Should we let the people question the Prime Minister?

An idea from the Mother Parliament

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

British opposition leader Ed Miliband believes that his country’s Parliament should open its doors to the public so that voters might directly question the prime minister. This is a splendid idea situated within a problematic idea.

Here is an argument that British Prime Minister David Cameron should steal Miliband’s idea, but here is an argument that Miliband’s idea entirely misses the point (and would, in fact, only contribute to the lazy politics of being anti-politics). I’m sympathetic to the latter argument, particularly this point:

Who does Miliband think all those people sitting around him in the House of Questions chamber every Wednesday are? They are the people’s representatives. The are not chosen by random ballot, or—as Miliband also seemed to be suggesting—specially filtered to reflect a perception of the prevailing national demographic. They are chosen by the British people. And if we don’t like the questions they ask, or the way they ask them, we the people can vote them out . . .

People do not want to have to trudge over to the Palace of Westminster every Wednesday to personally demand answers from the Prime Minister. They have jobs to do, bills to pay, children to rear, elderly parents to care for. That’s why they elect politicians in the first place. They don’t want to do the job themselves. They just want the people they elect to do the job properly, and fairly and honestly.

If Prime Minister’s Questions—like question period—is a mess, the electorate would be best served by its MPs improving matters. Giving the House of Commons over to the public might seem like a useful subversion of the status quo, but it might also be simply defeatist. Put another way: We might simply leave Parliament to parliamentarians.

But that might simply be a matter of venue. Because the basic idea—submitting the Prime Minister to an open forum of questions from the public—is basically worthy, particularly insofar as our political leaders can seem rather apart from the public and insulated from spontaneous human contact (at least, so far as national television cameras might record such interactions).

Under Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal party proposed something similar to Miliband’s idea during the 2011 campaign:

Under a Liberal government, all Canadians will be able to participate in People’s Question Period, where the Prime Minister and ministers will respond directly to unscripted, user-generated questions online. Ministers’ participation in the weekly online question and answer session will be rotated and, as Prime Minister, Michael Ignatieff would participate at least monthly in the online People’s Question Period to answer citizens’ questions unfiltered by political parties or the media.

This had the benefit of seeming very hip to the Internet. But an online exchange doesn’t entirely amount to a public forum; a prime minister or a minister still wouldn’t have to interact with another human being in person for all to see. And that should be the goal.

It’s not clear to me how often our political leaders are ever subjected to questions from the general public in a relatively uncontrolled forum anymore. Opposition leaders tend to participate in “town hall” meetings when they travel the country, but I’m not sure I can recall the last time the Prime Minister faced questions from voters in an open forum. Mr. Harper has tended to campaign in something of a bubble. Michael Ignatieff regularly participated in open forums during the 2011 campaign, but to no obvious benefit (and, arguably, to his detriment), but it would probably be overly simplistic to conclude from that that a successful campaign can’t be an open campaign.

So far as message discipline and control are prized above all else, you can understand why the political leader would not be particularly keen to participate in anything that could not be mostly stage-managed. But that’s not really of our concern; I see no reason we should ever be particularly worried about whether our politicians are sufficiently comfortable. In fact, we should probably be aiming to subvert any of their attempts to be so comforted.

As I wrote in January when Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino was caught on camera struggling to deal with a group of unhappy veterans, it was at least interesting to see a politician captured on film in such a relatively unregulated encounter with the public. That sort of thing should happen more often—indeed, it could be a useful priority. But we don’t need any kind of fancy new way of accomplishing that. Rather, we could simply revive an old idea.

Each year for the first four years after he became prime minister, Jean Chretien participated in televised town hall forums on the CBC. Chretien had a rather rough go of it one year, and the annual forum seems to have been discontinued sometime thereafter.

Prime Minister Harper or prime minister Trudeau or prime minister Mulcair would probably have a bad moment or two (or more), as well. That’s probably not a bad thing. Possibly, they and we would mature in the process. If nothing else, the CBC could use the programming.

An annual forum would be lovely. A bi-annual forum (one at the end of the spring sitting, one at the end of the calendar year) would be all the lovelier. If we really wanted to get frisky, we could also expect the Prime Minister to hold regular news conferences in Ottawa (with journalists actually permitted to pose follow-up questions and the Prime Minister willing to take more than five questions) and cabinet ministers to regularly scrum, but let’s not dream too extravagantly.

It might serve to remember here that the most iconic moment of a prime minister commenting to the press involves the prime minister being stopped by reporters on his way into Centre Block—something so unstructured that it would surely not be permitted now (there doesn’t even appear to be an aide nearby to yell “last question” or drag the Trudeau away). Of course, it also results in an entirely fascinating seven-and-a-half minutes, the prime minister proving entirely willing and able to argue his case and defend himself. Expecting a political leader to face such uncontrolled inquiry might have the benefit of actually improving matters—raising our expectations, requiring politicians to be capable of such stuff and resulting in a more vigorous politics.

In Britain, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, hosts a weekly call-in show. Watch here as Mr. Clegg is chastised by a caller (and then challenged by the host) and has to defend his position on a specific policy.

Mr. Clegg seems like a decent and intelligent guy, but I refuse to believe he’s any braver or more capable than our political leaders.

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