The problem with Question Period... in Britain - Macleans.ca

The problem with Question Period… in Britain

PMQs might be better than QP, but it’s still lamented

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To Britain, where there is some concern that the Prime Minister’s office (“No. 10” in local parlance) is attempting to stage manage Prime Minister’s Question, the weekly session in which the leader of the government is put before the House of Commons for inquiry.

Our Question Period here follows line-ups submitted by the whips, but the party whips would seem to have less direct influence over questions in Britain. When Michael Chong tabled a proposal for QP reform in 2010, he suggested something like the British system—a rotation for ministers, with one day reserved for the Prime Minister and half of the questions set aside each day to be randomly assigned to backbenchers. (Speaker Scheer’s ruling on Mark Warawa’s question of privilege last year hinted at the possibility that backbenchers could, if so moved, start seeking to be recognized by standing up, regardless of what the whips’ lists suggested.) Here, for the sake of reference, is last week’s PMQs. However much it might differ from or improve upon our situation, it is not all good.

Indeed, it seems that the British public apparently does not generally look upon PMQs with respect and pride.

“Overwhelmingly, respondents agreed that ‘there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’: 67% agreed and just 5% disagreed,” explains the Hansard Society in a report released today. “Forty-seven percent of the public agreed that PMQs ‘is too noisy and aggressive’ with just 15% disagreeing. Four in 10 people (40%) agreed that PMQs ‘deals with the important issues facing the country’ whilst two in 10 people (20%) disagreed. However, a slightly lower proportion (36%) agreed that PMQs is ‘informative’ whilst two in 10 (22%) disagreed. And just 20% agreed that ‘It’s exciting to watch’ whilst 44% disagreed with this assessment … Just 16% of respondents agreed that ‘MPs behave professionally’ at PMQs, with almost half the population (48%) disagreeing with this statement. And given that a common defence of PMQs in its current format is that it is a unique parliamentary occasion envied by citizens around the world, it should be a wake up call to MPs that just 12% of the British public say PMQs ‘makes me proud of our Parliament’, whilst 45% feel quite the opposite.”

The “civility” argument is too easily turned into some general longing for everyone to be somehow nicer or quieter and so it might be more worthwhile thinking about how Question Period could be made more relevant. The Hansard Society report offers a few suggestions in this regard: lengthening the time of the session, involving the public in asking questions and broadcasting the weekly PMQs in primetime.

As those who see only clips of PMQs are less well disposed towards it than those who see it in full, and as the current format disproportionately enables only those aged 55+ to watch it in full, consideration should be given to changing the timing of PMQs. Moving it, for example, to primetime on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening might widen the possible viewing public. Realistically PMQs won’t garner huge audiences but a significantly changed format might stimulate the attention of some citizens.

If we adopted the Chong Plan for QP reform and set aside each Wednesday for the Prime Minister, we could do likewise. And an increased prominence and viewership might subsequently act to improve the behavioural aspects of QP. (How much would change, I’d wonder, if MPs and ministers had it in mind that more people were watching?)

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