Questioning Question Period

27 Sep

Shortly before Members of Parliament gathered up their briefcases and returned to work late last month after an extended summer vacation, they were greeted with a sobering performance review from their employers.

That’s us, of course: The Canadian People.

Five days before Parliament opened, a non-partisan think-tank called the Public Policy Forum released poll findings showing that Canadians think their MPs stink.

I’m paraphrasing a bit here. Poll respondents didn’t quite say that MPs stink.  But a majority of them felt federal politicians are falling far short in the performance of one of the most prominent part of their jobs:

Question Period.

Question Period, of course, is only a very small part of what MPs do. It’s a 45-minute-long exercise that takes place on days the House of Commons is sitting. The rest of those days are devoted to less publicized, more sober, and often productive activities such as legislative debates and committee meetings.

But Question Period is what many Canadians think about when they think about what MPs do on Parliament Hill. It’s the House of Commons activity that gets shown most frequently on the nightly news because it’s the time when the political story of the day plays out most dramatically and most publicly.

And the more they think about Question Period, the more Canadians think that it stinks.

Two-thirds of the respondents to the Public Policy Forum’s poll agreed that “Question Period is just a forum for politicians to grandstand for the media and try to score cheap, short-term political points”.

The poll also found a majority (56 per cent) of Canadians “think less of our system of government when (they) see scenes from Question Period”, and that two-thirds believe “Question Period needs to be reformed and improved”.

Ironically enough, Question Period itself was introduced many decades ago as a reform and improvement of Parliament, said Public Policy Forum President David Mitchell. It was created to give the opportunity for regular backbench members of Parliament to ask pertinent questions of cabinet ministers.

According to Mitchell, the decline of Question Period began when cameras were introduced in the House of Commons in the late 1970s, and MPs started to use a time intended for serious questions to instead… well… “grandstand for the media and try to score cheap, short-term political points.”

Nowadays, it has become more of a forum for red-faced, finger-pointing, name-calling theatrics than a chance for elected representatives to get civilized answers from the government about the pressing issues of the day.

Teachers are embarrassed to bring their students on field trips to Parliament to witness behavior that would net their students detentions or suspensions if emulated back in class.

It’s important to note that some observers say the source of the problem is not cameras in the House, but rather too FEW cameras there, and that a lot of the heckling and bad behavior that turns off Canadians might be reduced if its perpetrators could be better identified and publicly shamed.

Clearly, the problem is compounded by the fact that we have been in a minority parliament situation in Canada for more than six years and counting. To some extent, the growing nastiness of Question Period reflects the general nastiness of federal politics in an extended period of uncertainty and heightened partisanship.

In concert with its poll release, the Public Policy Forum held a one-day conference to discuss ideas for reforming Question Period. Conference participants included MPs from different parties, perhaps recognizing that the status quo is becoming increasingly unpalatable to Canadians, and is hurting all of their reputations.

They came up with a list of ten very practical recommendations, including giving the Speaker of the House more authority, and allocating more time for MPs to ask more substantive questions and receive more substantive answers.

The recommendations jibed with those of Conservative MP Michael Chong, whose private member’s motion to reform Question Period may soon come to a vote.

But hopes for an immediate change in the tone of federal politics and an increase in goodwill and civility in Parliament were quickly dashed when MPs finally did come back to work.

The finger-pointing and name-calling began again right where they left off last spring, and spilled out beyond the confines of the House of Commons into a heavily partisan speech by the Finance Minister to an audience expecting sober economic analysis.

If politicians do not find the will to change that tone, they’ll continue to debase their profession and alienate their employers.

That’s us.

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