Taming question period

Backbencher has some modest proposals that make a lot of sense

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Michael Chong has a better idea for improving Parliament, and he apparently has got the votes for it. The House votes today on his motion to reform question period, with 20 members from all sides of the House seconding the motion. It's called bi-partisanship, a commodity in very short supply on Parliament Hill.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Chong, a Conservative MP from Ontario, was saying the other day. "The Liberals and the NDP have indicated they will be supporting it." So are most of his Conservative colleagues, and that would make a majority in a minority House, enough to send his motion to committee for further study and a final recommendation to Parliament within six months.

Chong's motion is modest in its intent, but could be revolutionary in its effect.

First, he proposes to allocate half of question period to members rising on their own, rather than as chosen by their parties' House leaders. Second, he suggests Ottawa borrow from Westminster and have a prime minister's question period once a week on Wednesday, freeing both the PM and the opposition leaders to be out of the House unless they chose to be there the remainder of the week. Other ministers would similarly attend on allocated days.

At present, opposition House leaders are like baseball managers, submitting their QP lineups to the umpire, the Speaker. MPs whose aren't on the list don't get to sit in the dugout as players, so instead they sit in the stands as spectators, cheering or jeering the government home team.

It's the most exasperating part of an MP's existence, which might be the main reason for the emerging bipartisan consensus around Chong's motion. It will be interesting to see where Bloc MPs come out on this, since their caucus is totally controlled by their leader, Gilles Duceppe. And you thought Stephen Harper was a control freak. Initially opposed to the motion when it was presented last spring, the Bloc is now apparently ambivalent about it. Some of the best members of the House sit in their caucus, and there's no reason to believe they don't share the frustrations of MPs in other parties over the top-down control of QP.

What this amounts to is something of a backbench revolt against the front bench on all sides, including the government. The one or two questions a day allotted to government members are usually puff balls.

Q: "Can the minister inform the House about the government's excellent new immigration policy?"

A: "I thank the Honourable member for that brilliant question."

Under Chong's proposal, 20 minutes a day would be allocated to members not on the House leaders' lists, but rising on their own to get the attention of the speaker.

In that sense, QP would be less stage-managed and more spontaneous. It would certainly empower members, partly redressing what Paul Martin once called the democratic deficit.

As for a prime minister's question time, Wednesday is the obvious day for it, it being caucus day, the one day of the week that all leaders are in town. It's also the most boisterous day in the House, reflecting the input of morning caucuses, one of the reasons members generally behave like opposing houses in Harry Potter, shouting taunts at one another.

Here's what the House would get from a PM's question period -- 40 minutes in which all members, including his own, could have a run at him. This is the Westminster model, and it's the basic test of the British PM's ability to think on his feet, to say nothing of his or her sense of humour. Everyone remembers how good Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were in the House in most circumstances, and no one is really surprised that David Cameron has quickly grown into the role.

Similarly, Stephen Harper would have an opportunity to excel under this kind of scrutiny. And for the remainder of the week, except when the occasion obviously required his presence, he would be liberated to do his job. Similarly, opposition leaders would be free to manage their own schedules. Their reservations about this proposed change are obvious -on other days they would be losing their best target, the one who guarantees them airtime.

As for the issue of behaviour modification, there's one way to improve decorum in the House, and that's to allow cutaway shots of the chamber instead of just showing the ones asking and answering questions. If a member were caught hooting and howling on camera, he wouldn't be for very long.

Enough of the sound and fury signifying nothing. Chong's idea is one whose time has, we can hope, come.

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