|| That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the intelligent and well-spoken member for . She will take the second half of my time, and I have no doubt that her speech will be excellent.
We moved this motion today in response to the public's reaction to what happened last week in the House. People from all across the country called in to radio shows, sent emails, and shared their thoughts on television and in newspapers. They were all saying that question period needs to be improved so it can become an answer period too.
All Canadians want is that the government give intelligent and transparent answers when we ask an intelligent question—a question seeking transparency in an area of public administration, such as the questions that the asked last week. These answers enhance the debate so that everyone in this great country can understand the direction the government is taking. The answers also give the government a chance to defend the decisions it has made. It does not get any simpler than that.
That is why we are proposing today to amend Standing Order 11(2) to include the answers provided during question period.
The NDP is not trying to make a huge change today. We are simply saying that we already have rules about the relevance of debates in this House. As you know, Mr. Speaker, on numerous occasions you have enforced the rules on relevance that already exist for debates in the House, as you have also enforced the rules on the relevance of the questions we ask. The NDP is proud of the fact that we ask relevant and intelligent questions in the House. However, Mr. Speaker, you also have the right to say whether these questions are relevant.
All we are asking and all we want to do is to fix the loophole surrounding the answers to questions during question period and to ensure that the answers are just as relevant as the questions the minister was asked.
This is also not a huge change because these practices are already in place in other parliaments around the world. As we know, the speaker in the United Kingdom's legislative chamber has the right to question the relevance of answers. The level of debate is higher because the questions must be relevant, of course, but so must the answers.
On the weekend, like any good New Democrat, I did some research. That is usually what we do: we use research to delve deeper into the subject. I watched several clips from the Australian parliament, and the speaker of the house called the prime minister to order because his response was irrelevant.
What we are proposing today already exists in our Standing Orders, as well as in the rules governing other parliaments around the world. What is more, we feel it is a matter of respect. What we are asking is that the government and this Parliament respect the fine Canadians who have been questioning the standards in recent days. We want the House to support this motion, which is designed to establish guidelines for the answers provided during question period.
I would like to mention something else that I feel is important. There are fewer than 49 weeks before the election is called. In 2015, on approximately September 12, the writ will be dropped for Canada's 42nd national election. We hope that the NDP will form the government after Canadians across the country cast their votes. It will be up to Canadians to decide, and we will have to respect their decision, just as we respect the fact that recent comments from across this country have been very clear. We need to hear relevant answers to the intelligent questions that are asked in the House. We need to respect the will of the people of Canada.
I would like to take a few moments to mention another worrisome issue. The will rise to speak in a few minutes. It is not yet clear whether the Conservatives support this motion. I hope that they will support it. Public opinion is clear. The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons has said that there is plenty of accountability in the House during question period because the ministers are always present to answer questions.
Good New Democrats that we are, we did our research over the weekend. We found that, since the beginning of this sitting of Parliament on September 16, parliamentary secretaries have responded to nearly 50% of the questions asked of ministers during question period. How can we speak of accountable government if parliamentary secretaries answer nearly half of the questions asked of ministers? Parliamentary secretaries are not supposed to be making decisions. They are not accountable to the people. They have no executive power. Ministers are the ones who are accountable. The is accountable. It is up to them to answer the intelligent questions people ask in the House. Nothing less. It should not be half and half. Ministers should not be answering just one out of every two questions. Ministers should be able to answer every question. From time to time, a parliamentary secretary might answer, but that is happening systematically and it shows a lack of respect for Canadians.
I was first elected in 2004 with my colleague from and was very proud of being elected. My first seat was right over there, in the corner. I had to get a shoehorn to get into it.
I remember the first time I asked a question in the House. I remember standing and thinking that it is a strength of Canadian democracy that I can ask a question and that a minister has to answer. However, I quickly realized, as all rookie MPs do in the House, that the question, yes, is powerful, but until we get to the point where the response has to be equally intelligent and equally relevant, we have not completed what is a fundamental part of Canadian democracy.
I represent one of the most diverse ridings in the country, where over 100 languages are spoken and people come from all over the world. They come to Canada because they believe in our democratic system. Even people in my riding who are strong Canadians, proud Canadians, new Canadians, many of them believe that question period should be improved. They believe that Canadians should be treated with the respect they deserve. They believe that intelligent questions asked on this side of the House merit equally intelligent and thoughtful answers from that side of the House.
Transparency requires that when any opposition member or government member asks a thoughtful question, the government's answer should be as transparent and complete as possible. It is not an idle dream. This is the basis on which our country developed. These are the parliamentary traditions, which came from other countries, that have helped to broaden and deepen, hopefully, the debate in the House.
Sometimes we reach the level that Canadians expect of us. One of them was just last week when the leader of the official opposition spoke very passionately on Iraq here in the House of Commons. That was a high moment for so many Canadians.
However, we also have low moments when answers do not correspond to the intelligent questions that are asked. That is why we are offering the motion today. We want to make question period a question and answer period so that all Canadians can benefit from transparent, thoughtful answers to thoughtful questions asked in the House.
