I am now ready to rule on the point of order raised on September 20, 2006 by the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform with respect to Question No. 90 on the order paper.
I wish to thank the hon. Parliamentary Secretary for raising the matter. I also want to acknowledge the contributions made by the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh and by the hon. Government House Leader on September 22.
Let me first summarize the essence of Question No. 90. On September 19, 2006, the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam submitted to the Journals Branch a question containing 47 subsections. In general terms, the question has to do with the presence of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and each subsection poses a separate question on the government's defence and foreign policies with respect to the Afghanistan mission.
After consideration by the Journals Branch staff in the usual manner, the question was placed on the notice paper. After the usual two day notice period, Question No. 90 was transferred to the order paper, where it now stands as the only written question in the name of the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam.
In his intervention, the hon. parliamentary secretary expressed concern about the length of Question No. 90. In addition, he contended that some of the subsections to the question were not within the administrative responsibility of the government. He concluded by asking the Chair to rule Question No. 90 out of order.
In response to this point of order, the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh asserted that current practice permitted the placing of lengthy questions on the order paper. In support of this argument, he referred to Questions Nos. 5 and 7 from the previous Parliament, which he claimed were lengthier than Question No. 90 but which were nonetheless answered by the government. The hon. government House leader countered that the length of Question No. 90 was unreasonable and that it violated the spirit of Standing Order 39 by asking 47 questions under the guise of one question.
As all hon. members are aware, the purpose of placing questions on the Order Paper is to allow members to seek detailed or technical information on matters of public affairs from one or more government departments or agencies so as to enable members to carry out their parliamentary functions.
In order for a written question to be placed on the order paper, it must first meet certain requirements as to form and content. Standing Order 39(1) requires that no argumentative material or unnecessary fact or opinion be included in a question. In addition, the subject matter of the question must pertain to public affairs, which is another way of saying matters within the administrative responsibility of the government. A written question is also judged acceptable if it satisfies the general guidelines for oral questions. House of Commons Procedure and Practice on page 441 states:
Given that the purpose of a written question is to seek and receive a precise, detailed answer, it is incumbent on a Member submitting a question for the Notice Paper “to ensure that it is formulated carefully enough to elicit the precise information sought”.
The modern rules respecting questions on the order paper can be traced back to the 1985 third report of the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, commonly known as the McGrath committee. The committee recommended that members be limited to having four questions on the order paper at any one time as a means of resolving the decades long problem of hundreds, at times thousands, of written questions remaining unanswered on the order paper.
At the same time, the committee anticipated that members might try to circumvent the limit of four written questions by submitting questions containing numerous subquestions. The McGrath committee proposed that the Clerk should have authority to reject outright or to split into separate and distinct questions those questions that contain unrelated subquestions. What is today known as Standing Order 39(2) was subsequently adopted. It states:
The Clerk of the House, acting for the Speaker, shall have full authority to ensure that coherent and concise questions are placed on the Notice Paper in accordance with the practices of the House, and may, on behalf of the Speaker, order certain questions to be posed separately.
Hon. members who were here during the 36th Parliament may recall a ruling delivered by Mr. Speaker Parent on the division of a written question on February 8, 1999. The ruling was in response to a point of order raised by the hon. member for Delta—South Richmond, now the hon. member for Delta—Richmond East, and it can be found on pages 11531 to 11533 of the Debates for the First Session of the 36th Parliament.
The hon. member raised a number of issues in his point of order, including the matter of the division of his question by the Clerk’s staff. The hon. member claimed that the question had been divided by the Clerk’s staff because of its length. Mr. Speaker Parent found that the Clerk’s staff had followed the proper procedures and had made the decision to divide the question in accordance with Standing Order 39(2) not because the question was lengthy, but because the sub-questions were not related. The Speaker stated, and I quote:
The issue was not the length of the question but rather the fact that it contained unrelated subquestions. The subquestions may be linked from the member’s point of view but are in reality separate and distinct questions.
