QP: The good, the bad and the ugly

10 moments that define the best and worst of political theatre on the Hill

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Question period should be important. Anybody who’s watched even a minute of parliamentary political posturing would support that basic truth. When the House of Commons is sitting, Canada’s elected representatives spend 45 minutes every day asking the government questions about how it governs. QP could be a relatively basic exercise in accountability, were its participants suitably committed to that end. “Why?” an MP might ask, presumably directing his or her query at some decision taken by the government. “Because,” another might answer, presumably addressing the question directly. To remind anyone that QP rarely transpires as a procedural purist might wish is almost clichéd.

Many parliamentarians who don’t know better almost instinctively resort to ignorant heckling and monotonous recitals of whatever someone who makes more money tells them to say. Other MPs stand out as statesmen, or, at least, respectful adults. QP has its moments. Like any made-for-TV melodrama, QP has its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s get a taste of the madness. First up, some ugly.

Gerald Keddy gets away with condescending non-sequiturs.

Your average partisan babbling sounds a lot like Keddy’s response to Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland’s question about the government’s stubborn inability to produce a functional free-trade agreement with the European Union. Freeland couched her query in mildly condescending terms; Keddy, the parliamentary secretary on the file, took the bait and laced his answer with personal attacks. He played parliamentary vice-principal, pointing out Freeland’s lacklustre attendance record at committee—a line of attack in vogue since Jack Layton humiliated Michael Ignatieff during a 2011 leaders’ debate. Relevant? Yes. An excuse to avoid the question? Of course not. (Keddy even uttered the second-person “you,” a parliamentary no-no in a chamber where everyone addresses only the Speaker. Sloppy delivery, Mr. Keddy.) Next, we focus not on the inanity of a minister’s response to a question, but on a colleague’s response in the background.

Michelle Rempel double takes, and face palms, on camera.

TV cameras can only film the current speaker in the Commons. But while that parliamentarian remains the focus, everyone sitting in the camera frame must be cognizant of their facial expressions as their colleague speaks. On March 26, 2013, NDP Deputy Leader Megan Leslie wouldn’t let Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield off the hook for remarks he made in New Brunswick. Standing with a family during a photo-op, Ashfield had told one of the family’s daughters, Grace Moreno, that she’d “make a wonderful wife for somebody.” Leslie and others took exception to the remarks, while Ashfield—who claimed the remark was based on Moreno’s hospitality, and nothing else—said the criticism was out of context. Watch Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s reaction to Ashfield’s remarks.

Pat Martin and John Baird muse about the zombie apocalypse.

QP veers into the surreal and absurd every so often. NDP Pat Martin and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird achieved peak absurdity on Feb. 13, 2013.

Tom Mulcair plays prosecutor.

The NDP’s orange wave granted them status as Official Opposition after the 2011 election, and Tom Mulcair’s election as leader vaulted the New Democrats—if fleetingly—into first place in national tracking polls in early 2012. But when Liberals made Justin Trudeau their leader in April 2013, the NDP fell to third. That’s where the party remains, despite Mulcair’s utter mastery of QP during the height of the Wright-Duffy affair. He’s known as the best Opposition leader in some time, far more capable as a questioner-in-chief than his Liberal predecessors. All that that has proven, however, is that a third party with a popular leader can outpoll even the finest parliamentarian in Ottawa.

Peter Stoffer gets answers to his questions.

Few parliamentarians can leave QP having heard answers to their questions. Question period isn’t answer period, after all, as the lame old joke goes. The NDP’s Stoffer is different. He’ll occasionally give a minister notice of a question he intends to ask—and, hey, sometimes the minister respects that courtesy by addressing the question directly. James Moore, then heritage minister, managed such a response when Stoffer asked about veterans’ privacy rights. Show this clip to civics students, teachers of Canada.

Paul Calandra can bestow citizenship on Santa Claus.

You can tell which Tories love to toy with the opposition. Paul Calandra, an MP from suburban Toronto, has spent much of the last year as Harper’s point-man in the Commons. He shouldered a heavy load of opposition attacks on the Wright-Duffy affair. Sometimes, he attempts what he thinks is folksy charm. That includes an appeal to Canadian children and their love for Santa Claus. Of course, Calandra also barked out allegations about a so-called porn spy who contributed to the CBC. Can’t always keep things classy when you’re doing the PM’s dirty work.

Tom Mulcair makes ironic pop culture references.

The soundbite is front of mind for most parliamentarians who stand under the bright lights of the Commons. They want to make the news. They know only brief clips of their interventions will make the cut. They know they have to be clever. Sometimes, they try to appeal to a younger audience. Mulcair tried to hit a home run when he questioned the government’s lack of accounting for $3.1 billion in spending. He made a reference to a frozen-banana dispensary that plays an occasionally important role in Arrested Development, one of many critically acclaimed and commercially unsuccessful shows that young, urban Canadians love so dearly.

Brent Rathgeber speaks with an independent voice.

Alberta’s only independent MP made a name for himself by quitting the Tory caucus on June 5, 2013. He was sick of toeing the party line and went indie instead of voting according to any party’s wishes. He’s granted a question in QP from time to time. Sometimes, they edge on softballs. Mostly, they’re constructively critical of government policy. Few conservative voices in the House carry the same independent flair as Rathgeber’s interventions.

Rob Clarke brings the House to its feet.

Few moments move parliamentarians to rise in unison. Occasionally, they stand for moments of silence (including each Dec. 6, on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women). Tory MP Mike Lake makes a statement each year, just before question period, that honours his son’s challenges with autism. Lake’s colleague, Saskatchewan MP Rob Clarke, a former RCMP officer, asked a question in the aftermath of the Mountie killing spree in Moncton, N.B., earlier this year. His preamble had all his colleagues on their feet, applauding in solemn unison.

The Speaker sometimes stands his ground.

Speaker Andrew Scheer has the toughest job in the Commons. Call him a referee, a mediator or the only adult in the room—no matter the metaphor, Scheer’s job is to keep MPs in line. He keeps his hands off debate as much as possible, but will punish MPs who are wildly out of line. He rules MPs’ questions out of order when, in his judgment, they don’t ask specifically about government business. Critics will point to dozens of questions that might be disqualified, but Scheer sticks to making examples out of particularly egregious infractions. He doesn’t shut down answers, however, much as the opposition might hope.