Yesterday in parliamentary irrelevancy

How irrelevant were the responses in QP?

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Right in the middle of yesterday’s debate on relevancy in question period was, of course, an actual session of question period. And we might view that QP as an informal test of relevance.

Had the NDP’s rule been in place, how many of yesterday’s responses might have been ruled out of order? With or without the NDP’s rule, how many of those responses might we have wished to be ruled out of order?

I dare say only one of the responses was so far afield that it might have been cut off. There might not have been answers to the questions asked (in the case, for instance, of questions about the money spent flying European officials around), but the vast majority of the responses basically stayed within the subject matter raised. The closest brush with total irrelevancy in a response was probably this response from Trade Minister Ed Fast, in which Fast took a passing reference to a deal with Europe as an excuse to entirely ignore a question about economic development in southwestern Ontario.

In my ideal situation, the Speaker might’ve either cut Fast off or stood up and allowed the questioner, in this case, Liberal MP Arnold Chan, a chance to restate his question. But we could probably haggle over the general understanding of relevancy to be applied.

In my mind, offering some comment on the position of the questioner should be allowed. Only when the government minister strays entirely from the question to attack or question the other side should the Speaker intervene. At some point, the House’s time is being wasted.

(There is here a counterpoint worth considering: that entirely irrelevant responses are sufficiently scorned already by the public and press. I’m not entirely averse to this argument, though I do like rules.)

Oddly enough, if there was anything in question period yesterday that was unquestionably out of order, it was, in my opinion, a question asked by a Conservative MP that should have been caught by a rule that already exists.

Nearer the end of the 45 minutes, Conservative Earl Dreeshen stood with this:

Mr. Speaker, our government recently announced its plan to reduce premiums for small businesses that pay less than $15,000 in total EI payments, with the goal in mind to help stimulate job creation. The Liberals opposing this have come out with their own plan, which is scarce on details. Can the Minister of Employment and Social Development update this House on what the Liberal plan for employment insurance would mean for Canadian workers and businesses?

Setting aside the basic issue of backbenchers from the governing party only ever being permitted by their party whips to ask such “questions,” there does not seem any way to imagine this being a question about something within the administrative responsibility of government—unless the Liberals have already formed government. Which I’m fairly certain they haven’t. At least, not yet.

It is a clear convention that questions must concern something “that is within the administrative responsibility of the government or of the individual Minister addressed.” The Speaker clarified this standard in a statement last January. And he has cut off responses on these grounds before. For whatever reason, this question was allowed to stand and received a response from Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

Ideally, Conservative backbenchers would be able and willing to ask actual questions of the government, questions about matters of personal or constituent concern and having to do with official policy or current events. In lieu of that, we might at least hope that the softballs they lob to ministers contain some question about actual government business.

Personally, I think the Speaker could go further than that and simply cut off any question from a member of the governing party that makes any reference to an opposition party or MP. There’s no particular need to reference any position or action of any other party when putting a question about government business, and simply tacking on a question about government business to the end of a statement shouldn’t be a permissible way of using question period to rant about the opposition. Attempting to sneak in within the rules is the stuff of children. We might expect our elected representatives to hold themselves to higher standards than the average five-year-old.

(Oh, but that would turn question period into a one-way street! Yes, well, tough noogies. Being the government means having to accept a different set of responsibilities. If members of the government would like to establish a second question period for asking questions of the opposition, I invite them to make that proposal.)

Post-script. Beyond Peter Van Loan’s plea for the tangential yesterday, a few Conservatives stood to express concern with the NDP proposal. Tom Lukiwski argued that a comprehensive review of the standing orders was preferable to the NDP’s single change. Michelle Rempel said question period would be better left for MPs and ministers to police themselves. And Scott Reid argued that the mechanics and wording of the rule would make it unworkable. All of those remarks are worth reviewing.

Beyond the Calandra episode, I can think of at least a couple of occasions on which I could’ve imagined a Speaker, with the power of some kind of rule on relevancy, interjecting. On May 29, 2013, the Conservatives took multiple opportunities, in response to questions about Mike Duffy and Arthur Porter, to talk about a meeting between Tom Mulcair and the mayor of Laval in 1994. Then, on June 13, 2013, James Moore decided that any question about the Duffy affair was reason enough to talk about an incident involving Tom Mulcair and Parliament Hill security. (Some of Pierre Poilievre’s comments about the political history of NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice might also be included here.)

After, say, the first of those tangents, might the Speaker have stood and warned the minister to stay on topic? At the first hint of any subsequent tangent, could the Speaker have stood and cut the minister’s microphone? Could a rule be designed to allow for such cutting off? Cutting off like this or this or this.

Possibly we could adapt Kady’s idea of allowing the Speaker to fine members for transgressions. That way, a minister could repeatedly test the Speaker’s patience, provided he or she was willing to pay, say, $1,000 per irrelevant tangent. And the proceeds could go to charity, thus ensuring that the irrelevancy was at least put to some actual use.

Meanwhile, here is the letter NDP House leader Peter Julian has sent to Conservative MPs hoping to secure support for the NDP motion at tonight’s vote. So far only Michael Chong has publicly pledged to vote in favour.

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