In 2012, Peter Kent, the federal environment minister, said Ottawa would spend $78.7-million over five years to improve "weather and warning services across the country." In 2013, he announced an additional $248-million over five years "to further strengthen Canada's meteorological services." Extreme weather is becoming more common in Canada, and Mr. Kent is talking about a lot of money, so knowing to what extent these commitments have been met so far is of great public interest. It's also Parliament's job to find out. Which is why an opposition MP, Ralph Goodale, put a written question on Parliament's Order Paper asking for this information.
Order Paper questions are a critical part of Parliament's role as the body that holds government to account. In asking how government is spending its money – money voted by Parliament, which is the watchdog and funder of government – Mr. Goodale is doing his job. This makes it all the more spurious that a government backbencher, Mike Wallace, has suggested that MPs' trying to find out how taxpayers' money is spent is.... a waste of taxpayers' money.
Mr. Wallace posed his own written question asking for the estimated cost to the government of answering Order Paper questions. The answer he got, based on a formula that is dubious at best, was $1.2-million for 253 questions. "Are we sure we're getting value for the dollar?" Mr. Wallace asked.
Well, let's think about that. What value do Canadians place on knowing: the percentage of Employment Canada benefits applications that are rejected and how many people have to wait longer than 28 days for a response; which government department is responsible for monitoring the transporation of fissile radioactive material inside our borders; how much money Ottawa has spent developing software since 2011 and what the software actually does; and the amount the government spent on travel expenses while negotiating the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union.
These are just some of the opposition questions currently on the Order Paper, and all of them deserve an answer. Mr. Wallace's suggestion that MPs should ask fewer questions, because ignorance is cheap, is pretty much one of the dumbest things a parliamentarian has come up with in recent memory.
Postscript: Another backbench Conservative MP, John Carmichael, is now asking for the estimated cost of answering a new batch of Order Paper questions – nos. 264 to 644, to be exact.
His colleague Mr. Wallace's question was number 263.