The opening salvos of Question Period today in the House of Commons were extremely revealing in terms of the political posturing that will undoubtedly begin as we move closer and closer to a general election. Notably absent from the House of Commons chamber during Question Period was Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. However, Lisa Raitt opened up the portion of the parliamentary day on the topic of the carbon tax:
Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Prime Minister was asked a simple question, whether Canadians can expect to pay higher fuel prices with the carbon tax. His response was a bit jarring. He said, yes, and that is what Canadians expect because that is leadership.
What the Prime Minister views as leadership is literally terrifying to widows and single moms across this country. At the very least, they deserve to know one thing. How much will the carbon tax cost them?
The Prime Minister responded to the opposition benches on point but not without reaching to the previous Conservative government (without question exactly where the Conservatives can be defined as weak on the environment):
Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives are yet again demonstrating not just their tenuous relationship with the truth, but also with the understanding that we have to take good, clean action on carbon. After 10 long years of the Harper Conservatives doing absolutely nothing on the environment, the same Conservatives show that they just do not get it.
We are putting a price on carbon pollution because it will reduce emissions and drive growth in the right direction at the same time. While Harper Conservatives believe that by making the economy and the environment work together and that somehow Canada is broken, we will continue to invest in clean technology.
Note how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau out and out calls the opposition Conservatives in this 42nd Parliament the “Harper Conservatives” despite the fact that Stephen Harper is no longer their leader. We can expect the Liberals to come out heavy linking the current caucus to the past and the fact that many front bench members are long in the tooth Conservatives from that era makes it a viable political tactic.
Lisa Raitt would not let the issue of the carbon tax go and rose again to follow-up on her first question:
Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister’s lead ministers simply do not understand that they are very much out of touch with the reality of what’s happening and the gravity of the issue that we are speaking of. I remember the days, and a lot of us do, of being able to put just five bucks in the gas tank in order to get to my work at the Dairy Queen, and there are people like that today in my riding who experience that.
This is a serious matter that is going to affect the affordability of life for many Canadians. His government knows how much it costs. Why will he not tell them?
And Prime Minister Trudeau refused to hold back in evoking the name (and apparent puppet master abilities) of Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
Mr. Speaker, we have been putting in place practical, low-cost measures to tackle climate change and drive clean growth, including pricing pollution. It is clear that the Conservatives have no intention of taking climate change seriously and have no plan to promote clean growth in Canada. This is exactly the kind of inaction we saw in 10 years under Stephen Harper, who still very much apparently controls the backbench of the Conservative Party, and these Conservatives are no different. (emphasis added)
It is important to understand and worth mentioning that the linking of Stephen Harper to the current Conservative caucus is a test balloon at this point. The Trudeau Liberals have previously labelled Andrew Scheer “Stephen Harper with a smile” and that line and sentiment will be tested now by the Liberals to determine its strength going into an election campaign. It will be key to watch the polls, in particular the approval rates of Trudeau and Scheer to understand the impact of this tactic and whether or not it will be effective enough to be featured during the next election campaign.
There was a final exchange between Lisa Raitt and the Prime Minister over the carbon tax and again Trudeau linked the current caucus to the previous Conservative government:
The Harper Conservatives still demonstrate that they do not get it. They are stuck in what they were doing for 10 years. Canadians had enough.
It was another Conservative MP, Gérard Deltell, who asked the next question to the Prime Minister, the subject remained the carbon tax:
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to repeat what I said because it is the truth and it comes from Natural Resources Canada. The Conservatives’ record from 2005 to 2015 is the following: a 2.2% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 16.9% increase in GDP.
That is the Conservative record. We lowered greenhouse gas emissions and grew the economy. We did that without the Liberal carbon tax.
Why does the Prime Minister want to impose a tax on Canadians?
The Prime Minister did not step off message once in his reply:
Mr. Speaker, if these Conservatives want to run another campaign based on how well they did during the Harper years, I urge them to do so. Canadians rejected the approach of the Harper government, which presided over the worst record of economic growth since the Great Depression, was unable to create energy jobs in new markets, and failed to provide Canadians with the future they needed. Canadians made a choice: they rejected Harper and his Conservatives.
