, therefore I doubt if your contribution will be of any use in this debate.

        You see, I would be willing to say that Baird and Poilievre should tone down their partisanship but at the same time Holland and Jennings have got to stop shouting when other people are speaking. Now, you might have something along that line to suggest.

        • I don't think Question Period is the problem. It's good drama and makes for good television, without which, nobody anywhere in Canada would take the blindest bit of notice whatsoever of anything political except for hacks, wonks and those of us who comment on the Macleans site. When is the last time you watched a provincial question period, for example ? If you did, you would probably double the viewership.

          Wells' focus on Question Period is misplaced, in my view. Better to reform the institutions of executive power, make committees relevant to the legislative process, start reviewing intergovernmental agreements in Parliament, just for a start. Oh, and make the Senate non-partisan so it functions like the protector of regional interests it was intended to be.

          You are completely right, both sides have to agree for it to work. Both sides are to blame for the lack of civility and general bad behaviour. My point, however, is that Harper and his wreckers have systematically undermined the institution of Parliament. There is much evidence to back up this assertion.

  16. Government was once a small part of the lives of citizens, prior to 1900. Back then, people could affort to be civil in question period.

    Now that government has intruded into every single aspect of every single person's lives, the business of government has become adversarial, because there is so much at stake.

    40% of the ecomony is government. Government dicates a set of laws larger than an encyclopedia. Government dictates our health care and our transportation.

    Anyway, I think question period does provide a valuable service, but at the same time, I don't see how it can be fixed.

  17. I remember having to get up real early to drive to Fredericton because Frank McKenna had QP scheduled for 7:30AM in the New Brunswick Legislature. A great way to start the day and get on with the real work of governing.

    • File that one under "Unnecessary Cruelty to Staffers".

  18. Great approach to fixing what's obviously broken, Paul.

    However, if MPs didn't get the attention of the press with their QP shenanigans they would drop the theatrics and get down to business. There's not much satisfaction in showing off if nobody is paying attention.

    As for the 'tar-baby' incident, it was the context in which the term was used. If Poilievre had omitted his preliminary remarks and simply described carbon taxation as a 'tar baby', there would have been nothing to highlight.

    1. seems reasonable, but just how would it eliminate gotchas?
    2. seems workable, but how would that eliminate the tendency for the PM and Ministers to answer a valid opposition question with a partisan attack on an opposition party?
    3. starting QP at 10 a.m. is a great idea; getting QP out of the way entirely might be an even better one if we could rely upon the Parliamentary Press Gallery to report diligently and objectively on matters of the day.

    Covering every debate, committee meeting, news conference by webcam is a great idea. But what about those who don't have computers or would prefer to watch them on tv?

    Possibly if enough MPs, reporters, and ordinary Canadians join forces to demand an end to the madness, things will change for the better for all concerned.

    • Just to follow up on my previous comment lest it be said that I offered no suggestions. How about appointing a referee – someone who would have the authority to cut off the mike of a member who disrupts QP with ad hominum attacks, or with unsubstantiated or untrue claims about other members or their party, or with non sequitur answers, or with creating general mayhem by shouting over the member who has the floor. Oh wait, the speaker has that power, doesn't he?

    • Perhaps holding QP three days a week would help. There would be more time to develop quality questions and more time to hopefully get answers.

  19. Stop reporting on it. There. Problem fixed.

  20. The one change I'd like to see is having the Minister's/PM actually answer the questions asked. I don't care if they get a little side tracked, but it bothers me when the question is ignored completely and they use the time instead to go off on an unrelated tirade.

    • That's one of the biggest problems IMHO.

    • At the same time, questions are usually phrased in a manner that means a straight answer is an admission of failure.

      For instance, let's take recent events. In one breath, the opposition will ask how the government could allow such a large deficit to happen. In the next, they are demanding the government hand out a massive amount of additional money for stimulus and employment insurance. You cannot answer both questions, you have to ignore at least one of them.

      Sometimes the question will be along the lines of: "how can you be so incompetent to allow X to happen". Just attempting to answer that question sets yourself up, because then you have conceded the concept that allowing X to happen is incompetent.

      • Nobody put a parliamentary gun to Harper's head and told him to spend money on building bridges to nowhere. He came up with the inspiration for that all by himself.

