British Columbia’s Per Vote Subsidy Problem

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.

Photo credit.

Oral Questions / Question Period

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

Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.
Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.

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:

  1. The time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Supplementary Questions

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
  • say nothing.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.

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;
  • be hypothetical;
  • 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;
  • create disorder;
  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

Liberals Cash-for-Access

I am inclined to agree with the recent assessment made by Rex Murphy in an attempt to explain the bizarre messaging from the Liberal government on the political financing issue. This Liberal government, and indeed everyone before it, possesses an air of arrogance that compels them to conclude that everything they do in inherent right and good, and therefore how dare we question them. It was the same attitude that brought down only the most recent Liberal government before Justin Trudeau, and it is one that seems to be sticking pretty hard to the Liberals at the moment.

The reason why I am so confident that the Liberals believe they possess this miraculous capability for political decision making is because it seems to be the only logical and reasonable explanation as to why the Liberal government insists on sputtering out worn talking point after worn talking point on the issue. Reminding any Canadian willing to listen that the federal government in Canada has some of the most rigorous laws concerning political financing in the world. Never mind the fact that the original question was the Prime Minister’s actions against his own words in the letters he drafted for each of his ministers. Even this morning we see a weak argument from the government about being ready to co-operate with the Ethics Commissioner and something, something laws being the strongest.

Rex Murphy on the Liberals' 'side-splitting defence' of its political fundraising tactics.
Rex Murphy on the Liberals’ ‘side-splitting defence’ of its political fundraising tactics.

Here is the part that Murphy gets and I am in full agreement. Something smells here. It is hard to accept that government business is not discussed at these meetings. It is even harder to accept that what business is discussed is strictly linked to the middle class. It is tough to square offers of invitations to tax payer funded state dinners against political influence and the obvious access to power it assumes. Canadians should rightly become concerned if not slightly angered. But the response from the open and sunny way government under Justin Trudeau is not to explain clearly what is happening but to shut the door and avoid the questions entirely. The bag may smell, but it has a Liberal party logo on the side, so we’re meant to carry on and accept that what is happening is meant to be a good, it is going to be right for the country.

The problem, is that history paints a different picture. Never mind with just Liberal governments, all governments are indeed subject to the temptation of corruptibility. It is why we have laws in the first place. Canadians expect this. It is also why Justin Trudeau was able to score support with the language he used in his letters. Canadians expected even more than just the law– regardless of how strong in it relative to other countries or even provinces– and the Liberal government in the end has failed to deliver.