The Trudeau Liberal logic goes something like this: the current Conservative caucus is being run by Stephen Harper behind the scenes and their leader is no different than Stephen Harper (note how note once into QP at this point has Trudeau even mentioned Andrew Scheer), Canadians rejected Stephen Harper in the last election, therefore Canadians ought to reject the current Conservative caucus.
The issue of the carbon tax presents a perfect litmus test to begin determining the posturing that will develop as the election period encroaches. For the Conservatives, the issue is their bread and butter in terms of populism (everyone gets talking about the price of gasoline), plays to the geographical base and presents an opportunity to tap back into the 905 around Toronto. For the Liberals the carbon tax is their centerpiece environmental policy that they will hold up as taking real action on climate change in Canada (which is especially important given the mixed messaging of environmental stewardship from the Liberals coming out of the pipeline debates). It is also a great avenue to attack the previous Conservative government because of their quantifiable failure to act on environmental issues. It will be particularly interesting to watch the Liberals roll out their attempt to link the current Conservative caucus to Stephen Harper, whether or not it will be effective absolutely remains to be seen.
British Columbia’s Premier, John Horgan, recently unveiled his government’s intention to reform the financial laws surrounding political donations. As has been noted in editorial, after editorial on the subject, BC before these proposed measures could accurately be called the Wild West when it came to the political donation regime– in that there were virtually no rules regarding who could donate, and how much could be given. This obviously led to big business money flowing into the pockets of the BC Liberals and big union money flowing into the pockets of the NDP, while smaller parties such as the Greens and the (barely a party) Conservatives, would be left with very little to compete against big money in general. Among the measures proposed is a $1,200 personal contribution limit, a ban on corporate and union donations and measures to ban and protect against third party advertising within the province. However, the proposal also includes a controversial addition to introduce a per-vote subsidy programme that would start at $2.50/vote and work down to $1.75/vote in 2022. It is estimated that this programme will cost the taxpayers $27-million over its lifespan (which actually does not have a definitive expiration date). It is similar, almost down to the letter, to the programme that was introduced on the federal level by Prime Minister Jean Chretien after his reforms to the political fundraising system in federal politics. It was wrong for Chretien to introduce that measure then and it is wrong for Horgan to do it now.
We can dispense immediately with the obvious elephant in the room that Premier Horgan has flip-flopped on his previous commitment not to introduce a per-vote subsidy programme. In addition to being dishonest in this case (and I will give him credit and say he has come forward about his lie), this promise-breaking removes any sort of popular mandate from the measure itself. Premier Horgan cannot stand and say that British Columbians support this measure as packaged up in measures that almost every British Columbian does support, he does not have a mandate on this measure. But in this editorial I will entertain the arguments that are being made for this measure, because even without a mandate, it could perhaps still be a good idea.
A change like this to our electoral system (because that is what begins to become the issue here, beyond just political funding) carries with it the onus being placed on the proposer of the reform to articulate why the measure is required. It is not for me, as the person standing in the position of the status quo, to explain why the proposal should not exist. The fact is that it does not exist at the moment, and it is a change to the system that must stand on its merits in debate before it can be implemented. So we can surely ask why such a measure is required alongside the package for reforms that are indeed required (if not because we are one of the last jurisdictions in the world not to have some measures on this subject). And the answer we get is that this programme is require because the political parties require an adjustment period to tool their fundraising systems and evolve to the new changes. The problem with that argument is that it paints a situation where one is essentially being told that political parties are designed to have only two options right now for fundraising; either depend on big money and the ethical rollercoaster that comes along with that or lean on handouts from the government based on votes. But we know that there is a third method, in fact it is the method that is supposed to be used by political parties and that is grassroots engagement. A political party that cannot build and engage a base that can offer financial and other supports to it should not exist. The basis of parliamentary democracy is civil engagement at the lowest level within the political party. And I get that we have moved from this concept, which will actually bring me to the real problem here.
Now retired esteem parliamentary journalist Susan Delacourt has penned an amazing book called Shopping For Votes that articulates the changes that have come into politics as a result of the expansion of consumerism and specifically the advertisement industry. She compares an elector walking into a voting booth on Election Day to a shopper walking down an aisle trying to pick out a can of soup. And she get gets to run with this analogy precisely because that is how political operatives at all levels view the elector– they are all out shopping for their candidate. A system like this does not require grassroots engagement, it requires money for technical resources which are guided and manipulated by a small, elite group of political operatives. These people usually all have backgrounds in communications, advertisement, polling or media relations. There is no reason to sell as many memberships, no reason to solicit donations from individuals, no reason to engage in order to retain members and develop a pool for potential candidates. No, the system can all be run through a giant communication strategy, usually focused solely on the leader and all it needs is a steady stream of money to keep the machine operating. And this where the per-vote subsidy feeds the machine.
