It’s not just members of the opposition parties who are frustrated with the political theatre and the less-than-substantive discourse that is generated during Question Period in the House of Commons.
Dan Albas, the Conservative MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, says in one of his regular updates to the voters in his British Columbia riding that it may be time to reform the rules governing the daily 45 minutes that are set aside for questions of the government.
“The biggest challenge to Question Period that many in the public are unaware of is that questions and answers are time limited,” writes Mr. Albas. “Typically the 35 seconds in many cases ends up being utilized as an effort to score political points often with quickly delivered commentary that often is more frequently evaluated by the performance of the orator than the actual content.”
Mr. Albas, who like other MPs is back in his constituency this week for the Thanksgiving break, said there he recieved a lot of feedback from people in his riding to that message.
“I was quite surprised,” he said during a telephone interview. Many people “were unaware that Question Period is structured in a way that you have 35 seconds to ask a question and, from a government’s perspective, you have 35 seconds to answer it. Many people did not know that there was that arbitrary time limit on it and it complicates it by simplifying it because you can’t give a full answer.”
While Question Period ends up being, mostly, a series of partisan jabs followed by equally partisan non-answers, it is the time allotted to members statements that has taken a particularly nasty turn in recent years.
Members rise to spout rhetoric at the behest of (and written by) their party’s political strategy team that aims to discredit the opposing side with allegations that often have little basis in fact and for which there is limited opportunity for rebuttal.
Elizabeth May, the Green Party Leader, was so incensed last week with a member’s statement by Blake Richards, the Conservative MP for Wild Rose in Alberta, that she rose on a point of order to complain.
Mr. Richards had said it was time for Ms. May to “depart from her fairy tale land” and end her opposition to his private member’s bill that would make it a criminal offence to wear a mask or other disguise during a riot or an unlawful assembly. He urged her to vote in favour of the legislation from her spot in the “chamber's 309th seat,” a reference to the fact that Ms. May sits alone as a member of her party.
Ms. May objected to Mr. Richards’ tone. Members’ statements “are getting really quite despicable, for lack of a better word. I refer in particular to one yesterday by the member for Wild Rose, who used his [statement] to attack me,” she told the House. “In fact, I was flabbergasted by this. I am making more of a generic point that they are going downhill.”
Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan pointed out that there is nothing in the rules to govern the content of the members’ statements. “In fact,” said Mr. Van Loan, “there is no limitation whatsoever, other than the Speaker’s normal ability to determine that something is unparliamentary. Therefore, I fail to see what she is complaining about.”
But Andrew Scheer, the Speaker, said he would take a look at Mr. Richards’ statement to determine if it had crossed the line and would report back to the House after the Thanksgiving break.