In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

QP Antics

Posted 9/26/2010 by Grant Mitchell

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It’s another fall and another debate about Question Period. I’ve blogged about Question Period (QP) before, but I do think it bears repeating that the exercise can be valuable.

The often repeated assessments go like this. Some MP’s and Senators misbehave in QP in a way that discredits politicians and the political process (yes there is a QP in the Senate!).  This is the "school children behave better argument." This behavior, it is argued, turns people off politics eroding the ability of democracy to function properly. The point is also made that QP serves no useful purpose and answers are never given.

While QP can seem unseemly, there is another side to this story. First, it is intense in QP. The issues raised there are usually very current and very important.  And, MPs and Senators are not sissies; they are people who have deeply held beliefs, strong value orientations and histories of having fought for both for a long time. Would we want politicians who did not fight hard in representing us?

Secondly, confrontation sells news stories. I know from my days as Leader of the Opposition in Alberta that a moderately phrased question is far less likely to be picked up by media for coverage than the same question with some zest.

Above all, I believe that QP is effective in holding government accountable. It is neither overwhelmingly important nor reasonable to expect that governments would provide useful answers. Nor is this a limiting factor in the worth of QP. The point of QP is that opposition MP’s and Senators get to ask questions and that process in and of itself makes a government sharper. Ministers have to be on top of their portfolios because they know they can be embarrassed in public if they are not. They will anticipate issues and questions as they prepare for QP and possibly take needed action so they can report that they have done so.

Moreover, QP allows for emerging issues to be raised immediately. If not for QP, there is no way for Parliamentarians to raise an issue immediately when such issues need to be raised.

Consider that there is no QP for the President of the US. Viewing QP from a different perspective, I think we are actually fortunate that our Parliamentarians can ask direct questions to our government.

That is not to say that changes should not be made. They should where they make sense. But let’s keep things in perspective. For example, one proposal is that one day's QP per week would be dedicated to questions directed only at the Prime Minister. I am not certain exactly how this would improve QP. The danger is, however, that it would render the rest of week’s proceedings far less important and thus diminishing media exposure. This would be a great advantage to the government. This would mean less accountability and there more unrestricted power for the government. Is this what we really want?

I believe that QP is very productive and an essential part of our system. I do not subscribe to those who think it is terrible and needs massive reform.

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