By handing money to political parties alongside each single vote, the incentive for political parties to engage citizens shifts from grassroots to merely getting people to show up to vote. No need to build a dedicated political base, especially when you get $2.50/vote, and I’m sure they’ve done the math and know what segment to target and just what to say to get them to show up to vote. And after Election Day, that is it, they do not need your membership, they do not need your opinion, they got your vote and they got your $2.50. At its core the per-vote subsidy breeds a system where there is absolutely no incentive for political parties to develop a political base. And what suffers as a result is the civil discourse within society. Which brings me to my second point.
A vote does not equal a financial commitment. I would wager that a number of electors in the last BC general election voted for a political party that they would not go so far as give $2.50 of their own money to. I know that was the case for me. I would say it was the same case for many in the last federal election as well. I would go so far as to say that in the United States, during their last Presidential Election, that I am sure there are many voters who voted for a candidates that they would never give $2.50 otherwise. Voting is a civic responsibility wherein a citizen expresses their democratic will in determining who will represent their interests in an elected legislature. As a result of responsible government, this decision can also determine who will go on to form government. It is an important question on its own merits, so important that it should not have any other obligations attached to it other than that democratic expression. Just because a person votes for a candidate or a political party does not mean that they wish to support that party financially. No for that to happen for many people the party would have to become more relevant to them, it would have to actually try and engage that voter beyond the ballot and include them in the democratic process. Perhaps now you see how this per-vote subsidy programme encourages just the opposite.
Donating money to a political party is a matter of freedom of expression. I am free to express my support for a political party by offering it financial support to exist (and perhaps remain in or gain power in the next election). By forcing a form of expression on the elector through a per-vote subsidy programme, the provincial government is essentially violating my own freedom of expression. Showing up to vote is not an agreement to give $2.50 to a political party, it is not an agreement for me to make the specific form of expression of donating to a political party. And yet, with this per-vote subsidy proposal, the government is seeking to make it law, that regardless of how you wish to express yourself on this point, you must make this expression alongside your vote. It is a violation of one’s freedom of expression to attach any strings to the act of voting; voting itself as an expression has one purpose only. It would be absurd for the government to demand that each elector show up to vote with $2.50 in their pockets, payable to whichever party they had ticked in the box. It would be anti-democratic. And although there exists a certain level of cognitive separation because it comes in the forms of taxation, but the fact is that with this proposal you are essentially showing up to vote, and it has a cost to the tune of $2.50 (but don’t worry it’s supposed to go down by 2o22, what a bargain!) payable to political party X.
Never mind that Premier Horgan flip-flopped, never mind that he does not have the mandate for this change, never mind the sheer political greasiness of wrapping this flip-flop in a package of what are otherwise almost all universally agreed upon measures, never mind the $27-million (plus) cost, and the fact that this programme is never set to come to an end at this time; a per-vote subsidy programme undermines the base of the civil democratic system. It provides a strong incentive for political parties to avoid grassroots engagement and removes any incentive for a political party to engage and develop a political base that it can rely on for financial and other types of support. Furthermore, it is a violation of an electors’ freedom of expression because it forces a financial commitment to a political party based solely on a democratic vote. A political party that is unable to raise funds when they cannot rely on big money or cannot rely on grassroots fundraising should not exist on any democratic stage– no adjustment period required.
During a recent segment on TVO’s The Agenda, host Steve Paiken explored the issue of removing Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from schools across Ontario. Niigan Sinclair (son of Senator Sinclair), Tori Cress and Christopher Dummitt offer their opinions on the subject and shed light on the various positions concerning the removal of historical figures across Ontario and Canada in the name of aboriginal reconciliation. I have to add that I am very fond of The Agenda with Steve Paiken, and the work that he and producer Harrison Lowman do is fantastic and adds an articulated point of view to the national discussion on a variety of topics. However, I do take particular issue with this segment. Certainly not in The Agenda hosting it, if anything we need more of this sort of a discussion, but because of the points that were brought up and the inability for any of the panelists and host to adequately address what was being said in the course of presenting each point.
