In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Questions about Question Period

Posted 4/15/2009 by Senator Grant Mitchell


There is often debate in Canada about Question Period.

Not too many Parliamentarians have been involved in Question Period in the politically charged atmosphere of the House of Commons or a provincial Legislature and the far more moderate Senate. I have been involved in both kinds – 12 years as an Opposition member and for several years as the Leader of the Opposition in the Alberta legislature facing Premier Klein. I am currently in the Senate Opposition and am back asking questions. I have asked thousands of questions. Based on this experience, I would like to share some of my insights into the parliamentary institution, Question Period.

The parliamentary system is the longest standing system of government in the world. It has lasted for hundreds of years because it works. It may not be perfect but then democracy seldom is. Question Period has a long and aged tradition in this system of government.

Here are some criticisms that I often hear about Question Period:

“I wouldn’t even let the children in my classroom behave like that.”

To begin with, Parliament is not a classroom. It is filled with very strong MPs and senators. They are people who believe deeply and passionately about values and the policy choices that different values drive. They believe deeply that they have to represent their constituents as intensely as they can. They have been elected to Parliament usually by unrelentingly hard work and determination. There are no “sissies” amongst these people. So, the atmosphere is emotionally charged.

Moreover, Canadians see only confrontation because that is what drives the news. A huge portion of work done in Parliament is by agreement amongst the parties without acrimony. Consensus isn’t deemed newsworthy though.

We should also remember that in other countries, politics is often conducted with profound violence.

“We never get any answers.”

The point of Question Period is, ironically, not always to solicit answers – it is to hold the government to account.

Here are some reasons why Question Period is important even when we don’t always get the answers were are looking for.

First, like in management, asking questions is very important. It keeps people, including Ministers and even Prime Ministers, sharp and having to anticipate what they might be asked. By being asked questions you prepare and think about issues that you might not otherwise think about with a greater intensity.

Second, Question Period allows politicians to be more responsive to the issues of the day since they can be raised immediately. If Parliamentarians were to be limited to motions and bills, they would have to wait until these came up on the agenda, days or weeks later. There may not even be a piece of legislation dealing with the current issue.

Third, Question Period raises the profile of issues so that the public can be informed, public input can be stimulated and the debate broadened. As heated as Question Period may appear, the intensity that it brings attracts attention to the issues and stimulates public debate.

 Ultimately, Question Period is critical to holding a government accountable. What would accountability look like if it did not involve questioning?

To do away with Question Period would be to suck the life out of the parliamentary process.

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