We hope we get the support of every member of the House.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank you for allowing me to participate in this debate.
In my opinion, the motion moved is extremely important if we want to give Canadians some hope and restore their confidence in our democratic system, especially during question period.
We have decided to use our opposition day to discuss one of my favourite subjects, that is the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. I am very pleased to be a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which gives me the opportunity to study the Standing Orders in more depth. Ultimately, the Standing Orders of the House of Commons are the foundation of democracy and Parliament. In my opinion, it is important to be able to make changes directly, that is in the Standing Orders, so that we can improve the system.
Our current goal is to give the Speaker the authority to apply the relevance rules to oral question period. As my colleague from just explained, this rule already exists and applies primarily to debates in the House of Commons. For example, if I am supposed o debate a bill and I start talking abut whales in the Great Lakes, the Speaker has the right and the power to call me to order by stating that my comments are not related to the matter at hand. What an MP talks about must be relevant to the subject being debated. No one questions the authority of the Speaker to call to order a member who is speaking about something completely different, because this is a simple and basic principle. The rule applies to debates in the House and committee meetings.
The chair of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs does an excellent job. I have seen him call to order MPs from all parties many times when their speeches were not really pertinent. This is not about partisanship. When an MP gives a speech that is not relevant or that is repetitive, the committee chair has the authority to call him or her to order so that they focus on the subject at hand.
Given that the Speaker of the House of Commons represents the entire democratic institution of Parliament, it is really important that he or she be able to apply the rule during question period.
We all know what prompted today's debate. Basically, it comes as a result of an exchange that we all witnessed last week. Indeed, last Tuesday, the asked some very specific questions about precise aspects of Canada's military involvement in Iraq. One of the responses was not even a semblance of an attempt to answer the question. There was not even any suggestion in the response that the parliamentary secretary had any desire to answer the question. In the end, the answer given was completely absurd and had nothing to do with the question. At that moment, for many Canadians, political commentators and people who follow Canadian politics, this crossed the line. For me personally, I think it is important to draw a very clear line. Of course, we know that the government's responses will not always be what the opposition wants to hear. The role of the opposition is to question the government and hold it to account. We will not always be satisfied with the answers we get, but there needs to be a limit. When it comes to relevance there must be a line we cannot cross if we do not want Canadians to start thinking there is no point in following Canadian politics because what we do here is nothing but a ridiculous spectacle.
I think the motion simply aims to draw a clear line to say that if the absurdity and irrelevance go too far, it will be up to the Speaker, the keeper of our democracy, to call the member to order. That is what happens when the person speaking does not stay on topic during debates in the House, during committee meetings and within other current institutions.
Members must be called to order when what they are saying does not even come close to an answer. Government members must provide relevant answers. We are not asking that they provide answers that satisfy the opposition, but they have to respond to the question that has been asked. This seems so simple to me that I have to wonder why we need to spend a whole day debating this issue. It is really too bad that it has come to this.
As a young woman who has been participating in the debates in the House since being elected in 2011, I must admit that it is sometimes very difficult to attend question period. I am not an aggressive person and I do not like to yell.
When I realized that I was in the House of Commons to work with all of my elected colleagues in deciding the future of our country and then I saw people yelling at each other like second-grade children, it was a rude awakening.
I think that there are many other steps we need to take before we have a more respectful parliament. In this regard, it would not be a bad thing if we were able to make some improvements to question period today.
There are many very interesting people who would do a great job in Parliament but who may have decided not to get involved when they saw the tone of question period, the insults being hurled and the yelling that goes on. As my colleague pointed out, this could also completely discourage some people from participating in democracy in the simplest way possible, namely by voting.
By making this small change today, we could show Canadians that we want to improve our system. This is not the first time that the NDP has moved motions or proposed small but effective solutions or changes. Two years ago, on an opposition day, I participated in a fairly similar debate on closure motions, since the government was breaking records in the use of this measure. It was a similar discussion because we wanted to give the power to the Speaker.
We are not saying that closure motions are always a bad thing. We understand that there may be urgent reasons that would justify their use. However, why not give our Speaker that power, since he is the keeper of the House?
Then, since he would be the one responsible for assessing the situation, he could decide on the relevance of the reasons given to justify the use of a closure motion. He could refuse, on the basis that the reasons were insufficient or that too many members wanted to speak, for example. This is the only place where members can debate bills, and it is our duty to do so.
We thought this excellent suggestion could be useful, but it was not passed. We made several other suggestions. For example, we suggested that omnibus bills be prohibited. They make no sense, because they sometimes amend 100 different acts in one fell swoop. This does not help Canadians regain their trust in and their respect for our democracy, which we have been losing in recent years. We could also change the rules with respect to prorogation. It is the same principle.
We could reform so many aspects of our parliamentary system to greatly improve our debates, to help us do our jobs and to help us better represent our ridings without the side show that is question period, during which members yell at each other without giving any kind of answer.
If I rose in the House today and started talking about any old thing in my speech, it would be in your power, Mr. Speaker, to stop me. I simply think it makes sense to apply this rule to question period.