I will first start with the scene that Sinclair sets up when he asks us to imagine “that we have a leader who has commanded the deaths of your family, the removal of your children and the forcible relocation of your lives.” Adding that one should also imagine living in a society where that particular leader is revered. I can imagine such a scenario, although I will admit that I cannot truly understand what it would feel like emotionally to be in such a position beyond the limitations of human empathy. And when I do imagine such a scenario, I am most certainly moved to change my own perspective when I come back to my own reality– which is not that imagined scenario, in fact it is much different. This is important and effective, which is why Sinclair is wise enough to invoke the exercise early in his portion of the segment. It would be a cold-hearted person who would honestly learn about the history and the perspective and walk away without feeling a need to change one’s own perspective. And for the vast majority of Canadians, this is most certainly the case when we talk about reconciliation with aboriginal peoples. No one with a proper mind is denying that we are in a terrible state with regard to our relations and that action is need to rectify what are empirical difference in government and social policy. And if you are truly paying attention to things like the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the current Commission on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and with articulations made by activists, especially those during the Canada 150 Canada Day celebrations, than you ought to walk away with a drive and determination that change needs to happen.
But there is a massive problem with what Sinclair wants to do and it comes up later in his portion. During an exchange with Dummitt, Sinclair admits that what most Canadians think makes up their history is in fact a lie and he adds that his version, the one presumably that he had me imagine earlier, is the right one. The problem with this approach is that it is no different, not one bit, from saying that my understanding of history and the colonization of North American by the British and French empires is actually the truth and his version is a lie. That argument does us no good. Reconciliation is not about taking worn arguments used in bad faith by one side and exchanging them to the other side. We know for a fact that this kind of approach gets us nowhere. Even Sinclair’s father, Senator Murray Sinclair, treaded carefully speaking of the approach of tearing down historical figures in the name of reconciliation by saying that it almost “smacks as revenge.” And it does most certainly almost smack as revenge, because it is revenge. And revenge is not reconciliation.
Professor Dummitt holds his position well during the course of the discussion. As a professor of history, he rightly points out that no doubt his role on the panel is to represent the other side of the debate in this matter. But Dummitt does not pass up worn arguments about British superiority, civilizing the “savages” or undermining the suggestion that Sir John A. was a terrible person. He rightly points out that we do not get to pick our national leaders, they are handed down to us, and there is a remarkable list of good things that Macdonald did as a leader in Canada. The British North America Act of 1867, as Dummitt points out, being chief among them. But these things do not undermine that for an entirely different segment of society, and one that has been forced to have no voice in this historical process, Macdonald’s role in Canada was different. Because history is different for everyone, even people within a particular segment of society, and that is okay. What is not okay is when we start to separate versions of history based on who is right and who is wrong, than it becomes a fight because only the victor gets to write history in their name and claim superiority. And this kind of way, which is how we operated as humans for far too long, is certainly not compatible with a free, just and multi-cultural society. There concepts we agree to as human beings, nothing more and nothing less.
The conclusion that both Paikan and Dummitt seem to dance around is that keeping the names and the statues but adding plaques or erecting new buildings and statues with a focus on aboriginal and other historical figures seems to be the right approach. It is a new perspective that comes about when one begins to understand the issues that aboriginal people in Canada have faced for generations. It allows all segments of society to have their own perspectives and understanding of history and the importance of the figures littered throughout it, without undermining one or the other or claiming that one is true while the other is not. It would be, without question, a very Canadian approach to solving the issue of the names of historical people on public buildings. And it would allow history to remain personal for each individual which is how a free, just and multi-cultural society would approach the issue.
I find Sinclair’s position to be extreme. And since political extremes can be plotted along a spectrum, I would place it along the same axis as a white person who would still today preach British superiority and greatness. These are worn and tired arguments that are rooted in emotion and not logic or relevance. Worse, they are both charged with revenge and hatred for the “other” in each scenario. That solves nothing. I think that Dummitt presented a well thought out and reasonable argument that represents the civil and cautious approach this issue– certainly warranted in this specific case given the poll from Ontario on the subject. It was a great segment without question, but I couldn’t walk away from it without feeling there is still a need for much more discussion.