  21. If the Members Statements are going to continue to be campaigning on the taxpayer dollars with partisan, personal attacks instead of acknowledging one's constutuency – cancel it and give more time with stricter rules for QP.

    I think the press gallery should be able to once of twice a month act in the place of the opposition parties and ask questions.

    Change it to Question and "Answer" period where the government is required to give "real" answers.

  22. I count 28 comments, yet your comment software shows a count of 35. Also, some posts by me and others which appeared before have been 'disappeared'. Is there a problem ?

    • It's doing it again.

      • Hilarious. The comment software counts two replies to my previous posting, but I only see one. Anything I can do to help make this stuff work, sacrifice a small animal to the IT gods for example ?

    • Hi Mulletaur,

      There are comments that are hidden (to keep things clean) if you look at the end of some of the comments you'll notice the text "1 reply" or "2 reply" with an arrow next to it. Click that and you'll see the replies for that comment.

      Could that be the reason some of your comments/replies are missing? Also I recommend signing up for an Intense Debate account, having a positive rating keeps your replies from being hidden.

      Hope that helps. Cheers.

      • Hi Jonathan,

        That is exactly what I have been doing, but it has not always been working. Just now it works, five minutes ago it didn't. I notice that when it works, there is something like a cursor made of two arrows that go around in a circle for a moment or two before the replies load. Sorry to be a pain, I just want it to work consistently. I could still sacrifice the small animal if you wish.

  23. It's the year 2009…
    Politicians are still the same.
    They'll do anything to get what they need.
    And they need PARLIAMENT.

    Parliament is politicians!

  24. I have one solution.
    1. Take cameras out of question period.

    Question period is needlessly adversarial, but gets all of the press coverage because confrontation sells. This is part of why most of our MP's with upward mobility are angry white men (if women have punchy and aggressive sound-bites they tend not to be taken seriously). Since question period would no longer be about making it into the news, it could serve a more useful purpose. Coverage of parliament, moreover, would focus less on question period and more on discussion of bills – the real business of parliament.

    Question period was first televized on a regular basis in 1977. If you were to pick a turning point for parliament, beginning its slide into infamy the late 70's would be an excellent place to look.

    • Great idea – why not make the whole of Parliamentary proceedings in camera so they totally escape public scrutiny ? Then parliamentarians can have some great debates !

      • So we had no public scrutiny of politicians before 1977? Getting rid of cameras wouldn't end public scrutiny – journalists would still report on things, and political parties would still hold each other to account (they have every reason to point out that the plan of their opponents stink, because they all want to win more votes). There would also still be Hansard.

        The point is that you need different kinds of debate to get a policy. You need a high-minded debate that may not be likely to happen in the midst of a media circus. You also need a debate where people sell (or oppose) ideas to the public. The status quo mixes up those two roles.

        Want a good case study of the value of not televizing question period? Look to the provinces. They have question period (I think) but it rarely makes it into the evening news. Coverage of provincial governments tends to be much more issue-focused and far less acrimonious.

  25. Reposting this on the actual article instead of its pointer (Paul is it possible to turn off the comments on the blog posts that point to your columns so that all discussion can be in one place)?

    A noble idea Paul, but to me this amounts to trying to fix the hole in the bottom of the Titanic with a roll of duct tape.

    The Liberals and the Conservatives have a real hatred for each other and lack the basic decency and respect that ought to be present in civilized public discourse, and now all parties are guilty of it. That problem started years ago and has been allowed to fester until it's become what it is today.

    I'd like to suggest a more draconian solution. Electro-shock devices should be installed at all 308 seats, with the remote control for all seats held by the Speaker, or some other truly non-partisan entity. Transgressions of decorum and decency will be handled as you would expect in such an arrangement.

    • I don't see why the Speaker should have all the fun. The shocker should be hooked up to a Web page where we can all go and vote for who gets it based on a longitudinal Web polling system. Just imagine the fun we could all have. People might even start taking an interest in Parliament …

      • The tasers that the RCMP are no longer using could be loaned, one to each MP until we get that place straightened out. I`d watch that.

        • I like it. We could make it a combination of 'Rollerball' and the movie 'Brazil' at the same time. Ratings would skyrocket.

  26. "1. Increasing the length of questions and answers from 35 to 45 seconds would just give another 10 seconds for longwinded preambles and boilerplate (and often unrelated) responses. Giving written notice of questions like the British do might be a better approach."

