In Ottawa, written questions are more powerful than oral questions

Liberals quietly force cabinet ministers to answer to their questions—but not by saying anything out loud

Frustration breeds creativity. Years of stonewalling during Question Period has the opposition frustrated. Liberals, who mastered the art of deflection during their time in government, are as tired as anybody of the government’s reluctance to answer an oral question during the time allotted daily to that exercise. They still ask oral questions, as do New Democrats and Bloquistes and Greens in the House, but experienced Liberal MPs have recently had plenty more luck with written questions.

Cabinet ministers are free to dismiss oral questions, but they’re mandated to answer written questions from MPs in as much detail as is required. This week, those written queries are producing newsworthy answers on a daily basis. They can be expensive: in one case, Liberal MP John McCallum asked for a list of briefing notes handed down to the government’s deputy ministers. That particular pursuit cost the government $117,188. Tory MP Mike Wallace doubted the wisdom of the expense. “Are we sure we’re getting value for the dollar?” he asked. The Globe and Mail’s editorialists, duly unimpressed, responded.

Mr. Wallace’s suggestion that MPs should ask fewer questions, because ignorance is cheap, is pretty much one of the dumbest things a parliamentarian has come up with in recent memory.

The Globe also ran a defence of the order paper question penned by law professor Adam Dodek, who insisted that the tactic proves the value of individual parliamentarians.

In this age of cynicism for public institutions and public officials, Mr. Cotler has demonstrated that a single MP can indeed make a difference. The Harper government continues to preach the values of transparency and accountability while practicing secrecy and obfuscation. Mr. Cotler slowly and steadily pries information out of the government’s hands, strengthening Parliament in the process.

Liberals are getting lots of answers via the order paper, and New Democrats are using it to their advantage. Today, NDP MP Dan Harris asked the government about the cost of regional ministers’ offices ($2.7 million during the last fiscal year), a response to an order-paper query submitted by Liberal MP Sean Casey. Earlier, NDP MP Randall Garrison wondered why the feds were watching peaceful protests so closely. That question came after Liberal MP Scott Brison hounded the government for a written answer to this question:

With regard to the Government Operations Centre, for each protest or demonstration reported to the Centre by government departments or agencies since January 1, 2006, what was the (i) date, (ii) location, (iii) description or nature, and (iv) department or agency making the report?

Ask a simple question during QP, you’ll never get an answer. Ask a similar question on paper, and the bigger opposition party makes hay out of it. Liberals may not be getting the credit, but they’re squeezing important answers out of powerful Tories.

The recap

The context

Parliamentarians paused yesterday to listen to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s rousing, appreciative address to a joint session of the Commons and Senate. He thanked Canada, and all assembled parliamentarians, effusively for such steadfast support of the Kyiv government’s work of late. A rare sense of unanimity filled the House of Commons, as all sides applauded loudly first for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and then for Poroshenko, a symbol of Ukrainian freedom and democracy who, since his election, has won over all of Ottawa’s politicians. That was yesterday.

Today, it’s back to normal in the chamber. The House has spent part of the morning debating Bill S-3, legislation that targets illegal fishing off Canada’s coasts. Every party sounds like they’ll support the legislation. NDP MP Carol Hughes lauded the importance of the bill, as did her colleague Jinny Sims. The opposition is left to oppose not the substance of S-3, but the process by which it was introduced. NDP MP Robert Chisholm spent much of his allotted time this afternoon talking very little about illegal fishing, and quite a bit about the issue not being a priority for the governing Tories. This should already be law, he moaned. Chisholm sounded like a disappointed parent. But in a Commons where MPs are loath to give credit where it’s due, petty opposition to legislation that they actually support—and which might pass unanimously—is often the closest thing to cooperation any voter can expect to see on Parliament Hill.