I sincerely hope that we will have the support of all members for this motion.
Mr. Speaker, today's debate is on the opposition motion, sponsored by my NDP counterpart, the hon. member for . He suggests that the House change Standing Order 11(2) in respect to responses given to oral questions. That is not in respect to questions, merely in respect to responses.
Question period is fundamental to our system of parliamentary government. It is democracy in action. Canada's approach to the parliamentary questioning of the government makes the House of Commons a leader in the world for accountability. Simply put, there is no similar forum in the world as openly accountable as Canada's question period. Every single day, when the House of Commons sits, the prime minister and ministers are held to account for their policies, the decisions that they make and the actions of their departments. For 45 minutes, the opposition can ask any question on any subject, without any forewarning, without any notice at all.
Question period is also a key forum for providing members of Parliament and the public with information about the government's plans and priorities. That is unlike, for example, in the U.K., a country that has played a fundamental role in our own country's parliamentary evolution. Here, ministers are not given the benefit of a formal prior notice of the questions they may be asked. I know perhaps once a week a minister might get a warning from a member opposite, but the norm is no notice at all. Instead, ministers must come to question period every day prepared only with the sound knowledge of all the workings and policies of the departments for which they are responsible, ready to answer any and all questions, those foreseen and those unexpected.
The very nature of Canada's question period ensures that the debates are always topical and relevant. We have even seen an issue arise outside the House during question period and asked at that very moment.
In the United Kingdom, for example, it is different. In Britain, members of parliament often have to give up to two weeks' written notice of the question they plan to ask a minister in question time. In the U.K., each sitting day, but never Fridays, as we have here on Fridays, only some ministers are scheduled to answer questions. This, of course, significantly limits the range of subjects on which questions can be asked on any given day to just a minority of the full range of government responsibilities. The prime minister answers questions only one day each week and most other ministers even less frequently. The minister then arrives in the chamber of the House of Commons in the U.K. supplied with a prepared answer to a question that is often outdated. Supplementaries must be tightly relevant to the question put on notice.
In Canada, however, questions cover a broad range of subjects and departments, every day, without warning. The and ministers must be ready. The issues of concern to Canadians change quickly, and the questions put to the Prime Minister and cabinet members change just as quickly.
Furthermore, if a member is not satisfied with the answer to an oral question, he or she can pursue the question at greater length during the adjournment proceedings, which we all affectionately call the “late show”.
I have yet to have anyone point to any country with as much accountability as our question period here in Canada.
Our neighbours to the south have no question period that allows legislators to hold the president and his cabinet accountable. There is no forum to hold the administration and Congress directly accountable.
In the United States, there is no process at all like our question period, at any time, for the president and his cabinet to be held accountable by legislators.
I next want to turn to the actual wording of the motion before us. It states:
|| That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention....
This change, as I pointed out, would affect responses to oral questions but it would not touch the actual questions. This is yet another greatly cynical, one-sided proposal for the NDP. It wants to improve Parliament insofar as it helps the NDP, but not insofar as it would help the government, for example, to have more information on which to provide those answers. “Do as I say not as I do” has been the watchword for the New Democrats throughout this Parliament and here it makes yet another appearance.
Apparently, they do not want to be subject to the same rules that they want to see applied to others. The would prefer to make question period a one-way street. He wants the rules changed to keep him from facing any tough questions or cold facts in the House about his own party's operations or policies. In reality, he wants to avoid facing any basic facts in the House, since he wants to ban repetition of answers. The facts will not change simply because an individual asks the same question over and over again.
If people watching this debate think that what is proposed is a simple fix, well, it is not. Let me quote a distinguished former speaker, Speaker Milliken, the individual who had the longest tenure in that big chair you are sitting on, Mr. Speaker.
On enforcing the concept that the NDP is proposing, Mr. Milliken told the Ottawa Citizen:
|| There’s nothing a speaker can do about that. ...what constitutes an answer? There’d be constant argument about it.
In fact, there would be points of order raised interminably at the end of every question period.
There has been a lot of recent commentary related to what the change is, and I will come back to the substance of today's motion in a bit, but why the change is being proposed is somewhat obscured by a recent event.
What people really need to understand about the NDP leader's motion is that it is an oversensitive reaction to efforts to hold the New Democratic Party and the accountable on certain issues. The Leader of the Opposition wants the rules changed so that he will not have to answer hard questions or have the whole truth be known here in the House of Commons.
The does not want to answer for the NDP misuse of House resources on inappropriate mail-outs. The Leader of the Opposition does not want to answer for the NDP inappropriate use of taxpayers' dollars in setting up unauthorized satellite offices, which, curiously enough, just happened to be at the same place that partisan NDP work was taking place.
New Democrats have been caught breaking the rules and abusing taxpayers' dollars, but most regrettably, they do not want to be held to account or for anyone to be even reminded of it, all of which is witnessed—
Mr. David Christopherson: You're the government.
An hon. member: Maybe you should keep your voice down.