The final results of the 41st general election in British Columbia have been tallied and the parliament is hung. The incumbent BC Liberals hold a total of 43 seats (one seat short of a majority mandate), the BC NDP hold 41 and the BC Green Party holds 3 seats. As of yesterday, BC NDP leader John Horgan and BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver have reached an agreement that would see the BC NDP form a minority government while being propped by the Green Party for the next four years. I feel the need to be absolutely clear here, because the media at times has not, but this is not a government-in-waiting scenario. In fact, Christy Clark is still the Premier of the province, and will remain the Premier until her government falls or she resigns. However, with this new agreement there are several outcomes for this BC parliament. This post will examine those outcomes and the road to each with some commentary on the fallout from each potential scenario.
Clark Resigns as Premier
In this scenario, Premier Clark looks at the seat-count in the legislature and the agreement between the BC NDP and BC Greens and decides that she won’t present a Throne Speech in the opening of parliament and resigns as Premier. She would have to go to the Lieutenant-Governor of BC, the Hon. Judith Guichon, and request that her ministry be dissolved (but not the legislature, thus not leading to an immediate election). In this scenario the L-G would have the option of asking Mr. Horgan to form the government as per the agreement between the BC Greens (being the party and leader that seemingly are able to establish the confidence of the legislature) or she could ask another MLA from the BC Liberal Party to form government (unlikely). Additionally, in this scenario could also decide to dissolve the legislature and trigger an election but this is the most unlikely course as it would be unconventional for her to dissolve the legislature without the advice of the Premier (and a legitimate question of constitutional law would arise as to whether or not she actually has the authority to do it without said advice). It is also important to note that in this scenario, Horgan would still need to prove that he has the confidence of the legislature through the passing of a Throne Speech.
Clark Dissolves the Legislature
In this scenario, Premier Clark still heads to Government House to speak with the L-G but in this case she asks that the entire legislature be dissolved. This would trigger a new election. The downside to this approach is that the L-G could decide that Clark’s request is not in the interest of the province and undermines her responsibility to ensure a democratic government is in place in BC, and could ask the BC NDP to attempt to form government. We are getting into Byng-King territory here and so it rapidly becomes a constitutional minefield. I personally, cannot see Clark going this route for two reasons: (1) having to overcome the whole “you brought us into another election merely a month apart” will be hard to overcome on the campaign trail and (2) there is too much uncertainty in what the L-G could do (there will be a lot of egg all over Clark’s face if she requests an election only to see the L-G ask the BC NDP to form government and go on to have a successful mandate).
Clark Presses Onward
In this scenario, Premier Clark maintains power as the incumbant government under a party with a plurality of seats in the legislature. This would allow her to open parliament and bring down a Speech from the Throne that outlines her plan for the next session of parliament. If she was shewrd (and she is), this speech would include a laundry list of “goodies” for the BC NDP and BC Greens, which would put them in the awkward position of voting down something that has a policy plan in their own favour. It would bring to light the power-grab nature of the opposition’s approach leading up to the opening of parliament. If the chips fall as the seat-count shows in light of the agreement, than the Clark government would fall but she would have some ground to stand on in presenting a plan that accomodated the opposition, and it would leave the onus on them to explain why they voted down the plan.
The Speaker Issue
The last scenario with Clark pressing onward as Premier and presenting a Throne Speech also has another aspect to it; the election of the Speaker. The first act of any parliament is the election of the Speaker. Because the BC NDP and BC Greens would be holding on to power with a slim majority in the legislature between them, chances are they will turn to the BC Liberals to supply the Speaker (standard in a minority government situation for the opposition to attempt to pick off another seat from the government by sending a member to the Chair). However, the individual elected as Speaker in BC must agree to actually take the job. A scenario could very well play out where the legislature is unable to elect a Speaker because no BC Liberal MLA will accept the job. The BC NDP and the BC Greens could offer up one of their own to be the Speaker, but in a tie between the government and the opposition following a vote on the Throne Speech, conventionally the Speaker would be compelled to vote in favour of the government. So it would break up the agreement regardless. If the legislature cannot elect a Speaker and thus cannot offer confidence to a ministry, the L-G would be compelled to dissolve the legislature and a new election would be called.