    Can anyone tell me if that was the case years ago? When I was a lowly silly servant in the late 60's I seem to recall written responses being prepared by the govt. in advance of questions to to be posed by opposition members in the HOC that day.

  27. Covering every debate, committee meeting, news conference by webcam is a great idea. But what about those who don't have computers or would prefer to watch them on tv?

    Also, what about those without eyes? How will they watch our government in action? ;-)

    Seriously, I think Paul's webcam idea is a great one. It's in the interest of all Canadians to keep the workings of our government as open, accessible and transparent as possible.

  28. If Question Period is broken, it must be in part because MP's are not doing what their constituents expect of them. So why not make Question Period open to the public ?

    Here's my proposal : Any citizen gets to submit a question through a Web site. On officer of Parliament filters them for relevance and good taste. Of these, 12 questions are selected by lottery for answer by the government on a designated day during Question Period in place of Opposition questions. The Speaker can read them out and the Opposition can follow up with supplementaries. (Feel free to refine this proposal.)

    We will have to make a break with our traditions of leaving everything to a political 'nobility' selected at election time and not really held to account between elections. If we want to make Parliament more relevant and more effective, we should ask parliamentarians to share their power with citizens. We can refine and improve our democracy by moving from a representative democracy, which has served its purpose well but becomes increasingly irrelevant, to a more deliberative democracy which draws citizens into governance and accountability.

  29. It seems a little ironic that Mr. Well's writes on the topic of fixing Question Period, and it most certainly needs fixing, on a Maclean's blog, while another Maclean's blogger, Arron Wherry, delivers his own version of Question Period daily that makes the politician' look like non-partisan angels in comparison.

    • Wherry's commentary more often than not focuses on the ridiculous: things like a Minister refusing to answer a question put towards them, or the Opposition wasting time asking for a Minister's resignation multiple times.

      Besides, if he criticizes the Government more than the Opposition, it's because the Government is the one in power with the mechanisms and purse strings to get stuff done. The actions of the Government carry significantly more weight than the actions of an Opposition party, and hence deserve more scrutiny.

      • Nice try, but no cigar. Wherry might as well be running for office, his coverage is so slanted and misleading.

  30. Polite politics and politicians would be even more boring than the fat, vanilla ones we have now. Question period needs to be discontinued and an open forum in which the public can participate should take its place.

  31. It sure looks like the questions are longer than 35 seconds. Does that include the preamble which really is the rub for a lot of MPs requiring to answer. Many times they include half truths if not down right lies.
    I think our media are turning into a pile of girly men and whatever the female equivalent would be. Get a life. This is politics. Its an hour of show but the real work is done behind the scenes. If Canadians don't know what is happening in parliament then it is because the media who are paid to inform Canadians are too lazy to do the slugging required to dig up the information and report accurately and fairly so that Canadians can make up their own minds. The media are too busy following the horse race and writing their scripts from the talking points of the various political parties.

  32. To write fair and balanced meaningful commentary takes a lot of work. Our esteemed media people in this country don't want to do that so they opt for the sensationalized headline and move on to the next story. Notice how many comments are not talking about policy but personal attacks with the PM being their favourite target. Its more fun to tear a politician apart personally than talk about the more serious issues of the day which may need some independent research.

  33. You are right. Ralph Goodale and Marlene Jennings are the worst instigators for the bad decorum. You can consistently hear their catcalls as the government tries to answer a question. Perhaps if the media began reporting their bad behaviour we may get at least two MPs to stop with the theatrics.

  34. "Look to the provinces. They have question period (I think) but it rarely makes it into the evening news. Coverage of provincial governments tends to be much more issue-focused and far less acrimonious."

    Have you ever watched a provincial question period ?

    I am thinking that the truth or otherwise of your statement may depends greatly on which province you live in. For example, you will struggle to ever find any coverage of anything that is done in the Ontario Legislature on television news. When provincial politicians in Ontario want to get on the evening news, they have to resort to doing or saying something unparliamentary to get chucked out – like calling their opponent a liar – and even then, it doesn't always make it onto television. People are interested in federal politics, not provincial politics, at least in Ontario. In any case, all the criticisms Wells has levelled at federal Question Period are just as valid if not more so for most provincial ones. It is no less acrimonious and no more issue-focused.

  35. I've gotta say, your "blame the Conservatives" approach is ridiculous (if I remember correctly, it was Paul Martin that bribed a member of the opposition to win a confidence vote).