Mr. Speaker, the hon. member for also must not want to be reminded that for almost two decades, he kept knowledge of bribe attempts to himself. The Leader of the Opposition does not want to explain to Canadians his risky high-tax schemes, like his $21-billion carbon tax that would hurt Canada's economy and kill Canadian jobs. Maybe it is that he does not want anyone to know about his employment insurance plan that would cost Canadians nearly $8 billion, or a 30% hike in EI premiums paid by hard-working Canadians.
However, I am not alone in being struck by this stark contrast between what the New Democrats proposed and how they actually behave. Let me quote from Martin Patriquin, of Maclean's magazine, from his appearance on CBC on Friday afternoon. He said that the “...knows very well [that] being disingenuous in the House and deflecting questions. The guy practically invented it when he worked here in Quebec...it is an interesting switch of roles”. That is the take of a seasoned political observer in Quebec, where the hon. member for served in the legislature for over a decade.
Today we are going to hear a lot said by the New Democrats that everyone should be supporting this motion today because of the apology tendered in the House on Friday by my hon. friend, the member for . However, that is one apology more than we have ever gotten from the leader of the NDP. We have yet to have an apology for the NDP's use of House resources for its mailings. What is more, we have likewise yet to have an apology for the NDP's use of House resources for satellite offices. It is interesting that in the discussion of those resources, we have had efforts by the NDP to pin it on the Clerk of the House of Commons and House staff. There was no apology after that.
There were other occasions. I remember when the hon. member for was the subject of a bit of an episode with the member for . There was no “I am sorry” back then, none at all. In fact, in the incident we are talking about right now, the member for Outremont, in this House, in that very same question period, said that the Speaker was biased, which is highly inappropriate and highly inaccurate. Do we see any apology for that now? Up to this point, there has been no apology whatsoever.
In fact, I can look to an exchange of my own. When I came across the House and we exchanged words, using somewhat inappropriate language, I apologized to this House for that inappropriate language. I invited my friend to apologize for having used the exact same inappropriate parliamentary words. Did any apology ever come? No. It is not surprising.
It is a two-way street. In fact, seized with his own hyperbole, the member called the finance minister a racist this past spring. There was no apology for that. Meanwhile, his fellow Quebec provincial politician, Yves Duhaime, was on the receiving end of some defamatory comments by the , then an opposition MNA, including some startling four-letter names, which I could never repeat in this chamber. Mr. Duhaime had to take his grievances to trial in the Superior Court of Quebec for vindication through judgment and some $95,000 in damages.
The only way he will ever apologize for anything he does that is inappropriate is if one actually gets him in front of a judge and gets the judge to referee it and settle the dispute.
I hope that perhaps sometime today we will get that apology to the Speaker for the inappropriate comments the made about him last Tuesday.
That is not the first time he has shown a distrust of an institution that does not do as he pleases. In April 2013, the slammed the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court in the land. Back then, he said:
|| The Supreme Court has already indicated they are going to carry out their own probe, but it's a little bit like when a complaint is made against a professional's conduct. You can't have the professional investigate themselves.
With the conclusion in hand, he was not deterred from impugning motives when he said:
|| You won't find something you don't ask for....
|| It's a clear indication that the Supreme Court had no intention all along of ever dealing with this issue seriously.
Is this an insight into how the New Democrats would govern? If the is trying to change the rules to protect himself from hearing critical questions and uncomfortable facts in opposition, we can imagine what he would do to change the rules to protect himself if he were in government. In fact, Mr. Milliken, whom I quoted earlier, told the Ottawa Citizen that he was “surprised” that the Leader of the Opposition would be raising this topic.
To wrap up, the motion put forward by the hon. member for is flawed. It is based on motivations one is bound to question, and it is just the latest example of the “do as I say not as I do” approach of the New Democratic Party.
In closing, I move:
|| That this question be now put.
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to rise in the House and debate this motion for several reasons.
I have been here since 2004 and I have heard the debate go back and forth. I have also sat through question period in all its grandeur and not so much grandeur. I have said before and I will say it again that I have always considered question period to be one of the most expensive dinner theatres ever run in this country.
An hon. member: Bad dinner theatre.
Mr. Scott Simms: Mr. Speaker, is bad dinner theatre at the best of times, but I cannot say that without taking some of the responsibility. Having been here for 10 years I have asked a few questions myself, theatrics included in some cases.
I have even gone to members on the other side to let them know what it is I am going to ask. I did that because it allowed them time to prepare an answer to give me. These were specific questions about things which the minister might not have been briefed upon. I was never compelled to do that and the other side was never compelled to give me a straightforward answer. In turn, we were never compelled to ask something specific to a specific minister. Even when we did at times go after a specific minister, another minister would pop up in place of the other minister. We would ask one minister and another minister would respond. It was like a constant game of whack-a-mole that just never ended.
One of the reasons we do that and continue to get away with it is that nothing has really been codified. For the most part, after looking at the research that we have done, most of it is simply by convention, by practices of the past. Past Speakers have made rulings as to how they thought question period should be handled, and by extension, other parts of debate which do not have relevance.
