Skip to main content

The spectacle we call Question PeriodAnthony Jenkins

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a parliamentary delegation from one of the newly independent Baltic states visited Ottawa to observe Canada's democratic institutions in action. As is common for such groups, they were ushered into Question Period, Parliament's most extensively covered activity. Shocked at the spectacle, they cringed. Is this how political debate is conducted in a leading democratic state, a country to which many emerging democracies look in modelling their own institutions? But one member of the delegation, an actor, chuckled at what he saw. He had quickly realized that a theatrical performance, albeit amateurishly executed, was on display. Many Canadians see Question Period the same way.

A healthy measure of partisan combativeness is the essence of parliamentary debate, but what now characterizes Question Period often borders on what many foreigners would consider offensive to the standards of decency and modesty associated with Canadians. The pretense of Question Period is that it allows the opposition to hold the government accountable, to illuminate issues of public policy and public administration. The reality is one of ferocious fulminations, of members mindlessly jumping up to applaud every few syllabic utterances of their caucus colleagues. How has this happened, and how can it be tempered?

Question Period emerged by convention. Parliament's original rules in 1867 provided only for written questions, but oral questions soon followed. Speakers recognized them routinely and, from time to time, spelled out guidelines for acceptable questions and replies. The earliest attempt to codify Question Period's rules came in 1944, but written rules only first appeared in 1964. Prohibited questions were listed and answers were required to deal with the matter raised. But Question Period went on its own merry way. The rules were flouted, and successive Speakers hesitated to enforce them.

Since 1975, Question Period has become a forum for questions of all kinds because then-Speaker James Jerome decided "to reduce to an absolute minimum" the enforcement of the guidelines. This contributed to giving Question Period a scripted inauthentic air. In Britain and New Zealand, ministers are obliged to answer questions; but, in Canada, as an Ontario cabinet minister once put it, "Question Period does not mean Answer Period."

In May, parliamentarians endorsed a motion regarding Question Period "to strengthen the dignity and authority of the House." It directs a House committee to recommend changes that would elevate decorum and fortify the Speaker's disciplinary powers.

Will that happen? Don't count on it. As Parliament reconvenes next month, the hollering and heckling, the elusive answers and non-answers, will continue. The jeers are likely to get louder as an election looms ever closer. The Speaker currently has the power to curb these practices but rarely does. To be sure, Question Period places great pressure and responsibility on the Speaker, but as Peter Milliken - esteemed by so many of his colleagues as one of the best - departs the chair, will anyone ask him the inconvenient question of what he's done to improve the decorum of Question Period?

As a snapshot of national political life, Question Period lacks the vitality and seriousness it could bring to public affairs. This failing mirrors the broader public culture. It's easy to point the finger at our politicians, but we live in an angrier, more confrontational and litigious, less civil and less conciliatory age. The behaviour of MPs reflects that. Question Period replicates the temperament of our environment.

Nelson Wiseman teaches political science at the University of Toronto.