Parliament, heal thyself

by Aaron Wherry

On Friday, MPs spent a couple hours—starting here, resuming here—discussing the rules and procedure of the House.

The ideas, amendments and complaints raised are likely all worth consideration, especially for fans of such stuff, but various matters of general interest came up: including time allocation, Question Period, petitions and statements by members.

Below, some chosen highlights.

Chris Charlton on time allocation.

Just since the last election, the government has used time allocation 15 times. In one instance, notice of time allocation was given before debate had even started on the bill. When they were in opposition, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Public Safety, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages and others decried such tactics and they have been quoted extensively on that in this House. However, for me, the person who summed it best was the Minister of Finance when he reacted to a time allocation motion brought forward during his time at Queen’s Park. He said: “This shows…the legislative incompetence on the other side of the House. They’ve been unable to manage their bills here, so they…have to time-allocate…” I could not agree more. Overreliance on time allocation is the sign of an incompetent government but such incompetence is no excuse for running roughshod over the institution of Parliament.

Marc Garneau on Question Period.

The problem with question period is not one-dimensional, but rather it is full of nuances when taken as a whole. There are questions of procedure, such as rotation and the length of questions and answers. There is also the question of decorum, including exclamations and shouting, which often cut short members’ time, and parliamentary language, which often becomes the source of further debate … Something else which I know is not in the Speaker’s purview or a matter for Standing Orders but which we could also talk about is the substance of the answers in question period. As I just stated, I know that the substance of a minister’s answer is not something on which the Speaker can rule. The Speaker cannot make a minister answer a question. However, there is something I would like to see and that is ministerial accountability. To be more specific, when a minister is asked a question, I would like the minister responsible to answer the question. Also, the idea of having Wednesday’s question period directed uniquely at the Prime Minister, as is the practice in the U.K., is an interesting proposal, which in my opinion merits further consideration.

Kennedy Stewart on petitions.

The proposition we announced today is really two-fold. First, Canadians should have the ability to sign a petition electronically. This would not only improve access, but it would also allow us to more accurately gauge who has signed a petition. This is already being practised in the province of Quebec and in the U.K. parliament. We suggest that process be brought here. More important, to bring us right in to the 21st century, we suggest that if a petition contains 50,000 signatures, the issue raised by the petitioners should be discussed in the House for one hour. This would be somewhat like private members’ bills. It would allow debate in the House for an hour. This would give some strength to backbenchers, while taking a bit of power away from the partisan politics that seem to grip the House at times. It would also give citizens more of a say in their own governance.

Tom Lukiwski on petitions.

While the e-petition idea is interesting, I would point out that this could also be abused very easily. In this day and age it would not be very difficult to get 50,000 signatures on any petition, whether it be partisan or something that is extremely relevant to Canadians. I note with interest that the NDP may have up to 100,000 members signed prior to its upcoming leadership convention. I say that because it would then be very easy to have all members sign up and any time the NDP wanted to create a petition for debate, it could get 50,000 signatures online very easily. The result would be that the hour of debate would use up valuable House time. I think we have to consider that very carefully.

Charmaine Borg on Question Period.

The first issue for the committee’s consideration should be Standing Order 37(1) concerning question period. This period is intended to be an opportunity for members to ask questions of ministers, who then respond, although my colleagues will agree that we have not got many answers to our questions recently. I consider this to be a serious problem. We should find ways of improving the situation. There could be provisions and even protocols with which the Speaker would have to comply to ensure that ministers answer questions asked by the opposition. This is how we can hold the government to account. It is very important that when members ask questions of ministers, they be required to answer them. Another option for consideration would be to set aside a day for the Prime Minister, during which he would be required to answer questions.

Alexandrine Latendresse on members’ statements.

One thing that the public sees the most is the privilege set out in Standing Order 31, which allows a member to make a one-minute statement on various subjects. These statements are a very good way to reach our constituents. Members should use this time to talk about an event in their riding or an organization that, in general, deserves the attention of the House. Unfortunately, recently, many of the members have been using the time reserved for these statements to play partisan games. In my opinion, this type of practice should not be encouraged. Personal attacks are absolutely unacceptable, and Standing Order 31 should be amended so that there is more decorum here in the House.

Parliament, heal thyself

  1. Easy way:
    1.  Limit questions to 15 seconds, limit responses to questions to 5 seconds, unless the questioner agrees to extend the period.

    2.  The respondent must be either the minister the question is directed to, the minister responsible for that department, or the Prime Minister. No other person may respond to the question without the permission of the questioner.

    3.  Direct that the comments in Standing order 31 all begin with the words “My constituents”

    4.  A wide angled shot of parliament is used whenever the house is in session, and each seat in parliament has a web-cam directed at it, and can be viewed online, at any time, by anyone. Any individual viewing it may record what it shows.  When a member gets up to speak in the house, their webcam automatically tracks and records it and archives it on the HOC website.

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