Let us take ourselves out of question period and talk about orders of the day, private members' business and so on, but especially orders of the day when we are arguing government bills. The Conservatives more often than not rise on a point of order to complain about the relevance of a particular speech being given by the Liberals, the NDP, or even the Green Party for that matter. I find it ironic that we find ourselves in the situation where relevance is not accepted as the norm in the House by the government when it complains so much that relevance does matter.
The convention that I spoke of earlier was laid down by Speaker Bosley, Speaker Jerome and Speaker Milliken. I will get to some of those in a few moments, but there is one Speaker I want to quote from primarily and that is Speaker Jerome. In addition to making some of these rulings back in the mid-1970s, he also wrote a book. Chronologically, it was in 1964 when there was actual codification about how question period should operate. O'Brien and Bosc's House of Commons Procedure and Practice outlines how the evolution of question period came about.
We now have television and the press gallery, which has been around for quite some time. Question period talks about the relevant issues of the day. That is why it gets most of the attention. People go to school or work in the morning and they read the headlines, and the headlines invariably show up in question period as pertaining to government administration.
Rules have been put forth by Speakers indicating how we have to operate when it comes to question period. Most have to do with relevance, is it an issue of government administration or not. Peter Milliken talked about that earlier in his book of decisions, but I will get to that in a moment.
I want to quote Speaker Jerome, who made a statement in the House affecting the conduct of question period. He established that asking oral questions is “a right, not a privilege, of the members”. He established several things by going back to previous decisions. He talked about how, if we look at it, there are not a lot of rules. As far as timing goes, we ask a question that is 30 seconds long, and the answer is 35 seconds. The only rule laid out in the House about how that operates is not the amount of seconds for a question, but the fact that there is a 45-minute block in and around the proceedings.
We look at that, and Speakers have judged accordingly on issues that come up in the House and whether they have relevance or not as pertaining to the question, but not pertaining to the answer. Speaker Milliken famously said that it is question period, not answer period.
I wrote down some of the ground rules that were put down. Speaker Bosley, in 1986, also quoted Speaker Jerome in many instances. Here are some of the issues that he put out there as to how we should behave in question period: “ask a question; be brief; seek information; ask a question that is within the administrative responsibility of the government”, which is mostly when the Speaker intervenes about a particular question and whether it has relevance. At that point the Speaker usually goes on to the next questioner without the minister's or parliamentary secretary's response. A question should not seek an opinion, legal or otherwise.
Speaker Bosley also pointed out that maybe it should be hypothetical. God knows that when we get 35 seconds to speak, we tend to use it in the preamble leading up to the question that we want to ask, and which we want voters to hear.
A question should not seek information that is secretive in its nature, such as cabinet proceedings or advice given to the crown by law officers. We stay away from that as well. A question should not refer to proceedings in the Senate. We do not get into that. We do not refer to the Governor General.
These are the factors that really encapsulate the spirit of what question period is supposed to be, despite the lack of rules around it.
What we are doing here today with Standing Order 11(2) is we are trying to codify some of the behaviour. Therein is a fundamental shift. The talked about it being a small change. I am not sure if I totally agree with that. What we would do here is codify within the Standing Orders how we should behave in question period and what that answer should entail. It would do two things. It would codify behaviour and it would bring answers into the point of question period.
We use examples from the United Kingdom, as well as other jurisdictions, such as Australia, which have similar Westminster systems. However, in every case, if they act differently than we do, it is primarily because of the Speakers themselves. The Speaker has been the one proactive in saying, “I am sorry, but according to convention, members should not behave that way”. Even if it does not pertain to convention or past practices, maybe we should start curbing our behaviour in certain matters. Being more proactive in the role of the Speaker has been the modus operandi of change regarding question period.
It has also been argued that television has contributed to less than positive developments within the House. Of course, CPAC and the general media have access to what we are doing here in the House. We see the cameras here. They are on all the time when we are in session, and of course, the theatrics start to take over. This is where, as I have said before, we have now become the most expensive dinner theatre in the country, and not necessarily good theatre either, but that is a personal performance issue.
If we want to ask a question that pertains to our constituents, we should ask it regardless of codifying rules or convention that has been practised in the past. The answers should also be as respectful as the question which came in, but that is sorely lacking right now. This was evidenced last week, a few weeks ago, and even into the spring through some of the activities of the , notwithstanding his apology.
I thought the apology he brought forward in this House was a sincere one. The fact that he was not sticking to the subject caused him a lot of stress. I will leave it at that, because I do not want to speak on his behalf. The member has a seat here, and he can do so himself.
The lesson here is that it is okay for members to think outside of the box, but I do not think it is okay to think outside of the warehouse. The reason is that in doing so, we completely wipe out any proactive measure in this House that allows the House to be accountable. Imagine the concept of being accountable. Therein lies the reason we are debating this issue today.
This is why I will be voting for this motion, because it is a step in the right direction, one that is proactive and that could be worked upon. If it is a small measure, as the New Democrats say, then so be it; however, we are going in the right direction.
