The most frequently televised image of the U.S. Congress is the congressional hearing: senators sitting in judge-like dignity on a dais, interrogating some brilliant or villainous (but always interesting) witness.
The most frequently televised image of the Canadian Parliament is the daily Question Period: opposition members and cabinet ministers adversarially seated two sword lengths apart, hurling insults and retorts in the guise of questions and answers across the floor of the House of Commons.
Our American friends display one of the most attractive features of their elected chamber on TV; we display one of the least attractive features of ours. So what should be done?
When 52 Reform Party members were elected to the House of Commons in 1993, we sought, from the position of the third party, to make the Question Period more civil and productive. For the first four months, we tried to ask substantive and genuinely information-seeking questions on the issues of the day and to refrain from theatrical challenges to cabinet ministers merely for the sake of drawing attention to ourselves. We even gave ministers advance notice of our questions, assuring them that a substantive and civil reply would be followed by a substantive and civil supplementary question, not a gratuitous rejoinder.
But none of this was successful in altering the traditional pattern and decorum of Question Period one iota. Most ministers, the prime minister in particular, carried on in the usual adversarial manner. And the English media were especially harsh in charging us with naiveté, stupidity and ineffectiveness.
Whereas Bloc Québécois members (who formed the official opposition at the time) were generating all kinds of heat and provocative headlines for the French media by questioning ministers in the traditional manner, we were generating nothing of the kind for the English media. Soon, our own supporters, especially in Western Canada, were also accusing us of ineffectiveness, saying "we never see you on television."
While this particular bid to reform Question Period had to be reluctantly abandoned, another attempt is about to be launched by Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, hopefully with greater success.
Mr. Chong's Motion 517 calls for the standing committee on procedure and House affairs to recommend changes to the standing orders of the House of Commons that would reform Question Period.
The aim of such reforms, as specified in the motion, would be to strengthen the dignity and authority of the House by "elevating decorum and fortifying the use of discipline by the Speaker."
In particular, the motion calls for the committee to consider lengthening the amount of time given for each question and answer and to examine the convention that ministers need not answer the questions asked.
And taking a leaf from the procedures of the British House of Commons, where Question Period is generally considered more productive than ours, the motion calls for the committee to consider setting aside Wednesday - the day when all the party caucuses meet and when the largest numbers of members are present - exclusively for questions to the prime minister. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday would be dedicated to the questioning of ministers other than the prime minister in a way that would require them to be present two of the four days to answer questions concerning their particular portfolios.
Although Motion 517 has been moved by a government member, it is not partisan in nature and deserves support from all members who want to see Question Period made more credible. A brief e-mail, note or phone call to your MP urging him or her to support the motion would be helpful in ensuring that it passes and is acted upon.
Since all of the provincial legislatures also have Question Periods that suffer from the same defects and criticisms as that of the federal House, it would be useful if similar motions were moved and supported in each of them as well. Surely 11 simultaneous inquiries into how to make Question Period a credit and not a discredit to our political system would be able to generate innovative and substantive reform proposals of benefit to all.
Most House leaders and Question Period co-ordinators I know feel that no matter what reforms are made, they are likely to be met with skepticism, ridicule and opposition from the media. This is because from a news-generating standpoint, a Question Period characterized by negative, antagonistic, exaggerated and emotional exchanges is much more newsworthy than one characterized by positive, co-operative, moderate and rational exchanges.
Parliamentary and legislative committees addressing Question Period reform should therefore tackle this obstacle head-on by specifically soliciting input and suggestions from their respective press galleries. There must be some way of making Question Period more civil, productive and newsworthy, and the sooner we find it, the better it will be for Canadian democracy.
Preston Manning is a former leader of the opposition in the House of Commons and is now president and chief executive officer of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.