This ruling underscored that in order for a question with multiple subquestions to be found admissible, there must be a common element connecting the various parts.
As the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh correctly pointed out in his intervention, there have been numerous lengthy questions containing multiple subquestions and even some with subsections within subquestions, placed on the order paper in the past. These would include, for example, in the 36th Parliament, Questions Nos. 28, 56, 91, 103, 132, 138 and 190, which were judged acceptable and placed on the order paper.
Similarly, in the 37th Parliament, Questions Nos. 17, 60, 225 and 240 were also found to be acceptable. In the last Parliament, Questions Nos. 5, 7 and 151 were placed on the order paper and, finally, in the current Parliament, Questions Nos. 13 and 33 were placed on the order paper.
I do not recall that any objections were raised at the time these questions were placed on the order paper and, indeed, the government provided answers to all these questions, albeit perhaps not always within the 45 day timeframe set down in Standing Order 39(5)(a).
It is apparent to me from the examples cited above that the interpretation of the term concise in Standing Order 39(2) has evolved since this rule was first adopted. It is no longer interpreted to mean short or brief but rather comprehensible. Undoubtedly, this practice has evolved as a means of getting around the limit of four questions per member.
Leaving aside the issue of length, I want to turn now to the substance of the questions, specifically to the Standing Order requirement that questions must be “coherent and concise”. As hon. members will know, the Clerk and her staff routinely edit written questions as to form and, from time to time, have divided questions to make them conform to the requirements of the Standing Order. In questionable cases, their practice has been to give the member submitting the question the benefit of the doubt and to allow the question to be placed on the order paper. The Speaker has only become involved in rare cases such as this one where objections have been raised.
With this in mind, I reviewed all 47 parts of Question No. 90 carefully. Keeping in mind the need for coherence in the question, I must admit that I found that, as currently constructed, some parts of the question are rather tenuously knitted together. Accordingly, I have determined that the need for greater coherence necessitates that the question be divided. For this reason I must rule that Question No. 90, as currently formulated, is inadmissible.
To remedy the situation without unduly penalizing the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam, I have instructed the Clerk to divide Question No. 90 into three separate questions. The first question concerns the government's objectives, strategy, vision, results and capabilities with respect to the Afghanistan mission and includes 33 subquestions. The second deals specifically with Canadian Forces casualties in Afghanistan. It contains five subsections. Seven subquestions related to financial matters are grouped together in a third question.
In reviewing the question, I have also examined it to determine whether it respects the Standing Order requirement by seeking information that pertains to matters within the administrative responsibility of the government. In this case I have found that two of the original subquestions dealing with allied forces and non-governmental organizations are outside the administrative responsibility of the government. Accordingly, I have asked that they be deleted. Another subquestion was amended to remove references to agencies and multilateral organizations for the same reason.
Copies of the three questions are available at the table and will also be found on tomorrow's order paper listed as Questions Nos. 106, 107 and 108.
Finally, in view of the fact that the information sought remains essentially unchanged, the 45 day period for the government to respond to the questions will be retroactive to the original date when notice was first given of Question No. 90, that is September 19, 2006. I believe these steps taken together provide a remedy to the objections raised with respect to Question No. 90 while respecting rights of the hon. member for New Westminster—Coquitlam in seeking information by way of written questions that meet the requirements of our Standing Orders.
I wish to thank hon. members for allowing me the opportunity to clarify our practices with respect to written questions and if hon. members are still concerned about the rules and practices, they are of course free to take the matter up with the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Since 20 years have passed since the current Standing Order went into effect, it may be opportune to examine whether the rule has worked out in the way in which it was intended.
In the meantime, I am confident that, to avoid difficulties, members may be well-served should they seek guidance from the Clerk and her staff when drafting questions for the order paper. I apologize that this ruling was not more concise as is required in respect of the questions.