That is why I have also talked about Standing Order 31, statements in the House. Personally, I think statements by members should be just that. If a prominent person in a member's riding has passed away, it deserves a mention in the House. If someone is having an anniversary, it deserves a mention in the House. As far as I am concerned, everybody in my riding should be mentioned in this House. I understand time is of the essence, but, my goodness, that would be a great thing to do.
Instead, the statements have become these 30-second negative ads toward the other party. I have said many times that when many of the Conservative members read their S. O. 31s, they leave out one very important point at the end, which says, “I am the and I approve this ad.” That is the only thing that is missing.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together. If the behaviour from the other side is something that a member is not impressed with, then, my God, it is about time we started practising what we preach. That is for all of us to do.
Earlier this spring we talked about expenses and transparency. The Liberal Party decided to be proactive and not to wait for something to come toward us that would force us into a corner. We knew it was right and we did it, and now everybody is doing it—at least, I think so. Well, we are almost there.
Nonetheless, behaviour has a way of trending and has a way of influencing others to behave in the best way and, dare I say it, in a manner that is accountable to the average Canadian, as this House was meant to be.
I have referred to Speaker Jerome and Speaker Bosley. Now I would like to turn to .
There are no restraints on content, which is what Speaker Milliken talked about. He is right in that sense. I could get up right now and talk about muppets, puppets, and other things with no relevance whatsoever to what is happening in the country, unless one is into puppets.
We expect the government to answer about relevant situations, but not about the exact issue that I bring up if it is not relevant to the debate in this country. This is where I say we have to practise what we preach. I like to think that many of us do.
I do not want to accuse any member in particular, or any party in particular, of taking the rules and stretching them to absolute absurdity. I have seen that in this House, and practised by all. Unfortunately, I have seen it practised by the government recently to a point where it is almost as though the government thinks nobody is watching. I like to think people are, whether it is here or on camera.
I mentioned Standing Order 31s being the same sort of thing, personal attacks. I want to quote in a decision on December 14, 2010, about an issue regarding personal attacks, as he said something rather pertinent:
|| The proceedings of the House are based on a long-standing tradition of respect for the integrity of all Members. Thus, the use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the House is strictly forbidden. Personal attacks, insults and obscenities are not in order.
That pertained to personal attacks.
What this does, which is very important, is that it also extends that respect to other members, given the subject matter, given the fact that we have to respond in kind to the issue at hand. I believe some members in the official opposition brought this up earlier and jokingly said that if it is not an answer to my direct question, at least stay within the ballpark when it comes to the issue itself.
The House leader brought up a situation with free trade, saying we did not support NAFTA, so what about this other free trade agreement, or supply management? I may not like the answer, but at least it ties into the subject matter to the point where it is somewhat acceptable.
What is not acceptable is what occurs when I have a grievance with the government. Let us remember that we have only 45 minutes of the day. When I have a grievance with the government and state what it is, the response is “No, I have a grievance with you.” The government responds that it has a grievance with the other party. There is no linkage to the issue that was brought up in the beginning, none whatsoever.
We need to stay within the context of the House. Otherwise, it is an absolute waste of money. It truly becomes the most expensive dinner theatre ever produced in this country, and as my hon. colleague from Ontario would say, it is not even good theatre.
Those are personal attacks.
This is from daily proceedings on March 27, 2001. We talked about what could be asked. The Speaker's response was:
||—In summary, when recognized in Question Period, a Member should—ask a question that is within the administrative responsibility of the government or the individual Minister addressed.
What this issue came from was the administrative responsibility of the government and questions ruled out of order because they were not directed toward that. The issue at the time was about taking trips abroad to further one's education as a member, which is fine; that is what we do here. However, the trip was paid for by someone else externally, not the government, so therefore the Speaker ruled the question was not admissible because it was not related to the administration of the government. Oddly enough, the precursor to the Conservatives at the time, the Canadian Alliance party, argued that it was part of relevance because it was the behaviour of a particular person.
Again, if the Conservatives felt that question period was a farce at the time, why practise now what they thought was totally wrong? Why would they now practise what they preached against? Not that much time has passed in 14 years that we do not remember that some of the people who are currently in the House vehemently argued for relevance in question period of the day's happenings. Everything was talked about as the answer, yet it was not codified.
I suspect if we do not do something soon, this dinner theatre will become the theatre of the absurd in the most profound way, and 45 minutes of the day will be completely and utterly wasted on the Canadian public that pays for this charade.
However, I pledge to the House, like many others, that we need to practise what we preach. It is time for us to look at question period and codify this. It is time for us to look at the decisions handed down by people such as Speaker Milliken, or Speaker Jerome in the 1970s, who wrote about this issue quite a bit. Speaker Bosley as well accentuated in a very profound manner what question period is and is not, in the spirit of allowing Canadians to see the House of Commons the way it should be: accountable and, for goodness' sake, effective.
Mr. Speaker, today I have the honour to present my ideas on the motion on oral question period. Unfortunately, the changed the motion.
The motion now reads “That this question be now put”.
He turned the question on its head. It is quite troubling that the government chose to proceed in this fashion.