I am probably going to pen an editorial on the topic shortly, but since we are going down the path of scenarios I will mention my thought-process briefly here. There is certainly nothing immediately wrong with the politicking that we are seeing right now in BC between the BC Liberals, BC Greens and BC NDP. This is how parliament works. But there are many other principles at play here. For example, a fundamental principle of parliament is stability and the continuance of the ministry. This is a strong aspect of parliamentary democracy, the fact that it is designed to withhold extreme changes back and forth in how government’s get formed and how the legislature props up or takes down said ministry. This is evident in the incumbency convention which dictates that the incument ministry remains in power until actually defeated in the legislature or upon resignation of the Premier. It is also evident in the convention that the Speaker sides with the government or more specifically the status quo. Nothing changing things quickly and limited dramatic moments are the centerpiece of the parliamentary system. What Andrew Weaver did by playing king-maker with a meagre three seats in the legislature is unparliamentary and unstatesmen-like. It is a power grab and an attempt to subvert the legitimate government in British Columbia. This is not to say that Weaver had to support the government, he didn’t, but he could have at least heard the Throne Speech, could have at least given Clark an honest go at governing in accordance with our conventions and the formation of parliament. Instead we get backroom deals and a king-maker who essentially lost the last election. I am the last person in line to call what is happening right now undemocratic, but I am first to label Weaver what he is: a power-hungry partisan politician.
CBC News’ Sunday Scrum review the episode in the House of Commons on 10 May 17 wherein the opposition asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the same question 18 times and he replied in kind with the same answer each time.
While I was browsing at the Astrolabe on Sparks Street two days ago (which, sadly, is closing down soon), I happened upon this neat photograph of the old Canadian House of Commons, taken in 1898, 18 years before the great fire destroyed the original Center Block and the Victoria Tower. Library and Archives maintains […]
Oral Questions, or Question Period as it has come to be unofficially called, is by far the most routinely watched and followed segment of the parliamentary day. It is during this daily 45 minute period that Members of Parliament are permitted to put oral questions to the government of the day and Ministers of the Crown are called upon to answer. Since Confederation, the period of time reserved for oral questions has evolved and now includes formal rules outlined in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons as well as through various Speaker Rulings throughout the history of the House of Commons. In this post we are going to examine the modern nature of oral questions, their historical significance and development over time.
Historical Development of Oral Questions
When Parliament first opened following Confederation, there were actually no provisions within the Standing Orders for oral questions. The only provisions for any sort of questions from MPs toward the government came in the form of written questions. Interestingly enough, the first recorded oral question took place without any formal guidance in place on 29 Nov 1867 (a full three weeks before any rules were formally written down, actually) when an oral question was posed to the Chairman of the Printing Committee. The inspiration for an oral question period came from the British House of Commons where the Prime Minister was subjected to questioning three times a week by MPs. It became a Canadianized practice during the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada and eventually in the United Province of Canada prior to Confederation. It was not uncommon for MPs to put forward oral questions to Ministers of the Crown for urgent matters that required an answer within a timeline tighter than that of written question requirements. It was under this sentiment that Speaker Timothy Anglin made the first of a series of historical Speaker’s Rulings on oral questions when he said in 1878:
It is customary for hon. members to ask the Government for any special information between the various calls from the Chair for the day, before Notices of Motion or the Orders of the Day. I am not aware that any hon. member has a positive right even to do that; but I think he must confine himself entirely to asking the information from the Government, and he must not proceed to descant on the conduct of the Government.
But the 1940s a period of oral questioning had become an accepted part of the parliamentary day. However, there remained no official rules or guidelines covering their use and conduct. In 1944, the House procedures committee reviewed the practice of oral questions and concluded that it was “neither possible not advisable to do away with [oral questions].” However, the report from the committee was not accepted by the House of Commons and therefore was not actioned. This did not mean that oral questions went by the wayside, simply that the practise continued with little or no formal guidance in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.
In 1964, the Speaker of the House of Commons attempted to enforce what was later viewed to be outdated rules concerning the conduct of oral questions and the formation of specific questions. This led to the formal codification of oral questions into the House of Commons Standing Orders. Thus Standing Order 37 was born which established a period of time for questions of an urgent nature to be put before the government. Under this new order, the Speaker had the power to determine that a question was not urgent enough to warrant an oral answer and could order the question sent to written questions. By 1975, a set timeframe for oral questions was established when a complete overhaul of the House of Commons routine business was conducted by the procedures committee. Since that time oral questions happen for 45 minutes each day at 2:15 pm EST Monday-Thursday and 11:15 am EST on Fridays, immediately following Statements by Members.
