View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – Decorum in Question Period SEPT 16, 2015

The Quebec National Assembly’s attempt to restore some decorum and at the same time reduce the amount of time wasted by member’s applause in Question Period has merit. But will it work? Would it work in Ottawa? Is it overkill?

Question Period can get pretty noisy; just watch CPAC for a few minutes. The use of better high quality microphones at each desk has helped the viewing public to catch more details of what is said. However,  there are often times when the Speaker has to intervene or can barely be heard over the noise of senseless applause.

The use of phony standing ovations has gotten out of hand.

There is zero need for cabinet ministers and backbenchers to stand and applaud an answer to a question given by the Prime Minister or by any minister for that matter. It is done for three reasons.

First, it is done to make the PM look good should that clip be the one that appears on the nightly news. It is all about the optics.

Of course there are other reasons too.

The most important one is that standing ovations eat up time. With Question Period running for 45 minutes, every standing ovation eats up some of the precious time allocated for asking questions. Each standing ovation takes approximately 10-12 seconds, from the time the MPs stand, to the time they sit down and the Speaker gives the next questioner the go ahead to proceed. That one standing ovation has cut off approximately one third of the time allocated to a question which is approximately 35 seconds long.

In the leaders round, the Prime Minister will take the first questions asked by the other party leaders, usually five in total, three to the Leader of the Opposition and two for the leader of other party. Opposition leaders can ask more and frequently do. For instance the Leader of the Opposition can ask five and frequently does. If the government stands and applauds the PM’s answers to all 5 questions, they have wasted some pretty valuable question time.

Five questions multiplied by 12 seconds doesn’t seem like much, but that 60 seconds that is wasted actually cuts the number of opposition questions that day by two. Add in all the standing ovations for ministers responding to questions (even the soft ball ones from their own side) and it is quite easy to knock off 5 or more questions from the opposition’s time. When the government is under heavy attack on an issue this wasted time becomes very important.

There is another reason for the government side to use standing ovations. On occasion the applause is done to simply bolster the confidence of a minister under attack. In that case, MPs are reminded before Question Period that they need to make lots of noise to support their minister.

What always amused me about the past parliamentary session was the number of times opposition MPs stood to applaud the questions asked by their leader. That was just plain dumb. There is zero reason to do that as they are limiting the time they have to grill the government. If they stand and applaud for the same five questions referred to above, they have also cut off at least 2 potential questions. In other words combining the applause from both sides of the House and at least four, probably more, questions don’t get asked. I used to love when the opposition did this to themselves.

This can be controlled by the Speaker without a vote as was done in Quebec. All the Speaker has to do is warn the government side and if they persist in eating up time this way, add on additional time at the end of Question Period for the opposition to ask more questions. If the opposition parties insist on doing it, warn them once and the next time they do it, jump to the next questioner on the Speakers list. If your leader loses a question or two, that hurts.

Of course there are ways to get around limits on applause and standing ovations. If you look back at the Diefenbaker-Pearson era, MPs showed support by banging their hands on top of their wooden desk. It made quite a noise for a few seconds. Try doing that yourself and see how quickly you stop. It wouldn’t happen very often.

Whether it is done by a vote in the House or by the Speaker intervening, we need to see an end to standing ovations. It is a complete waste of time and in the end reducing the number of questions hurts the opposition’s right to hold the government to account and the public’s right to know the answers to questions that matter.

1 Comment

  1. The House of Comics and all provincial / territories legislatures have turned into jokes with forced applause and standing o’s. It reminds me of kindergarten. In fact I think kindergarten students act better than some of our “legislators.”

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