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Politics House Speaker says his role isn’t to police answers in Question Period

House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer stands in the House of Commons during Question Period on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Wednesday September 24, 2014.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Those hoping for straight answers from government during Question Period shouldn't look to the person presiding over it for help, with House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer saying the rules bar him from forcing MPs to answer a question.

Mr. Scheer gave a speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday, a day after NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair questioned his neutrality for failing to intervene as a Conservative MP, Paul Calandra, entirely avoided answering questions about Iraq. Mr. Scheer cited past rulings by his predecessors saying that, in effect, the Speaker has no power to intervene if an MP avoids a question during Question Period, the daily 45-minute session where the opposition can question government.

Mr. Scheer said he had to stick to what past practice has been.

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"With respect to Question Period proceedings, contrary to what some members and others may believe, this means adhering to practices that have evolved over a broad span of time," he said, before quoting former speaker Peter Milliken, who said in 2010 that "it is not the role of the Chair [the Speaker] to decide whether a response is an answer or not to the question" or "whether the content of a response is in fact an answer."

He also quoted Mr. Milliken's comment that the lack of an obligation for a minister to answer "is why it is called question period, not answer period."

Mr. Scheer could intervene in Question Period if MPs asked him to make that part of his role, but "to date, the House has not seen fit to alter our practices or give direction to the Chair in that regard," Mr. Scheer said. He went on to urge MPs to "elevate the tone and substance of Question Period exchanges."

House of Commons rules empower the Speaker to admonish an MP over "relevancy" during a debate. But Mr. Scheer said "any suggestion that the rules of repetition and relevance apply to Question Period is wrong."

During Tuesday's Question Period, Mr. Mulcair asked several questions about Canada's deployment of 69 soldiers to Iraq. Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't attend, so his parliamentary secretary, Mr. Calandra, responded instead – with unrelated comments about Israel. It led Mr. Mulcair to appeal for help from Mr. Scheer, who did not intervene. Mr. Mulcair then said the ordeal did "not speak very favourably about [Mr. Scheer's] neutrality on this House." Mr. Scheer responded by revoking Mr. Mulcair's remaining questions and moving on to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Scheer's speech before Wednesday's Question Period didn't reference Mr. Mulcair specifically, saying only that "the kind of unsavoury language or expression that we heard [Tuesday] do little to assist the Chair in managing Question Period proceedings and I urge all members to be judicious in the expressions they choose to use."

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