Today I will suggest a few other Question Period remedies. Again, these don’t require public consultations as was suggested for Michael Chong’s major overhaul of Question Period. These are much easier to work out between the Speaker and opposition House Leaders.
It has long been a practice that the use of props is not permitted. The most recent example although not part of Question Period itself, was Jason Kenney’s use of a backdrop when appearing at a standing committee. These were ordered taking down when opposition members wisely protested.
To improve the flow in Question Period as well as cut back on some of the negative attacks each side inflicts on the other, I would suggest that the reading of notes when asking a question or reading from notes or a Question Period briefing book (on the government side) be treated the same as the use of props.
This would force MPs and cabinet ministers to ask and answer questions without reading them. It will also cut down on a lot of the fancy attack questions we see and stop a lot of the scripted answers we get from ministers. Both of these increase the temperature and bad blood between the opposing sides in the House. The government side resents the carefully worded insults hurled at ministers and the opposition is frustrated when answers are read from a carefully prepared script that often ignores the question.
Gone would be a lot of the over the top attack questions that MPs or their staffs have spent hours writing to get that perfect 10 second clip on TV. Gone too will be most of the pushback quotes the government side likes to use on opposition questioners.
It is a small step, but a lot of the negativity in Question Period comes from the use of these carefully worded questions and answers. It would be up to the House Leaders and the Speaker to agree on when exceptions might be allowed. For instance quoting from media reports, quoting statistics etc.
It would also be a small step to improving public perception of our MPs and ministers. Nothing is more boring than watching a minister stand and read the answer word for word. Especially when they read the same answer if asked several questions in a row. The public is left with the perception that the minister doesn’t know the file when in reality they most likely do.
Are our MPs incapable of asking a 35 second question without reading it word for word? Are our minister’s so poorly briefed that they can’t respond to a question within 35 seconds without reading a scripted answer word for word?
The answer is that they are quite capable of doing so. Wouldn’t it be nice to see MPs and ministers think on their feet for a change? At the same time this would highlight those MPs and ministers that are really good and flag for all to see those on both sides who don’t measure up.
None of these suggestions by themselves will cure the ills of Question Period or eliminate the caustic atmosphere in the House, but when added together they will make a difference.
Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.
Good suggestions. Reading notes is an absolute no-no in public speaking and would rate an F in Communications 101.