In 1974, Speaker Jerome established guidelines for questions during oral questions which were expanded and articulated in 1986 by Speaker Bosley. Bosley’s directions on oral questions remain the standard today for the conduct of this segment of business in the House of Commons. Speaker Bosley established four principles for the conduct of oral questions:
The time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible.
The public in large numbers do watch, and the House, recognizing that Question Period is often an intense time, should be on its best possible behaviour.
While there may be other purposes and ambitions involved in Question Period, its primary purpose must be the seeking of information from the Government and calling the Government to account for its actions.
Members should be given the greatest possible freedom in the putting of questions that is consistent with the other principles.
And adding to the ruling made by previous Speakers of the House of Commons, Bosley went on to articulate the principles, saying:
Mr. Speaker Jerome, in his statement 11 years ago, put his view with regard to the first principle of brevity so well that I would merely quote it:
“There can be no doubt that the greatest enemy of the Question Period is the Member who offends this most important principle. In putting the original question on any subject, a Member may require an explanatory remark, but there is no reason for such a preamble to exceed one, carefully drawn sentence.
“It is my proposal to ask all Hon. Members to pay close attention to this admonition and to bring them to order if they fail to do so. It bears repeating that the long preamble or long question takes an unfair share of the time, and invariably, in provoking the same kind of response, only compounds the difficulty.”
I agree with these comments and would add that such comments obviously also apply to answers by Ministers. I would also endorse Mr. Speaker Jerome’s view that supplementary questions should need no preambles; they should flow from the Minister’s response and be put in precise and direct terms without any prior statement or argument. It is the Chair’s view that it equally follows from the first principle, that time is scarce, that Members should seek to avoid merely repeating questions that have already been asked. I do not mean that other questions on the same subject should not be asked — as apparently I have been interpreted — just that subsequent questions should be other than ones already asked.
For similar reasons it has always been a fundamental rule of questioning Ministers that the subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the Government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions.
Beyond these few restrictions, there are a few other traditional restraints that flow from the principles above. Questions should relate to matters of some urgency and not be purely hypothetical. They should not seek a legal opinion or inquire as to what legal advice a Minister has received. They should not normally anticipate Orders of the Day. However, I hasten to add that there is normal exemption to that with regard to the budget process which I fully intend to honour. Members should be very careful with regard to questions or matters that are sub judice. Ministers should be questioned only in relation to their current portfolios and not in relation to any previously held responsibilities or Party responsibilities.
Since his ruling in 1986, Speaker Bosley remains the authority on determining the conduct of business during oral questions and has been cited by Speakers since as the foundation of our understanding of business during this segment of the parliamentary day.
The development of oral questions over time also saw the introduction of supplementary questions– or follow-up questions. Today, the standard is that one question is asked and then the member who posed the original question has up to three supplementary questions to ask. There is very little formal guidance for these supplemental questions but in 1997, Speaker Parent articulated in a ruling that supplementary questions should be related to the topic of the original question. This has become somewhat outdated with the current practice of having a different member rise to ask a supplemental question, and little formal direction has come out as of late from the Speaker’s Chair. It is not uncommon to see the Leader of the Official Opposition and the leader of each respective opposition party to take advantage of all three supplementary questions following their initial line of questioning on the government, and occasionally we see backbench members following up on their original questions.
Adjournment Proceedings or The Late Show
In 1964, the procedures committee implemented a new practice each day called Adjournment Proceedings. Essentially, it became a half hour period at the end of each day initiated by a motion to adjourn the House for the day under Standing Order 37(3). The idea was that members who were not completely satisfied with answers on a given topic would have a chance to bring up the issue one more time at the end of the day. Since that time, three topics are given notice during the day to the Speaker that will be brought up during the Adjournment Proceedings– or Late Show. These topics are typically follow up items from issues that have arisen during the day or week. Ministers of the Crown typically do not attend the Late Show, however it is not uncommon for Parliamentary Secretaries to spar and follow-up with MPs on issues that arose during oral questions earlier in the day. This proceeding coupled with question period and the odd opposition day are essential the only periods of House business that the opposition can control away from the government. They are therefore even more important in majority government situations (such as the current parliament) as they give the opposition a forum to bring issues of the day to light. Most Canadians are not aware of the connection between Oral Questions and Adjournment Proceedings and almost every major media outlet does not give the Adjournment Proceedings the same level of attention and coverage as Oral Questions.
