A question for the minister

by Aaron Wherry

Keith Beardsley again considers Michael Chong’s plan for QP, this time on the point that ministers should have, in most cases, to actually speak when spoken to.

Over the past few years two more exceptions were added. When you are in trouble another minister gets assigned to take your questions. It could be the House Leader or it could be whoever is filling in for the PM. This is a great defensive tactic but it is just that, a defence mechanism that lets a minister off the hook. In the Chretien years, to use a Liberal example, when a minister was under attack, they took the heat themselves, day after day. Just think of Jane Stewart and what she went through for quite a few weeks.

If the situation got serious in QP, Chretien would rise and defend the minister. That was a big media story. Over the last couple of years that has changed: questions about ministerial expenses, as an example, have been answered by the House Leader. Why? If the minister spent the money, the minister should be able to tell voters why. A minister is supposed to be responsible for the department and it seems logical that this includes ministerial expenses incurred when performing departmental duties.




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A question for the minister

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Although I think the "seems logical" phrase is too kind, here.

    Having the PM step in to answer certain questions makes occasional sense; for example, if it's a foreign policy issue in wartime, the PM is just as likely to have an answer on a defence issue as the defence minister.

    But as far as I'm concerned, *speaking as a Tory voter,* the current Conservative practice of having hyperpartisan ministers like Baird answer on behalf of other ministers is essentially a minor act of constitutional subversion, especially in a minority parliament.

    Ultimately, Ministers are responsible to the public through the House, not through the PMO or its staffers. Ministers should respond to direct questions from the House with direct answers when asked. Period. Full stop. No excuses, no exemptions other than "this is really so-and-so's brief and he'll answer." If they're paid for nothing else, they're paid for that.

    Anything else is an insult to our already insulted intelligence. And if so, we've been insulted quite a bit lately.

  2. I think that this new tactic speaks to the weakness of this government's front bench.

    At the exception of a select few, Harper doesn't trust that his ministers are savvy enough to handle themselves in QP.

    • That is, to rise, read from a pre-prepared script that has been rehearsed several times over that afternoon, and then sit back down again.

  3. There are so many weak ministers in this government …
    Fortunately, they can read 4 or 5 talking points which someone else prepares … over and over and over.

    But what do they DO all day for their minister's salary and expenses?

    • They pose for photo opps with big plastic cheques. It's abysmal. With the harpers, we don't need no steenking cabinet ministers, just steve and john, his bulldog.

  4. It is a fundamental part of "responsible government" that a minister of the Crown remain accountable for his ministry to the House.

    But what do you expect from someone who, on his first day in office and as one of his first acts as PM, appointed an unelected senator to be responsible for the biggest spending ministry (Public Works) without ever having to attend QP at all to answer questions. With that one appointment of Fortier, Say Anything Steve broke at least three significant campaign promises on his first day.

    • And yet, four years later, he's still the head of government.

      It would appear, then, that the Conservatives aren't misreading public sentiment when they conduct business as if Canadians don't care (or, they're not smart enough to care).

      • That and a bit of good marketing. The Conservative campaign machine is effective; it's the policy machine, democratic machine and the accountability machine that lay rusting away in the yard.

        • It also helps that the Opposition parties–the Liberals, in particular–haven't been able to convince Canadians that they're a viable alternative to the governing party.

          • Without any shadow of a doubt, the Liberal Party has been the best thing going, if not the only thing going for Harper and the Conservatives.

            Literally – in the sense of votes of confidence – and figuratively – in the sense that a weak party trying to find itself has presented weak opposition and hardly a vote-getting alternative.

            Interesting contrast to the 1990s.

            Then, an opposition party could not get support because it took clear positions on difficult policy issues and wore its conservative principles on its sleeve for all to see, while the government stayed in power because it took clear positions on difficult policy issues and wore its liberal principles on its sleeve for all to see.

            Now, an opposition party cannot get support because it avoids taking a clear position on difficult policy issues and minimizes or chucks any significant signs of liberalism while the government stays in power by avoiding taking a position on difficult policy issues and minimizing or chucking any significant signs of conservativism.

