Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Farce That Is Question Period

Question Period has always been raucous, partisan, full of bluster and too often meaningless. Having said that, I think it fair to say that this government has brought the process to a new low. "The primary purpose of Question Period is to seek information from the Government and to call it to account for its actions." In response to a question, the government can:
-provide an answer
-defer an answer
-explain briefly why an answer cannot be provided at that time
-say nothing.
The following exchange between Dion and Harper, from yesterday's hansard (today brought much the same):
Dion: "Mr. Speaker, does the Prime Minister still have confidence in his Minister of National Defence, yes or no?"

Harper:" Mr. Speaker, I have said repeatedly that it is the Leader of the Opposition in whom I lack confidence.

What leads me to that conclusion today would be reading a copy of a letter I received from Ed Morgan, the national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, noting that his colleague, Elizabeth May, has diminished the Holocaust, used the Nazi analogy that is demagogic and inappropriate, while belittling Canadians of faith.

The Leader of the Opposition hitched his wagon to this individual. I hope he will distance himself from those kinds of remarks."


Dion: "Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister should be able to say if, yes or no, he has confidence in his Minister of National Defence. The entire nation wants to hear the answer.

The last time the minister was allowed to speak was in an elevator. Now the Minister of Public Safety is inventing policy in an elevator. Maybe we should get the Prime Minister in an elevator to get an answer from him."

Harper: "Mr. Speaker, all ministers serve the government with distinction. He will know that the Minister of National Defence has served his country with distinction for virtually his entire adult life, including in a uniform in the Canadian Forces.

I think the Leader of the Opposition should be able to say that he believes that diminishing the Holocaust and using Nazi analogies are inappropriate. I would like to again give him a chance to distance himself from these remarks by his colleague, the leader of the Green Party."

Dion: "Mr. Speaker, to speak about the credentials of the minister is not enough. Does the Prime Minister still have confidence in his Minister of National Defence, yes or no?

I suggest that the Prime Minister should no longer have confidence in his Minister of National Defence. He was wrong about the Red Cross, wrong about the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, wrong about the alleged new agreement with the Afghan government and wrong about the treatment of prisoners.

Will the Prime Minister fire his Minister of National Defence and give our soldiers a better minister?"

Harper: "Mr. Speaker, obviously I have confidence in the Minister of National Defence, someone who has served as a member of the Canadian Forces.

It is no small matter to diminish the Holocaust or use Nazi analogies, as the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, has done. The Canadian Jewish Congress has denounced this. I hope the Leader of the Opposition will"

Where does it say in the guidelines that a Minister can interject a completely different topic, that is irrelevant to the question?

The pattern, again on Friday:
Layton: "Mr. Speaker, incredibly, it seems as though the Prime Minister remains in full denial on the situation of detainees in Kandahar. I will ask him about some other detainees.

Since 2003, Canada has been sending warships to the Arabian Sea to participate in the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom. We learn now, due to documents that we have obtained, that the government signed, on October 12, an agreement regarding the transfer of prisoners taken during these operations. We tried to find out what the terms of the agreement are but the Department of National Defence has blackened out all the terms.

Where are the detainees going, Guantanamo?

Harper: "Mr. Speaker, I am not sure I have anything to add to this subject at the moment, but I would hardly want today to pass without a rare chance for me to quote Buzz Hargrove on the good work that the Minister of the Environment is doing.

Buzz Hargrove said:

I believe [the minister] tried incredibly hard to find balance between the economy, the concern working people have for their jobs and the environmental concerns that concern every Canadian. I think he took a major step forward today that will deal with some of the environmental concerns that will not throw tens of thousands of Canadians out of work."

Layton asks a question on detainees, Harper ignores the question and is allowed to change the topic entirely, in what amounts to free propaganda. The rules say the Minister isn't obliged to answer the question, but it surely doesn't say the Minister can insert whatever he wants, on a topic that has no relationship to the nature of the question.

Question Period is the opposition's opportunity to ask the government questions. QP is not a forum for the government to ask Stephane Dion about Elizabeth May's comments, particularly when there is no context for the retort. Apparently, the PMO can cobble together anything, and the government merely submits it whenever they choose.

If the Minister chooses to not answer the question, then he can "say nothing". When Harper told Layton "I have nothing to add", then the Speaker has the right to cutoff the subsequent irrelevant commentary.