Let me explain. When the words “That this question be now put” is on the floor, as is described in O'Brien and Bosc, page 650, “the previous question restricts debate and expedites the putting of the question..”. It does so in two ways.
|| First, the previous question precludes the moving of amendments to the main motion and, therefore, any debate that might have ensued on those amendments.
|| Second, the previous question can have the effect of superseding a motion under debate since, if negatived, the Speaker is bound not to put the question on the main motion at that time. In other words—
according to O'Brien and Bosc,
||—if the motion “That the question be now put” is not adopted, the main motion is dropped from the Order Paper.
I will add, Mr. Speaker, that I will be splitting my time with the member for .
So here we are. The of the government side has made it so that we are going to have a vote later on, possibly tomorrow, at some point soon, where the government has used a procedural trick to ensure that the question “That this question be now put” will likely fail. By the traditions of this House, the motion then disappears.
The Conservatives do not want us to be able to discuss this motion. They do not want to be on record that they are opposed to question period actually serving its purpose, which is to hold the government to account. They do not want people to know that they do not want to be held to account.
The Conservatives came into power almost 10 years ago now, with much ballyhooed principles that they were going to hold the government to account, that they would be transparent, that they were going to put in acts, such as the Federal Accountability Act, which was supposed to make this place more transparent, more accountable. Well, the Federal Accountability Act did not go very far.
If we use the example of what we see in front of us with question period, we know for a fact that the Speaker right now is tied. He only has power over the quality of the question, and apparently not any particular power when it comes to the quality of the answer.
According to the House of Commons compendium, the question has to be within the administrative responsibility of the government; the question has to be brief, and the question has to seek information.
However, when it comes to the answer, we do not have a lot to work with.
We have Speaker Jerome, in 1975, telling us that the minister who is answering the question, or his representative, has a number of responses that are possible. He may answer the question. He may defer the answering of the question. He may take notice of the question. He may make a short explanation to why the answer cannot be furnished at this time, or he could say nothing.
The Speaker has to have much more control over what is being done in this place. The Speaker is there to ensure that the question is pertinent. The Speaker is there to ensure that the House has a certain decorum, so the question can be asked in a manner that is well understood. The Speaker seems not to be able to tell the answering side what the quality of that answer is going to be.
The motion in front of us, before it was superseded by the procedural trick, was to give the Speaker exactly that power, so he could intervene if a responder does not respond to the question properly, does not respond to the matter at hand. The answer should have to bear the same controls as the question. The answer should have to do with government business.
The answer should not be what the person's pizza preferences are. The answer should not have to do with whatever image pops into the head of the member answering at that particular moment. It cannot be questions about what a particular member may or may not have done in the last 100 years. The answer has to deal with government business. That is the point of having question period.
According to the compendium, when asked the question, “What is the point of question period?”, Speaker Jerome stated:
|| If the essence of Parliament is Government accountability, then surely the essence of accountability is the Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons.
The point of question period is to hold government to account. The point of the answers that we seem to be getting is to defer any responsibility. Conservative members do not want people to be thinking about what the government has done. They do not want people to think that the government is actually accountable to the representatives of the people.
The House of Commons is the place for the government to be held accountable. We have a form of government in this country called responsible government. Responsible government does not mean that the government is held responsible in any general fashion. Responsible government is the particular way that the House of Commons in the U.K., the House of Commons in Canada and other commonwealth nations have chosen to form government.
Responsible government means that the ministers are held accountable in the popular assembly, the place where the people are represented. The people, through their elected representatives, can ask questions of their government and expect to hear answers. We are not getting those answers. We have seen time and time again that the government does not seem to be in any position to give any answers.
The current government will spend enormous amounts of money to fly people across this country and around the world to make statements, for instance, on pensions, which it did in Switzerland and not in the House. Instead of giving answers when it comes to European free trade, it will fly European legislators around on very expensive trips, but again it refuses to answer questions in the House.
We need accountability and we simply do not have it. The motion before us is so that the Speaker will have the tools to ensure that the answers have to do with the questions and with government business, specifically the government business asked about in questions by members of the House.
Members of the House have a responsibility. It is largely the role of the opposition, but it is also the role of members who are not ministers or parliamentary secretaries, members who are in the governing party but are not members of the government per se. All members of the House who are not directly connected to the government have a role and responsibility to ask questions of their government to make sure that the government is being held to account.
When we hear questions on this side of the House, they are generally directed to a particular minister and certainly have to do with government business. If they are not, the Speaker controls it. When we hear questions from members of the Conservative Party, they are generally infomercials for the government's particular issue du jour. We need more accountability in this place.
Responsible government presumes that the members of the House want their government to be held accountable. It seems that over the last many years, slowly but surely, that power has eroded. The executive sits in the House, unlike in the United States where the executive sits apart from their house of assembly. The executive sits right here in front of us and we have the opportunity to ask questions directly to it, but for historical reasons that have crept up very slowly but very insidiously over time, we have allowed the government to get away with things.
