That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to recommend changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions governing Oral Questions, and to consider, among other things, (i) elevating decorum and fortifying the use of discipline by the Speaker, to strengthen the dignity and authority of the House, (ii) lengthening the amount of time given for each question and each answer, (iii) examining the convention that the Minister questioned need not respond, (iv) allocating half the questions each day for Members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected, (v) dedicating Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister, (vi) dedicating Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for questions to Ministers other than the Prime Minister in a way that would require Ministers be present two of the four days to answer questions concerning their portfolio, based on a published schedule that would rotate and that would ensure an equitable distribution of Ministers across the four days; and that the Committee report its findings to the House, with proposed changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions, within six months of the adoption of this order.
Mr. Speaker, Canadians know that something is not quite right with their democratic institutions. They know that something is not the way it should be. They may not know exactly what processes, procedures and rules need to be changed but they know their institutions need to be fixed and they want them to be reformed.
We need to respond to these concerns and we need to reform Parliament. Parliamentary reform begins with the reform of question period. If the heart of our democracy is Parliament, then the heart of Parliament is question period, the 45 minute period each day where members of Parliament ask questions of the government in order to hold it to account. Question period is televised and each day its proceedings are relayed by the national media to millions of Canadians, the people who we represent here in this place.
If one thing has been made abundantly clear to me as a member of Parliament for the last number of years and to all of us in this House, it is that ordinary Canadians are disappointed with the level of behaviour in question period and they want their parliamentarians to focus on the issues that really matter to them.
Since this motion was made public just over a month ago, I have received phone calls, letters and emails from citizens across this country. From Kingston, a proud member of the Canadian military wrote me:
I have served in the Canadian Forces for over 24 years and the lack of civility in the House of Commons has been an occasional topic of conversation throughout the years. I've often thought it extremely ironic that my elected political leaders could sometimes be so immature and exhibit such appalling behaviour when my fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen are required to uphold such high standards of deportment both in and out of uniform.
This concern has also been voiced to me by school teachers, truck drivers, grade five students and boardroom executives. In fact, teachers have told me that the level of behaviour in question period is such that they will not take their classes here anymore. This is the surest sign that question period needs to be reformed.
When more than four out of ten Canadians in the last election refused to vote, it is a sign that our Parliament is losing its legitimacy and its authority.
More than four out of ten Canadians refused to vote in the last election. This is a sign that our Parliament needs to be reformed.
Question period has become more about scoring cheap political points rather than about the issues that really matter to Canadians.
Question period has become more about scoring cheap political points rather than dealing with the issues that really matter to Canadians.
Question period has become a time where behaviour that is not permitted in any boardroom, dining room, or classroom regularly occurs here in the people's room. As a result, there is a growing divide between Canadians who are becoming more and more apolitical and a Parliament that is becoming more and more partisan.
We, as members of Parliament, need to bridge that gap by reforming Parliament and regaining the respect of Canadians. That is why today I move Motion No. 517, a proposal to reform question period. It contains six specific proposals to address question period and make it focus on the issues that really matter to Canadians.
The six specific proposals call on the House affairs and procedures committee to elevate decorum and fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker; lengthen the amount of time given for each question and answer; require that ministers respond to questions directed at them; allocate half the questions each day for backbench members; dedicate Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister; and dedicate the rest of the week to questions for ministers other than the Prime Minister.
I would like to take this opportunity to elaborate on each of the six proposals.
First, the motion calls for the elevation of decorum and the strengthening of the authority of the Speaker.
From teachers with students on class trips to boardroom executives, Canadians want behaviour in question period improved. The current behaviour is unacceptable in any social setting, let alone this country's Parliament. Pleas for better decorum are insufficient. We, as members of Parliament, need to give a mandate to the Speaker of this House to enforce the rules already in the Standing Orders and in current convention.
The second proposal is to lengthen the time given to ask a question and the time given to answer a question. Currently, 35 seconds are allocated to the questioner and 35 seconds to the answerer. It is an insufficient amount of time. As a result, we get rhetorical questions and rhetorical answers.
The lengthening of time given to ask and to answer a question is something that was done here at one point in time. The short 35-second rule is a recent introduction to this Parliament. For decades, parliamentarians had a minute to a minute and a half to ask a question, and ministers had a minute to a minute and a half to respond to questions.
Lengthening the amount of time given to ask and to answer questions will lead to more substantive questions and more substantive answers.
Writing in the National Post, Tasha Kheiriddin opined that:
the current 35-second format may produce tailor-made soundbites for the evening news, but hardly allows for depth or reflection.
She added that the motion:
is supported by research done on Western European Parliaments where it was found that extending the question and answer time made for more substantive exchanges.
The third proposal contained in the motion calls on the committee to re-examine the convention that a minister need not respond to the questioner. Sometimes I understand it is not possible for a minister to respond, as they are out of the country in carrying out their duties representing Canada abroad. Other times the problem is that the 35-second rule results in questions that are rhetorical and answers that become rhetorical, and the government, for good reasons, chooses to designate a particular minister to respond to those rhetorical questions.
Thus, if we are going to overhaul question period, if we are going to have more substantive questions and more substantive answers, then we should also examine the convention that a minister need not respond.
Fourth, I am proposing in the motion to allocate half the questions per day to backbench members of Parliament. Currently, in question period, members of Parliament may only ask questions in the House if they receive the prior approval of their House leader and party whips. This, in my view, is a denial of the right of the backbench members of Parliament to represent their constituents and to ask questions of the government in relation to their constituencies.