    Not only is it totally wrong, considering how idiotic the opposition can behave, but also the premise is self-serving, the thought that democracy works as long as it's my party that wins!

    • Ridiculous, like the Conservative-manual-to-sabotage-committees-ridiculous ? If Belinda was 'bribed', what was Emerson ? Self-serving is exactly what your comment is, I agree.

      • I'm not the one who blamed one party for the malaise.

        • Whether you did or not, there is no question but that the Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper has done everything possible to sabotage and undermine the workings of Parliament. That is fact. Period.

          • No it's not. Period.

          • So the Conservative manual on committee sabotage was what – an attempt to make Parliament work better ? Facts are not on your side.

  36. Emulating the British system in the way Wells suggests would torpedo the last feeble accountability mechanism which QP offers. It certainly wouldn't prevent politicians from covering for one another. Exactly the contrary.

    Under the British system, mid-level to minor cabinet ministers are likely to face questions only about once every four weeks. This very often provides cover for culpable ministers when mini scandals break.

    In practice, it could mean that opposition MPs would this week be forced to ask, say, Jim Prentice why Lisa Raitt lost her secret binder. Or it could mean that the issue was simply left dormant for weeks. Given the short attention span of the press gallery and the shorter attention span of the public, this is more than enough to time to evade the issue entirely. Or at least, to control the message in a way that Question Period does not allow.

    In this way, the status quo is preferable. If you screw up today, you face the firing squad tomorrow.

  37. Re: webcams / banning the cameras à la pre-1977, what about just forbidding the media from broadcasting quotations? Aaron could still dramatise it and CPAC could still broadcast QP in its entirety, but the hamming would presumably cease when there was no one left to ham for, or when the full context of an MP's zero-to-60 outrage were plain to see.

    I think Paul's reform of the 35-second clock is inspired, and 10am is a great idea. I like the no-subsitutions rule for who answers but am leery of a having PM's PMQ time, lest it further promote Putinism. The questioner should ask his/her question of a particular minister and that minister should be obliged to respond; if the minister is absent, time should be allotted on a future day for the cumulative questions which had been asked of that minister in the minister's absence. Basically: show up for QP or face a sh*tstorm upon your return.

  38. These are strikingly sensible proposals. The problem is part of a larger issue of the government's responsibility to parliament, which leaders and MPs have forgotten about in their mad pursuit of short-term party advantage. To confront the larger issue, MPs have to take back the power to control their own leaders, who set the tone and create the atmosphere in the House. For some further discussion, see the historian Christopher Moore's webpage, http://www.christophermoorehistory.blogspot.com for June 1, June 4 and June 5.

  39. I'm not sure it is simply a matter of rules. Politics is the method to conduct warfare without anybody (or many) getting killed. The differences of approach and goals of the 4 parties, official election platform documents aside, are representative of deep divisions in the country.

    How could the disdain of Albertans towards Ontarians and visa versa be expressed except by stupid and loud shouting across a floor? Safer than what people really want to do, and state publicly.

    There will be civil QP's when there are civil relations between the various ideologies in Canada. Which means never.

    As proof, the quietest, most dignified parliament in recent memory was Gordon Campbell's first majority. Opposition of 2 iirc. Members of his own party were asking questions during QP. Quite civil.

    Derek

  40. Why not give these suggestions a go? I'd even nominate PW as speaker – maybe they'd let him where his S.Major's hat?
    Anyway, what's to lose? It aint workin too good now, that's for sure! If this doesn't fix it, there's always prorogation – or has that ship sailed once too often?

  41. Hear. Hear.

    The whole purpose of QP is to sink the other guys' boat before they sink yours, to inflict more damage on them than they do on you.

    Truth? Reality? Optional.

    When the stakes are so artificially high, I'm not surprised that so much time and resources are spent on this two-bit theatre.

  42. It's not only Question Period. On political talk shows you get reps from the parties sneering snarling and talking over one another. Really unbecoming, hard to watch,r hard to take seriously. Of course it could be worse. It could be like in other countries where political opponents send bully boys to beat and assasinate one another.

    • I agree, QP is a symptom, not the cause, and treating the symptom is a waste of time.

  43. way more than question period is broken. the westminster system as a whole is breaking down, and the country needs ottawa less and less.

