header image
The world according to David Graham


acva bili chpc columns committee conferences elections environment essays ethi faae foreign foss guelph hansard highways history indu internet leadership legal military money musings newsletter oggo pacp parlchmbr parlcmte politics presentations proc qp radio reform regs rnnr satire secu smem statements tran transit tributes tv unity

Recent entries

  1. PMO Staff Run Government; Ministers Represent It
  2. On A Mostly Harmless Birthday
  3. The Trouble With Political Communications
  4. Politics: War By Other Means
  5. On the function of Social media
  6. C-18 is an existential threat, not a benefit, to democracy
  7. On Missing A Little More Than A Sub
  8. The Realpolitik Of Open Nomination
  9. What Is An Open Nomination, Really?
  10. Alberta election about identity, not policy
  11. The Trouble With Electoral Reform
  12. Mr. Bains Goes to Rogers
  13. Question Period
  14. Why do lockdowns and pandemic restrictions continue to exist?
  15. Parliamentary privilege: an arcane concept that can prevent coups
  16. It's not over yet
  17. Trump will win in 2020 (and keep an eye on 2024)
  18. A podcast with Michael Geist on technology and politics
  19. Next steps
  20. On what electoral reform reforms
  21. 2019 Fall campaign newsletter / infolettre campagne d'automne 2019
  22. 2019 Summer newsletter / infolettre été 2019
  23. 2019-07-15 SECU 171
  24. 2019-06-20 RNNR 140
  25. 2019-06-17 14:14 House intervention / intervention en chambre
  26. 2019-06-17 SECU 169
  27. 2019-06-13 PROC 162
  28. 2019-06-10 SECU 167
  29. 2019-06-06 PROC 160
  30. 2019-06-06 INDU 167
  31. older entries...

Question Period

Question Period has become a parody of itself. Sitting four years on the government side back bench, it was baffling. But question period is a symptom of, or an expression of, wider social problems, not the cause of them.

We would have fascinating, in-depth debates from time to time, under the heading of Take Note debates. We had interesting debates around private members' bills. We had good interactions in legislative debates, particularly in the question and answer period that follows so many of the often canned speeches. Committee, always recorded and often televised, was host to the meat of what we did on the Hill as parliamentarians.

The public only paid attention to question period, the least useful, productive, or informative activity to take place on the Hill. The galleries were full during question period, and barren for almost any other activity. 24 hour news channels would cut in to watch question period, cutting out after the leaders' rounds. The perception built is that question period is all that MPs actually do.

For those of us sitting in the room who weren't either asking or answering a question, it was 5 wasted hours every week. When ministers were absent, back benchers would be brought forward to fill the front bench. The opposition did the same thing, ensuring the visuals were appropriate for those few minutes each day that anyone was aware of what we did.

Question period's status as the looking glass through which the world sees Parliament is a self-perpetuating problem. To get noticed in question period, one has to be ever more outrageous, or have a trademark style like Jacques Gourde's over-the-top emphasis on the last word of every question he asks.

Parliamentary rules around privilege mean there is effectively no accountability for anything said, especially during question period. There's no liability for misrepresenting facts or straight out lying. Question period cannot be interrupted by points of order or questions or privilege. Very often as soon as question period is over, members rise on points of order to litigate statements that came up during question period. Unless someone straight out called someone a liar - against Parliamentary rules even if someone obviously lied - the speaker almost always rules that whatever was said was simply a "matter of debate".

Standing order 37(3) offers the recourse of an "adjournment debate", where a questioner can appeal an answer and ask for ten minutes more debate on the point at the end of business. There are up to three such debates every day, but nobody is even aware of them and only the Member asking and a representative of the government need to be present for them, the house having already technically adjourned.

Decorum cannot easily be maintained; the speaker's hands are effectively tied by a few rules entrenched in the standing orders:

Standing order 9 means that the speaker intervening on what is being said can be interpreted as participating in the debate:

The Speaker shall not take part in any debate before the House. In case of an equality of voices, the Speaker gives a casting vote, and any reasons stated are entered in the Journals.

Standing order 10 gives the speaker absolute authority, but zero power, over decorum. He can rule on points of order, often days or weeks later, but in the moment is given the responsibility to preserve decorum without any tools with which to do so:

The Speaker shall preserve order and decorum, and shall decide questions of order. In deciding a point of order or practice, the Speaker shall state the standing order or other authority applicable to the case. No debate shall be permitted on any such decision, and no such decision shall be subject to an appeal to the House.

Standing order 11 gives the speaker the one instrument he does have, which is the "naming of a member", which is Parliamentish for kicking someone out of the House for the rest of the day. The trouble with this power as all speakers are acutely aware is that it kicks irresponsible Members out of the House directly into a media scrum eager to hear more about why they were kicked out, turning an offense into an "earned media" victory. Getting kicked out of the House is the best thing that can happen to an opposition member looking to make a point.

So the only power the speaker actually has is to simply stop seeing a Member, and refuse to recognize them when they rise in the House. Milliken did this. Regan did this a little bit. I haven't watched much since Rota took over but I would be surprised if he didn't also do this. But this, too, is limited. It's one thing to refuse to hear from a rowdy backbencher, it's quite another to not recognize the leader of the opposition.

At the end of the day, when the leader of the opposition attacks the decorum of the house and the integrity of the very institution in which he sits and serves, there is no institutional protection or recourse. It is left entirely up to the voters to resolve.

But in a world where economic and social imbalances are getting worse each and every day, and greater and greater numbers of voters feel they can't get ahead and are looking for easy explanations, behaviour like Pierre's - attacking the system, blaming the government for everything, regardless of their actual role or influence in the matter, and undermining the very function of democracy - are a positive. 'This guy tells it like it is, after all, and we should vote for him! He'll show them!' He is, essentially, Trump with a brain -- a very dangerous prospect indeed.

The solutions aren't easy nor obvious. Trudeau once got pilloried for addressing "root causes" of terrorism, but the solutions to our decorum problems and our structural social and economic problems have to be seen from that perspective. Question period is an expression of what we are becoming as a divided society, angry at increasing dysfunction and unsure of who or what to blame, expressing that anger less and less rationally on social media and in the centre of our most important public spaces: through question period.

To solve Question Period, we have to solve rural-urban imbalances, desperate poverty living next to obscene wealth, an education system that trains factory workers instead of inspiring creativity and critical thinking. And with snake-oil salesmen like Poilievre successfully offering fake solutions to real problems, we have a long way to go before our trajectory even begins to start heading in the right direction.

Originally posted on SubStack.

Posted at 03:59 on May 16, 2023

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

Why do lockdowns and pandemic restrictions continue to exist? | | Mr. Bains Goes to Rogers

(RSS) Website generating code and content © 2001-2020 David Graham <david@davidgraham.ca>, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved. Comments are © their respective authors.