Canadians have made it clear they are disappointed with the behaviour in Question Period. More than half surveyed in a recent Nanos poll said they think less of their government when they watch Question Period. The record low voter turnout of 59 per cent in the last election is further evidence of a growing gap between Canadians and Parliament.
So how do we restore Parliament's relevancy? A first, but important, step should begin with the reform of Question Period.
The 45-minute session is the heart of daily proceedings in Parliament. Each day, Question Period is relayed to millions through the national media. For many Canadians, it is their only window on Parliament, and for those Canadians, Question Period is Parliament.
If there is one thing that members of Parliament hear consistently, it is that many Canadians disapprove of the way in which Question Period is conducted. As a result, there is a growing divide between Canadians, who are increasingly apolitical, and a Parliament that is more and more partisan.
So what exactly is the problem with Question Period?
The general perception is that Question Period lacks substance, is overly rhetorical and that the behaviour on display is terrible. While true, these are symptomatic of a much deeper, underlying problem.
The real problem with Question Period is that members of Parliament have been stripped of the right to ask questions of the government, with the result that members are no longer true participants in Question Period, but mere spectators. Rather than being attentive and potential participants posing questions, many behave as any spectator would, cheering or jeering for their side and against the other.
Until the 1980s, members had the right to rise in the House, catch the eye of the Speaker and ask questions of the government, questions that were driven by the concerns they heard from their constituents the previous weekend when they returned home to their ridings.
The changes that stripped members of the right to spontaneously rise, catch the eye of the Speaker to ask a question were introduced by Jeanne Sauvé. Every day, each party submits their list of approved questioners to the Speaker. The Speaker recognizes only those on the list.
So how can we fix Question Period?
This autumn, the House will vote on Motion 517. It contains six specific proposals for reform, which would:
» elevate decorum and fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker;
» lengthen the amount of time given for each question and answer;
» require that ministers respond to questions directed at them;
» allocate half the questions each day for backbench members;
» dedicate Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister;
» and dedicate the rest of the week for questions to ministers other than the Prime Minister.
Should Motion 517 be adopted, the standing committee on procedure and House affairs will be ordered to consider these reforms and report back recommended changes to the House within six months.
This motion proposes some reasonable and modest reforms. I hope it passes.
Michael Chong is the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills and a former minister of intergovernmental affairs.
Mr. Chong takes your questions today at 10 a.m. ET on how to fix Parliament. Follow the discussion in the window below. (Mobile users can click here for a BlackBerry and iPhone-friendly interface.)
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