Cornwall ON – Michael Chong’s Motion 517 to reform Question Period will be debated later this month. While it only directs the Procedures and House Affairs committee to study his proposals, they offer a glimmer of hope that perhaps Question Period can still be saved.
Question Period is crucial in that it offers one clear opportunity for opposition parties to hold the government and its ministers accountable. Generally when a minister is asked a question that minister will answer it. I think most voters would expect that, although there are some traditional exceptions.
The question must be about the minister’s present portfolio, not one that they held previously and if the question is directed at a junior minister, on occasion the senior minister for that department will respond.
Over the past few years two more exception were added. When you are in trouble another minister gets assigned to take your questions. It could be the House Leader or it could be whoever is filling in for the PM. This is a great defensive tactic but it is just that, a defence mechanism that lets a minister off the hook. In the Chretien years to use a Liberal example, when a minister was under attack, they took the heat, day after day. Just think of Jane Stewart and what she went through for quite a few weeks.
If the situation got serious in QP, Chretien would rise and defend the minister. That was a big media story. And the story was Chretien rescued the minister or that he had to defend that minister and express his confidence in them. Over the last couple of years questions about ministerial expenses for an example, have been answered by the House Leader. Why? If they spent the money, they should be able to tell voters why. A minister is supposed to be responsible for their department and it seems logical that this include ministerial expenses incurred when performing departmental duties.
One has to also question if using a regional minister with a portfolio unrelated to a question, should be answering on behalf of another minister. This is usually done as a courtesy to francophone MPs and viewers and to provide French media clips for Quebec. But, in reality, what does that minister know about the issue other than the talk points in front of them. There is such a thing as simultaneous translation and while the optics might look better the minister responding is not “responsible” for that department.
Chong’s motion asks that the Procedures and House Affairs Committee look at a procedure that directs the minister asked a question to answer it. Providing the first two exceptions are maintained it makes sense. If you can’t take the heat, maybe you shouldn’t be there in the first place.
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