            What a strange political world we live in.

          • Interesting take. Which difficult policy issues in particular do you think the opposition party has avoided taking a clear position on?

          • Have you heard any policy on healthcare come out of the mouths of either Harper or Ignatieff (or Dion before him)? For example. Or transfer payment structure? It's like, rather than showing leadership, they are both waiting for the other to say something so they can react to it.

            I should add a caveat. In recent weeks there has been some small steps from the Liberals: Ignatieff staked some ground on reproductive rights, making significant changes to the gun registry (but keeping it) and taxes. They are maybe finally starting to show less fear of the Tories trying to fundraise off of, or force an election over, what the Liberals say and do (they never seem to try to raise money or support off of what they are doing themselves, funny that). So they are good signs.

          • I agree that the leaders have studiously avoided issues like healthcare and transfer payments. On the whole, I think that the scope of political debate in this country has narrowed considerably since the eighties and nineties.

            I've noticed that many of issues that the Liberals focus on these days turn out to be double-edged swords, inflicting damage on the government but also on themselves. The LPC hasn't really gained any ground from the G8 abortion funding issue and the gun registry issue, partly because these issues have revealed schisms within the party itself.

            I also don't think that the scandal-du-jour strategy has done much to improve Liberal fortunes, though it has been effective at drawing blood from the government and weakening them somewhat in the polls.

            The Thinker's Conference was a good move, and I believe this is the kind of thing that the Liberals should be pursuing. The LPC needs to become a party with rock-solid, detailed, coherent policy proposals and long-term vision. It's all about rebuilding public trust and presenting themselves as a superior governing alternative. All this negative reactionary stuff is hurting the Liberal brand.

          • I agree, I don't think scandal-du-jour has done a ton in the short term, but I think Liberal strategists assume that you have to jump on stuff like that to do long-term damage to Tory credibility, especially given the "new broom sweeps clean" sort of image the Tories rode in on.

            I think everything you and TB say is correct, but I'd add one other thing: the LPC these days seems to have a tin ear for the concerns of Main Street Canada, especially compared to Jean Chretien. Chretien spent practially his entire adult professional life in Ottawa, yet the guy intuitively seemed to understand what Main Street Canadians cared about, what moved them. The 1993 LPC election platform, which was a piece of political brilliance, perfectly illustrated that. Iggy & Co., by contrast, focus huge amounts of time & energy on something like Afghan detainees, and while the issue is important in a moral sense, polling data clearly show that it's not at or near the top of the list of Canadians' concerns these days.

          • The Liberals need to concentrate on concrete policy proposals, in effect policy platforms that are boring. This is a hard route back to power, but it's only fair, not to mention good for the country before being good to the Liberal Party.

            Heck, they've had a good run in recent memory, can't we appeal to their patriotism to expect a little policy that isn't completely self-interested?

      • Don't agree. Public sentiment isn't on side with the Tories, it's just that it is spreading itself 4 ways (Lib, Dip, Bloc, Green).

        • Well, you could have made a very similar argument in the late 1990s: public sentiment isn't on side with the Liberals, it's just that it is spreading itself 4 ways (PC, Reform, NDP, Bloc). Remember that Chretien won some of those majority governments while not really kicking butt in the popular vote department.

          Look PJ I know that you dislike Harper quite intensely. I'm not a fan of the guy myself. But I think that you have to bear in mind that as a general rule, non-political junkies experience reality in quite a different way from political junkies. And I say that as a political junkie myself. What I'm getting at is that hard-core Tory-hating political junkies assume that most ordinary, apolitical Canadians share their intense, steam-coming-out-of-the-ears dislike of Stephen Harper. And I think that's demonstrably not true.

  5. "Mr. Speaker, my question is for the House Leader. I would like to know why the government continues to pay the various minister of Cabinet when it is made quite clear here in this House that this government does not believe those Ministers are capable of answering simple questions about their ministry. In these times with massive government deficit, would it not make more sense that if the House Leader is going to answer every question anyway, we simply do away with the various other Cabinet ministers and the expense they accrue to the Canadian purse?

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