The introduction of the approval of the House leader and the whip for a member to ask a question in question period in all parties is a recent practice. It is not something that was present here before the 1990s. In fact, I was speaking with a former parliamentarian who sat in this House for over 20 years in the 1970s and 1980s. He told me that he was shocked to find out that the Speaker no longer recognized members in the House spontaneously during question period. In fact, he told me that up until his time in Parliament, the first two or three rounds in question period went to the leaders and their designates. After that, it was backbench members of Parliament who could catch the eye of the Speaker and rise and ask questions that were of concern to their constituents. We need to go back to some sort of system like that in order to strengthen the role of this legislature.
Speaking on The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright on our nation's public broadcaster, former New Democrat leader and respected parliamentarian Ed Broadbent said, “We still have to make changes to magnify the role of individual MPs”. He added, “It is up to individual MPs to assert themselves and to assert their democratic rights”.
The final two proposals contained in my motion would dedicate specific days for the Prime Minister and other ministers of the Crown to attend question period. Presently, preparing for question period requires almost four hours a day per minister. There are roughly 40 ministers of the Crown in the government. Each minister spends four hours a day either in question period or preparing for it. That is not unlike what has happened in previous governments as well.
In a typical question period, only about five or six, maybe eight or nine, of those ministers actually answer questions. In other words, 30 ministers of the various ministries each spend four hours a day preparing for and sitting through question period and yet contribute nothing or provide no answers. As a result, a lot of time and resources are used unproductively.
I am suggesting that we keep the amount of time dedicated in the House for question period the same, but am arguing for a rotational schedule that would better allow the government to use its resources and time wisely, and also allow the opposition to focus on specific issues on specific days.
This motion, if adopted, would instruct the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to consider these reforms and report back the recommended changes within six months.
I was never a member of the Reform Party or a Reformer, but this motion was inspired in part by Preston Manning and the democratic Reform movement and their earnest desire to see change for the better in Canada's institutions. Mr. Manning, writing in the Globe and Mail recently, said:
Although Motion 517 has been moved by a government member, it is not partisan in nature and deserves support from all members who want to see Question Period made more credible.
There must be some way of making Question Period more civil, productive and newsworthy, and the sooner we find it, the better it will be for Canadian democracy.
Also writing in the Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson noted that this motion:
would reform Question Period, bringing greater civility to that raucous session and encouraging more sensible questions and more forthright answers.
All parties should embrace the proposal. It would be another step along the road to truly responsible, truly parliamentary, government.
What I am offering here are some viable and specific suggestions on how to improve and reform question period. They are simple and reasonable. However, at its heart, this motion is about starting the debate on how to improve Parliament.
But this motion is a call for debate. If this motion is adopted, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs will be forced to begin a review and engage in debate on the validity of these suggestions.
If this motion is adopted and the committee is ordered to consider these changes, the committee may, in its best judgment, decide to include additional suggestions for reform or, indeed, modify some of the proposals that I have suggested in the motion. I therefore hope that members will accept and support this call to start the debate on the reform of question period and of Parliament in general.
The committee may, in its best judgment, decide to include additional suggestions for reform or even modify some of my suggestions.
I therefore hope that members will accept and support this call to start the debate on the reform of question period.
Colleagues of mine on both sides of the House have been enthusiastic about the motion. Twenty members have seconded the motion, and I want to thank them for their support, their encouragement and their input into the motion.
Canadians are hungry for change and reform, and I am optimistic that parliamentary reform can reconnect Canadians who feel disengaged from their witnessing behaviour in question period that would not be tolerated around the kitchen table. I am optimistic that we can reform Parliament and make it relevant to them once again.
The motion provides for some specific and viable suggestions for reform. The motion is simple and reasonable. If we cannot collectively, as members of the House, come together to achieve something as simple and reasonable and demanded by Canadians as the reform of question period, then what hope do we have of restoring Canadians' trust in their institutions and regaining their respect? What hope do we have of recapturing the legitimacy and authority of this place as central to the Canadian debate? What hope do we have to meet the challenges of our era and continue the nation-building efforts begun by our forebears?
More than four out of ten Canadians refused to vote in the last election. In doing so, they decreased the legitimacy of this institution and the authority of Parliament. As I mentioned before, Canadians may not know exactly what processes, procedures or rules need to be fixed, but they know something is wrong and they know something needs to change.
I have already mentioned the outpouring of support from Canadians who have taken it upon themselves to contact me regarding the motion, many of whom have confirmed this growing gap between their democratic institutions and themselves. A Canadian in Edmonton wrote to me and said, “Wouldn't it be great if something like this could be done? I am one of the countless Canadians who finds the whole spectacle of question period as it stands embarrassing and utterly alienating. Question period is probably more responsible for the low voter turnout than any other single thing. It would sure be nice to look in on parliament and see the MPs at least appearing to be working in a constructive way for us all”.
An editorial in the Peace Arch News from White Rock, British Columbia makes the following comment:
A proposal by a backbench Conservative MP in Ottawa is one the general public—and MPs of all parties—should embrace.
It goes on to state:
The main point of government should be to get things done, and any reform of Question Period that would make it more than just a theatrical performance would be a big step forward.
Canadians want their Parliament reformed. They want their democratic institutions fixed and they want the level of debate elevated. This motion is a first, but important, step toward that parliamentary reform.
I want to end on a final note about the great parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, who once observed:
All government—indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter.
I am prepared to embrace the spirit of Mr. Burke's observation. I am open to friendly amendments that support the spirit of this motion in order to build a consensus, so I urge my fellow members to support this motion.