Clearly, we need new rules for Question Period that allow the Speaker greater discretion, within a tightened procedure. The alternative is too subject Canadians to this embarrassing farce of a parliament, that reflects badly on our entire system.

20 comments:

Dana said...

If Harper or the ministers weren't allowed to do that then Duffy wouldn't know what kind of program to do.

MrvnMouse said...

In the extended answer:

"A Minister's refusal to answer a question cannot be questioned or treated as the subject of a point of order or of a question of privilege.

The Speaker ensures that replies adhere to the dictates of order, decorum and parliamentary language. The Speaker, however, is not responsible for the quality or the content of replies to questions."

So basically, the minister can do whatever he wants as the speaker cannot do anything about it. However, the person asking the question has to stick to the strict order of decorum.

Steve V said...

The refusal to answer cannot be questioned, but that is a far cry from interjecting another topic. The answer has to have some relationship to the question, or the Minister says nothing.

Gayle said...

I say leave it as it is. When the liberals win the next election they can start quoting old Harper speeches every time he asks a question. I mean, he started it after all :).

Seriously though, I do not think most of the Canadian public would be impressed, particularly with the exchange you just quoted.

Anonymous said...

Psychic makeup artist or not, Harper is flustered and it shows. It also sounds like it when you hear him speak. He's getting that whiny voice he used when he smeared Goodale while making the Income Trusts promise he later broke. Today he said "Hollycaust" then corrected himself, twice; he referred to May as Elizabeth Day. (Is Day on his mind for some reason? Unconsciously?)
Harper's losing track of the threads. He's unleashed the hounds too soon and is having quite a time rounding them up again before they've left too many droppings all over the 'hood.

He's coming undone. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

burlivespipe said...

I'm betting he goes home, straps on the cowboy suit and stares into a mirror with an Eastwood sneer. Harpor acts like he's in the wild wild west, where law ain't got no right in standing in a six guns way.
Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you no stinkin' badges!"

He's also a little stressed from reading his fortune in the Globe and Mail, thus his approach to answering questions is in hope of feeding the Sun chain with their next day's headline story...

knb said...

I truly wish I knew my history better. I wish I understood the long standing tradition of parliament better than I do.

I would enjoy question period if there was legitimate banter. Witty quips between the each party, but still, speaking to the point. Read Hansard from the UK, not perfect, but you still see that.

Here...it's now nonsense imo. The PM and his crowd thinks it's cool to speak like 14 yr. olds and gawd help us if that is the level of his base.

While I understand the cry to change the rules, personally, I'd rather see a change of decorum. I think Dion is doing that and I don't see him, nor Ignatieff changing. That is good. Logical questions with inane answers, every day Harper walks farther into what "cannot be taken back", it's on the record.

What is frustrating at the moment, may prove to be low hanging fruit.

Steve V said...

I don't get to watch it often, but the British question period is so superior to our sideshow, it actually appears as substantive debate amongst adults. Go figure.

Olaf said...

Steve,

You're definitely right, it's an absolute joke. However, as much as we'd all like to think that ever single aspect of Canadian life has degraded following Harpers election, I think you're grasping a bit when it comes to this governing bringing the process to a new low in this respect - rather, I imagine, you're just paying closer attention.

I used to remember both Martin and Chretien doing precisely the same thing, in an equally egregious manner. It's the way they always handle uncomfortable questions - go back and look at some of the question periods following the Sponsorship scandal and I assure you, you'd see an equal level of blatant misdirection and shameless obfuscation.

That being said, I agree it's a disgrace. Gayle's comment made me think:

I do not think most of the Canadian public would be impressed, particularly with the exchange you just quoted.

If a newspaper or a columnist really wanted to screw Harper, they should publish a piece saying "Why won't the Prime Minister answer questions?" and then just print those exchanges in full. Even better, a weekly column which brought forward in print the most embarrassing Question Period shananigans, in the hopes of MAYBE embarrassing our parliamentarians into acting like teenagers, if not adults. It could be a weekly award that no parliamentarian would want, and likely would pay attention to, considering that many are quite vain and quite (in their mind) under considered.

