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The Mace is removed from the House of Commons chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 after the governor general's decision to prorogue Parliament. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The Mace is removed from the House of Commons chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 after the governor general's decision to prorogue Parliament. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Globe Editorial

Reform Question Period, but keep the cut and thrust Add to ...

Inspired by public disenchantment with politics, a perception that Question Period lacks substance, and the transformation of MPs into mere partisan cheerleaders mugging for TV, Conservative MP Michael Chong has proposed six changes to the rules regarding Question Period. Some are sensible ways to make Question Period better, but care must be taken to preserve the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate; decorum need not exclude emotion or fiery rhetoric.

Two of the ideas make great sense. A Prime Minister's Question Time, in which one day would be set aside for questions to the Prime Minister, would add drama and focus the public's attention on Parliament: The weekly event would be a showcase, where a more coherent narrative of what the parties and their leaders stand for could emerge. It hardly reduces accountability, because other ministers would be required to attend the rest of the week. And it could also enhance politics and the operations of government, as it would free up some of the Prime Minister's (and potentially opposition leaders') time to work on other public business.

Increasing the time for individual questions and answers by MPs and Ministers could produce more substance from them. With only 35 seconds available, it's easy to take refuge in sound bites. More time means more of an argument can be developed, with more facts. There would still be sound bites, yes; but there would be more than that, for those voters paying attention.

Other proposals, though, go too far. It is not the Speaker's job to demand better, more direct or more substantive answers of ministers, as Mr. Chong suggests: it is for opposition MPs and voters to hold governments to account.

More inventiveness and assertiveness by the politicians themselves would make some rule changes unnecessary. The Speaker could be more active by refusing to recognize MPs who commit the worst excesses, like shouting other members down (as happened to Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, in a shameful episode, last October).

MPs and ministers frustrated with the dynamics in the House chamber and the ways of broadcast media need not depend on Question Period, as it is approached now, to get their message out. They have plenty of communications tools at their disposal: direct mailings, dedicated newspaper columns, Twitter followers and Facebook friends. If they want to stir voters with their oratory and find new victims on the other side of the aisle with their barbs, they should speak up. Give us the oratory, and the barbs, and leave the old talking points behind. The nightly news may not reward them right away, but YouTube will.



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