  44. Demagocracy

    The problem, brothers and sisters, is populism. Politicians cannot debate issues because issues are boring to the average voter. This is the reason why the only print media that are surviving are the ones that feature Jon and Kate Plus 8 dividing by 2.

    Pure democracy is government of the morons, by the morons, for the morons.

  45. 35 seconds, 45 seconds, it isn't individuals' feelings that are governing their behaviour, it's strategy. Changing time of day or length will hav little impact if QP is still the most covered part of the day. Government will find a way to stonewall and countepunch, the opposition will adapt and adjust as well. The political dynamics are fundamentally different in our country and I'm not sure Potter's right thinking that grafting UK procedures will result in UK behaviour.

  46. As someone who watches QP on and off, I'm not sure what to think of your suggestions.
    First, the Prime Minister is not there everyday. He is often away, and you would be lucky to find any of the party leaders there on Friday (when QP is at 11 o'clock in the morning). Maybe we should compare Friday's QP to the other ones and see if there's a difference?
    Second, I'm not sure if the whole session of parliament is webcast, but ParlVU has QP, the House sittings and Televised committee meetings. The list can be found here: http://parlvu.parl.gc.ca/Parlvu/UpcomingEvents.as
    And last, if the press actually paid attention to what goes on outside of QP, things would probably not be as rowdy. But when was the last time anyone reported on a debate on a bill? Or even the "Late show", the Adjournment Proceedings where an MP can ask follow-up questions to QP if they thought that their question wasn't answered to their satisfaction?

    A few weeks ago, I was flipping through channels at home, and when I got to CPAC, Brian Masse was giving a speech on a Bill about the border, and I actually stopped to watch, as he seemed to know what he was talking about.

    The funniest thing about QP is that Conservative MPs get questions so they can ask the Government to tell them how great they are.

  47. Perhaps if we paid more attention to the real work of governance, things would be better. I maintain that most or all of what is broken in our system is, frankly, our own damn fault. I offer as an example the Members of Parliament Glen Pearson and Irwin Cotler both of whom, according to my sources, represent their constituents well and who conduct themselves reasonably well. There are, of course, many others, but those are two which immediately come to mind. Outside of Wherry's blog, when was the last time you read or heard about either man?
    Compare this to the attack dogs: Pierre Poilievre, JOhn Baird, Ralph Goodale, Pat Martin- these people show up in the news.
    It's like some sort of bizarre cult of masculinity- (no, I'm not blaming the tone in the HoC on the existence of the male gender, keep your shirt on) like a bunch of 13 year old boys in a cafeteria, each trying to outdo the other in terms of loudness and grossness, with the aim of procuring the attentions of the entire group, whilst the boy on the end of the table chatting quietly amongst his friends or helping someone with his homework- is completely ignored.
    We reinforce this idea that in order to get attention you have to shout the loudest early on- and then complain when it produces the predictable results.
    I humbly suggest that if we stopped paying attention, they'd stop doing it.
    Or so I hope.

    • Excellent point, Sophia, and too true. What we need is some kind of disincentive to Krazy Kafeteria behaviour . . . shame apparently counting for nothing. What do you think of that idea someone had last week for a TV show dedicated to ridiculing idiocy in the House? Seems to me it might be a winner: fun to watch, civic-spirited, political, reality TV, etc. And it might provide that disincentive.

      • Actually, that might be a very good solution, along the lines of CBC's 'Misplay of the Week'. Ridicule can sometimes make people actually think before they open their mouths to show off their impaired wit.

      • That's crazy….so crazy- that it just. might. work! (apologies for gratuitous Inspector Gadget reference) It would be nice if basic human decency was enough, but, apparently, it's not. A TV show dedicated to ridiculing idiocy in the House would be funny, interesting TV to watch and would probably score higher ratings than any of the TV shows on politics currently shown. (Although if any of them were shown at some time after 5:00 and before 12:00…) I can see people really getting into it- and it might go a long way to increase the level of dignity in the house.

      • That's crazy….so crazy- that it just. might. work! (apologies for gratuitous Master of Disguise reference) It would be nice if basic human decency was enough, but, apparently, it's not. A TV show dedicated to ridiculing idiocy in the House would be funny, interesting TV to watch and would probably score higher ratings than any of the TV shows on politics currently shown. (Although if any of them were shown at some time after 5:00 and before 12:00…) I can see people really getting into it- and it might go a long way to increase the level of dignity in the house.

