OTTAWA ONTARIO – It is unfortunate that the Liberals have tried to ram the changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons down everyone’s throats. Change is definitely needed and some of the changes which come out of the work done by Michael Chong have merit.
For instance designating one day as a Prime Minister’s day for Question Period deserves serious consideration.
Unlike the pathetic surprise attempt by the Liberals to stand Trudeau up to take all of the questions last week, an appointed day with a well prepared and well researched opposition would be an entirely different matter.
Having spent over ten years as the political staffer in charge of Question Period (Both in opposition and government) I doubt having the one day set aside for the Prime Minister will hurt accountability.
To begin with, Prime Ministers are rarely in the House on Mondays and Fridays and for good reason; as a lot of MPs use those days as travel days or constituency days. This really narrows the days available to directly question a Prime Minister down to just three days.
Nor should a Prime Minister’s Question Period bring about a reduction in the number of questions that a Prime Minister answers. Taking the above three days, the Leader of the Opposition usually asks three questions in the opening or “Leader’s Round” and occasionally they will ask two additional ones. The next party leader will get two and a potential two more. If you look back over the last decade or two you will see that it is rare that the leaders ask their maximum number of questions each day. That gives the party leaders 5-9 questions daily a week multiplied by three days or a maximum of 27 questions. Yesterday saw a total of 33 opposition questions asked as well as a few planted ones from the Liberals.
Take away the planted questions (which should be done for every day, thereby forcing ministers to make announcements in the House) and if anything the PM will get more questions in the one day than he now gets for the entire week. A well-researched opposition can easily keep a Prime Minister on the hot seat for an entire Question Period.
The unofficial practice of Harper was to take the questions from all party leaders in the opening Leaders Round. After that the questions went to ministers. Recent Liberal Governments did not even stick to that procedure and PM’s sometimes ducked questions from opposition leaders as well.
As for Friday Question Period, please do away with it and spare us the pain of listening to poorly prepared questions and answers being read from prepared notes into the record. One change that no one is suggesting for the Standing Orders but which is most definitely needed is the banning or use of notes and smart phones to read out questions or answers. Treat them as props. If you can’t ask a question or answer one without reading it, you shouldn’t be there. This would also reduce the carefully crafted “10 second clips” that are built in to questions when they are read out.
If the 45 minutes set aside for Friday QP were divided up amongst the other four days that would add roughly 11 minutes of questioning a day. If you have ever been on the government side giving the opposition another 11 minutes or roughly 5 -7 more questions a day would be pure hell. That would also give the PM’s question day up to 38 questions. Holding the PM accountable won’t suffer.
As for the other days, having minister’s accountable and in their seats would work just fine.
We started the practice in the early 2000s of asking every question to the PM even if that question came from a backbencher. We did it because the media bought it and there were plenty of TV clips at night with our MP asking an empty Prime Minister’s chair a question and the cameras then showing a minister answering, leaving the impression to the public that the PM ducked the question.
Work out a mechanism so that the opposition can insist that a specific minister be present when issues explode into the public domain and accountability won’t be hurt. In the end it is a better fit for the opposition as they can go after weak ministers and they don’t have to divide questions up over several ministers as well as the Prime Minister. Instead they can put a minister on the hot seat and keep them there.
While the media won’t get to cover a Prime Minister reciting talk points as answers three times a week, there will be plenty for them to cover when the opposition has an extra 27 questions a week to use on ministers who don’t know their files.
The changes the Liberals are pushing for the Standing Orders do have serious ramifications for the ability of opposition parties to hold the government to account or delay potentially poor legislation. However, don’t be fooled by claims that Question Period will suffer and accountability suffer if there is a designated Prime Minister’s Question Period each week.