As the House of Commons is currently on the Thanksgiving break week until October 15^th there is one area of Parliamentary business that I have yet to discuss in my weekly reports and that is the infamous “Question Period”. It is challenging to try and summarize question period in a logical manner given that the parliamentary procedure involved for question period does not, in my view, follow a logical path. Question Period is undeniably an important part of our democratic process; however it is also a function where many elected members can often demonstrate some of their worst behaviour right at the moment when most of the Canadian public (through the media) are paying utmost attention. The end result often gives members of the public a rather jaded view (to put it mildly) on how our governance is conducted on Parliament Hill.
From my own perspective it is not only members of the public who are frustrated by “QP” (as it is often referred to as) but it can also be equally as trying from the standpoint of being a Member of Parliament. Is there method to this madness? It is important to recognize that question period is largely for the benefit of the Opposition to raise issues of importance and to hold the government to account, at least in theory. However the rules governing question period are not set by the opposition, but rather by parliamentary precedence and while the rules have slowly evolved over many decades, I am likely not alone to question if further reform is not an idea worthy of investigation.
As it stands currently question period occurs for 45 minutes each day the House is in session– generally starting at 2:15pm in Ottawa everyday save for Friday when it occurs at 11:15 am. Parliamentary procedure generally dictates the question order and what parties, including independents, follow in the order of question allotments. Parties also have control over who asks questions within the allotment they are provided much as Government has the ability to decide who responds. The biggest challenge to question period that many in the public are unaware of is that questions and answers are time limited, currently the amount of time a Member of Parliament is allowed to ask a question is 35 seconds. Likewise for a member on the Government side of the house, 35 seconds is also the time limit for a response. Members can at times ask a supplemental however it is again subject to the same 35 seconds as is the response from Government.
While it is possible to ask a meaningful question in 35 seconds, I am certain most would agree that when it comes to governance, very few answers can be given in such a short timeframe. As a result often questions become comments or statements and the responses follow a similar pattern, all of course with a very political theme. Typically the thirty five seconds in many cases ends up being utilized as an effort to score political points often with quickly delivered commentary that often is more frequently evaluated by the performance of the orator then the actual content. In many ways it is not unlike stand up political theatre however in real terms it only occupies a very small portion of the parliamentary day and effectively overshadows the more important work that occurs in parliamentary committees and during debate on bills. Generally there is far less attention on parliamentary committees and debate unless an individual MP or group of MP’s use profanity or otherwise submit offensive remarks in such cases then it becomes more newsworthy. Fortunately I can confirm that Parliamentary committee work is generally far more productive and unlike question period there is typically much more respect and stronger working relationships between members from all sides of the House. While I do not expect question period to change any time soon it is important to recognize that although it often dominates the media spotlight, the 45 minutes of 35 second questions and answers is only a small part of what occurs on a daily basis in Ottawa.
Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for Okanagan-Coquihalla and can be reached at [email protected] or by telephone at: 1(800) 665-8711.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.