This might be effective considering that a) many more people read news papers than watch Question Period; b) you can't really grasp the full absurdity of the exercise with mere soundbytes on the evening news; c) it seems much more striking when written down just what a fucking joke it devolves into sometimes.

Thoughts?

Steve V said...

olaf

That's not a bad idea at all. It is curious, the MSM constantly looks down on the level of discourse, but they are so passive in trying to hold people to a higher standard.

As to your assertion that it's always been this bad, I would say maybe in spots, but not so consistently.

knb said...

Brilliant Olaf...though I don't think it's about screwing Harper. I think it is about keeping parliamentarians in check.

It's funny, your idea almost seems to be going back in time, when all we had were newspapers. I think it has tremendous merit though and it get's rid of the left/right bias, to an extent...it's transcript.

Hmmm, something tell's me reporters won't like it. They won't be able to pronounce quite so much.

Great idea Olaf!

Steve V said...

"Brilliant Olaf...though I don't think it's about screwing Harper. I think it is about keeping parliamentarians in check."

Yes, I could see several occasions where Liberal MP Mark Holland would win his share of awards. Watching him and Baird "debate" is just awful.

Anonymous said...

The problem with our Question Period is that it is 5 days a week, for an hour each session. For starters, that is way too much time for politicians to be wasting sitting in the chamber putting on a show. With all that time given, it leads to showboating both in asking questions and in answering them. The same questions are asked over and over again.

In the British Parliament, PM Question period is once a week for one half hour. This makes each question and answer count.

Olaf said...

Steve,

Squabble all you want, although I doubt you followed Chretien and Martin's answers with such a critical eye (as likely I don't with Harper). Furthermore, if you want to do a statistical analysis as to what ratio of questions are answered directly, how many are misdirected, how many obfuscated, and how many ignored altogether, weighted accordingly, that shows the Liberals some 17.5% more likely to answer questions in relatively good faith, then I'd be willing to grant your observation. Otherwise, I'll just consider it a tried and true tactic of the government in power.

KNB,

though I don't think it's about screwing Harper. I think it is about keeping parliamentarians in check.

I meant this passage in particular would be damaging to Harper. However, the weekly passage could be a multi-partisan venture - although ignoring questions blatantly is a tactic used often by the government, ignoring the response blatantly is a tactic employed by the opposition, both of which are equally embarrassing.

Countless times I've seen question period (recently, or when the Liberals were in power), where a critic asked a question, which was answered. Then asked the question again. Then again. Then the next member of the party proceeded to ask the same question again, albeit with slightly different wording. Then the next party, smelling stale blood in the water, would ask precisely the same question, sometimes in the other official language for a little bit of spice.

All told, it could be a relatively effective means of keeping parliamentarians of all stripes from acting like fools, or at least embarrassing them, especially if a national paper took up the responsibility of naming the "Parliamentary Jackass of the Week". The fact is, the only opportunity the average MP has of getting on TV is by somehow evoking a reaction from the other parties, so often it becomes a race to the bottom where they're not accountable whatsoever and thus feel they have carte blanche to be as consistently asinine as they please.

And you're right, reporters might not like it, however hopefully editorial boards might.

Steve V said...

I also like the fact that the leader of the opposition can ask 6 supplementals, which allows for a very engaging debate.

knb said...

I suppose I should clarify my comment by saying this. In the present, what Olaf proposes could indeed keep Harper in check and expose him and you know I'm for that.

However, it must keep all in check, going forward. I think Olaf has presented a simple, though very intelligent idea. I'd do it daily, though a day behind, so it would become soap opera-like. By that I mean that people would want to follow the saga, and they would react.

Olaf, you are right about the editorial boards, :). You are a clever lad.

Anonymous said...

I know the Speaker likes his job and perhaps (because speakers are voted in) he's afraid to cross anyone, but the fact is he HAS to get more control.

I think the opposition parties should put in a "Motion" to rename the period the "Question and Answer Period" and clarify that it requires answers.

Anonymous said...

I've watched the British question period out of curiosity. They do the clever banter - but, Blair does actually answer questions. He has books with him at all times and does answer.

Same with the U.S. Congress - they ask questions and wait for answers.

I guess this is what you get when kids are the current government.

Anonymous said...

What's really disturbing and pathetic is that Harper and his kiddie caucus really believe they are really clever - smirks and all.

How sad can it get.

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