Answers During Oral Questions
The old parliamentary adage goes that oral questions are called “question period and not answer period for a reason.” And there is a lot of truth to this statement. When answering questions a Minister of the Crown has a handful of options available to them:
answer the question;
defer their answer;
take the question as notice;
make a short explanation as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or
Most of the time the Minister chooses to answer the question, or if you were to ask the opposition, they chose to speak to the question, rather than give an answer. It has come up often times throughout any discussion on oral questions that there are virtually no mechanisms available to the Speaker to ensure that questions are answered. This was put on a fantastic show during the previous session of parliament when the Parliamentary Secretary to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Paul Calandra, refused to answer a direct question from the NDP and instead spoke about issues in the middle east. The NDP was out of line for pleading for the Parliamentary Secretary to answer the question at hand, and the Speaker was left powerless to watch the House devolve into a circus as a result of Calandra’s poor answers. In the end, he apologized to the House and all was made well but not before an attempt was made by the opposition to have the Speaker rule that answers should have substance. In his ruling, Speaker Scheer outlined the guidelines handed down since 1867 and explained to the House the limits that the Speaker had in holding the government to account in answering questions to the satisfaction of the opposition. And with that statement he hit the crux of the issue on the head; by what metric would a Speaker determine that a question has been adequately answered? If the opposition is the benchmark, in other words a question if answered only when the opposition is happy with it, than we are entering into the realm of political and the debate of facts, which is not the place of the Speaker to determine but of the whole House.
There is little in the way of guidance for answers however the following three principles have arisen out of Speaker’s Rulings on the subject:
no particular Minister is compelled to answer a particular question, even if that question was directed to a particular Minister in the statement,
no MP can insist on the answer and no point of order can be raised on the grounds that a question was not answered satisfactorily
the content of answers is considered a debate about facts and thus within the realm of the entire House and not the Speaker to rule when is in order and out of order
Questions and answers in the House of Commons are subject to all other Standing Orders and Speaker’s Rulings, meaning that language must always be parliamentary in nature (cannot call someone a liar, for example) and questions must be directed to the Speaker and not individual members. Additionally, the following guidelines on what questions should not be asked have been established over time based on existing Standing Orders and past Speaker’s Rulings:
be a statement, representation, argument, or an expression of opinion;
seek an opinion, either legal or otherwise;
seek information which is secretive in its nature, such as Cabinet proceedings or advice given to the Crown by law officers;
reflect on the character or conduct of Chair Occupants, members of the House and of the Senate or members of the judiciary;
reflect on the Governor General;
refer to proceedings in the Senate;
refer to public statements by Ministers on matters not directly related to their departmental duties;
address a Minister’s former portfolio or any other presumed functions, such as party or regional political responsibilities;
be on a matter that is sub judice;
deal with the subject matter of a question of privilege previously raised, on which the Speaker reserved his decision;
make a charge by way of a preamble to a question;
be a question from a constituent;
seek information from a Minister of a purely personal nature;
request a detailed response which could be dealt with more appropriately as a written question placed on the Order Paper; or
concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses.
The inspiration of this post came from comments made by a Liberal Minister concerning questions related to the Liberal cash for access scandal currently before the government. There were significant questions on the subject during question period, and the Minister was commenting on the fact that the way she understood the guidelines, such questions were not in line (see: concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses, above). It could be argued however that the questions concerned the conduct of government, and not the Liberal party specifically.
As mentioned earlier, question period is the most watched and most engaging aspect of the parliamentary day. It’s importance within the Canadian political culture cannot be understated, however given it’s importance it is alarming how little the average Canadian knows about the conduct of question period. Opposition leaders are often measured in their capability within the job against their performance in the House of Commons, Ministers of the Crown conversely are measured in their capability through their answering and performance during question period. It is an essential element of our democracy in Canada.