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Trudeau fields every question in Question Period as parliamentary reform battle rages

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The raging battle over Liberal plans to change the rules of Parliament took a surprise twist Wednesday, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to every question in Question Period.

The effort by the Liberals to showcase one of the party's campaign pledges on parliamentary reform – a weekly Prime Minister's Question Period modelled after Britain – was an attempt to shake up a heated debate over broader changes to the House of Commons rules.

Mr. Trudeau fielded questions on government support for Bombardier, chemical attacks in Syria, the legalization of marijuana, softwood lumber and former prime minister Brian Mulroney's role in Canada's trade negotiations with the United States, as well as many questions focused directly on the Liberal government's proposed changes to the parliamentary rules.

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"Bringing forward positive discussions on improving the way the House works is entirely responsible and entirely in keeping with what Canadians expect," Mr. Trudeau said. "I look forward to hearing many more concrete proposals from all benches in the House of Commons."

Question Period takes place five days a week when the House is in session. Normally, the Prime Minister attends two or three times a week and answers the first round of questions.

Video: Liberals after ‘power grab’ with Parliament rules changes: NDP (The Canadian Press)

Mr. Trudeau's roughly 45-minute display was aimed at showing transparency at a time when his government is facing criticism that its recent proposals would have the effect of sharply limiting the opposition's power to hold the government to account.

Wednesday's unusual move also served to illustrate the old political jab from critics that there's a reason why it is called Question Period and not Answer Period.

"It was really disappointing," said NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice. "It's not the number of times that the Prime Minister can step up in the House to answer questions. It's the quality of his answers that is the problem here. So he was as bad as usual."

The Liberal Party's 2015 election platform contained an entire chapter with promises of "open and transparent government" that would give more power to parliamentarians. While the government has followed through on some of those pledges, such as the appointment of independent senators and the willingness to allow free votes on issues that are not part of the government's core mandate, other promises have not been adopted.

Some of those platform pledges, such as limits on the use of prorogation and omnibus legislation, are part of the Liberal Party's recent package of changes presented for study by the Commons procedure and House affairs committee. However, the proposals also include measures that appear to be aimed at making it easier for the government to get bills approved by limiting various delay tactics available to opposition MPs.

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The Conservative and NDP members on the procedure committee have been using those delay tactics to protest against the changes. That opposition filibuster continued in committee Wednesday afternoon after Question Period.

Attempts earlier this week to resolve the issue behind the scenes among House leaders were unsuccessful.

The opposition argues that any revisions to the parliamentary rules should be done with the support of all parties. Government House Leader Bardish Chagger rejected that idea Wednesday, arguing that it would give opposition parties a "veto" over measures that were put to Canadians during the past election.

The opposition parties have proposed holding votes on the government's proposals individually, rather than as a package. Ms. Chagger said Wednesday that she was open to further suggestions and that the debate will continue.

The Liberals have proposed a June 2 deadline for the committee to complete its work.

Conservative MP Mark Strahl pointed out to Mr. Trudeau that clearly there is nothing that currently prevents him from answering all of the questions in Question Period if he wishes without "ramming through" new rules.

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"He wants to make the rules in his favour. He wants to cut off debate and silence his critics. He wants to shut this place down on Fridays. He wants less transparency and less accountability," Mr. Strahl said. "He wants to diminish the voice of Canadians in this place, and now he only wants to show up in Question Period once a week."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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