      • Although it would be nice to think that the worst offenders among our politicians could be shamed into better behaviour, the cynic in me believes that clips from the show would simply show up in political attack ads the following week.

        • I also fear the sort of 'any publicity is good publicity' that might surface if we had a show dedicated to shaming the worst QP offenders.

          • Current QP behaviour does seem to bear that out.

    • Big Brother Where Art Thou?

      If we stopped paying attention?!

      No, the problem is that not enough attention is focussed on our elected officials. If the product of government is silly and stupid and poorly manufactured, it is because of an anemic demand.

      People get the government they deserve.

      In the novel 1984, by George Orwell (Jack_Mitchell?), we were warned of the threat of a government that is constantly watching over the people. What we did not think to be fearful of was and is a much bigger threat… a government that the people don't watch over.

      If you want to improve the elected, you've got to start with the electors.

    • "It's like some sort of bizarre cult of masculinity …"

      Yup. Even the word 'Member' makes it sound like an old school gentleman's club. Just saying.

  48. It might be a good election issue. Perhaps Iggy could make improving the effeciveness/efficiency of QP part of his platform. Start with a good study on the issue and recommendations for improvement from all sides by way of a survey.

  49. Question period as it now stands is a testament to the lies and ambiguity on the answers given to questions by Members of Parliament representing the Canadian people.. That's just the way they want it…..give us a little, twist it, and blame it on the past..and let journalists confuse the rest..

  50. You know what, I love QP the way it is, I have for years and it will surely not change.

    NO TO CHANGE!!

  51. Reporters and editors alike love controversy and despise policy, and Paul wonders why politicians anxious for “earned media” cater to them?

  52. When I want a good answer to a question from a subordinate, I ask it to them and give them some time to gather their facts and formulate an intelligent response. Written submitted questions would be the best way to accomplish this. Follow up question would not have to be scripted…gives public a chance to see them think on their feet, as well as respond intelligently to questions.

    Put me on the spot about a random topic associated with my job, and I'll give you a bafflegab nonresponse as well.

    And if well thought out answers were being given, maybe the opposition (whomever it is at the time) would not be so eager to ask idiotic questions, because they would be the ones looking like idiots.

  53. Hey, not so fast to discount the idea – you could also contrast to examples of the most commendable performances in QP. Classical reinforcement strategies – punish for bad behaviour and praise for good. They might get the message.

  54. You petty commoners don't know what it's like to work during QP, in Parliament. It's great and shouldn't be changed.

  55. Hi Paul:

    As an avid watcher of all things political I agree with you one hundred percent. When I put similar concerns to the Speaker in 2007 I received the following reply. Mr. Milliken seems to take no responsibility for allowing the childishness to continue. I fear that he is appeasing those who might otherwise vote him out of his perk-filled office. I also have an underlying suspicion that he feels a deep-seeded need to appear as 'one of the boys' among boys with whom he would not normally mix.

    Dear Mr. Chaplin:

    Thank you for your electronic message of February 6, 2007, which I note was also addressed to the Prime Minister's Office and to the leaders of the opposition parties. In responding to your comments, please know that I speak only for myself and from my particular perspective as Speaker of the House of Commons.

    There is no doubt that many observers of televised broadcasts of the daily Question Period would agree that there is a need for improvement in the level of discourse during those tumultuous forty-five minutes. It is no accident that the video clips of House proceedings replayed on network news broadcasts are, almost without exception, recorded during Question Period. In the interest of fairness, however, it is important to remember that Question Period is very much the exception rather than the rule, and that most of the business of the House is transacted in a constructive, respectful manner.

    Because of the collegial character of the House of Commons and of the broad privileges enjoyed by its Members, particularly in the area of freedom of expression, no one–not even the Speaker–can act unilaterally to improve the level of discourse during Question Period. Thanks, however, to a growing consensus that such improvement is overdue, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has undertaken to study the rules of the House with a view to proposing changes to this end and has already heard from a number of authorities on parliamentary procedure.

    Thank you for your interest in the work of Parliament and for taking the time to write. Please be assured that I take these matters very seriously.

    Yours truly,

    Peter Milliken, M.P.

  56. They are decent men and women who upend quiet lives, endure the indignity of electoral campaigns,

    decency begins with apologies for insensitive and depraved comments concerning things that negatively affect the ppl you represent.

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