We have allowed government members not to answer questions. We have allow them not to be held accountable in the manner that they must. We have allowed them to pass omnibus bills that are almost impossible to get through in the time allocated for us to study them. We cannot possibly ask all of the questions that are pertinent to a brick that is several hundred pages long.
We need the tools. The House has created specific offices to help us with that control. The Auditor General's office, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and various tools have been created. The problem is, for instance, the Parliamentary Budget Officer's budget is simply insufficient to do the work that he needs to do, especially when the government introduces omnibus bills that are very difficult to get through. The executive seems to be making a point of making it as hard as possible for government members to be held to account.
As legislators, as members of the House, we need to start taking our role of control over the executive seriously. The motion is one step toward that. It is a small step, but a step in the right direction. We cannot forgo our responsibilities. We have to be held to account as members, and as members we have to hold our government to account.
I am very happy to see that the other opposition party seems to be supporting the motion. I certainly hope that the governing party is going to as well.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today, and I thank my colleague from for his motion, which is so very important to the health of our democracy.
I must say that I find it very disappointing that we have to move this type of motion today to try to improve democracy and bring some order to the discussions in the House. I am also thinking about the general public and how cynical they are about the discussions we have here in the House. It is very unfortunate.
Moving a motion like this today in order to allow Canadians to get clear answers to their concerns makes perfect sense. Nowhere in society do we tolerate people we interact with answering questions inappropriately. For example, one of my granddaughters is studying law at the University of Ottawa. Imagine if during an exam she is asked to discuss the rules of law that apply to a specific case and she responds by summing up the rules for Monopoly. How many marks do you think she would get for that answer? It has gotten to the point where we have to wonder. People are wondering. She could always try to convince her professor that her answer is relevant because the question was on rules, but between you and me, I doubt she could convince him. She would certainly fail her exam.
If we do not tolerate such ridiculous answers from our students, why do we accept them from our government? The fact is, we are accountable to our constituents and the general public for the actions and decisions of this Parliament.
I think we can agree on the fact that, last week, the government's answers to rather simple and non-partisan questions reached an all time level of absurdity. It is high time that that ended.
The motion moved by my colleague today seeks to put an end to this dialogue of the deaf that is undermining our democracy. The motion proposes changing the Standing Orders to truly give the Speaker of the House the power to crack down on members who persist in irrelevance or repetition. This is a simple yet effective measure that would bring meaning back to question period by ensuring that the opposition parties get clear answers to the questions they ask on behalf of Canadians.
As journalists and others have said time and time again, members of Parliament do not just represent one person. They represent an entire riding. Canadians have the right to expect that the person who is asking the question, the member who represents them, is shown some respect. I think that that has been forgotten over time.
I hope that all the parties will support this proposal. The Conservative government must be accountable for its actions. That is essential to our democracy. As I mentioned, this motion also seeks to combat cynicism and apathy among Canadians.
Our democracy is based on the fact that the government must take responsibility for its actions and be accountable to Canadians. One way it must do this is by answering the questions it is asked by the opposition parties That is not really difficult. If government members know their stuff, they should be able to answer questions. Canadians expect straight and honest answers from their government. I do not think that that is too much to ask.
Nevertheless, last week, when the leader of the NDP asked the government important questions in a clear and non-partisan manner about the deployment of Canadian troops to Iraq, the answers he got were ridiculous and completely unrelated to the questions asked. This was an exercise in futility.
I believe I can count on one hand the number of times since I was first elected that the government has provided a clear answer to one of our questions. Whether we are talking about the deployment of troops to Iraq, the Senate expense scandal, the robocalls or the Mike Duffy affair, the Conservative government has been stonewalling us. Canadians deserve better, and the NDP is not alone in believing that.
I will give some examples in which journalists even expressed some concerns. My first example is from Tasha Kheiriddin at the National Post. She said that the events of last week had given rise to a bigger debate. She wondered whether Parliament and question period should be reformed, so that there is more substance. She said it was disappointing to the Canadian public that is watching and wondering why our elected officials cannot answer such obvious questions and why they try to avoid them.
Chantal Hébert also touched on this situation last week. She said:
|| “But there is a larger issue. Even when you do have a minister answering, you are still not getting real answers to questions that are legitimate and part of the job of the opposition parties to ask...”.
This is unacceptable, and we must take immediate action to change things if we want the public to have faith in what Parliament is doing and must do to represent them.
The Standing Orders already provide for ministers to answer oral questions to the best of their knowledge, but that does not seem to be good enough. A number of speakers have said that they did not have the procedural tools to require that the government answer the questions it receives.
In the previous Speaker's statement in the House, on January 28, 2014, the Speaker said that the Chair had previously ruled on the content of questions, but not answers.
That is very clear. No matter what the government says, speakers of the House are the only ones with the power to challenge or stop a question if they do not feel it is on topic, but they do not have the power to stop an answer or to force a government representative to answer the question. Our motion would change this by giving the speaker of the House and chairs of committees of the whole clear procedures to put an end to irrelevant comments.
This motion is also very important because question period is the part of our work here in Parliament that draws the most media attention and that therefore reaches the most Canadians. Just look at how many Canadians are here in this place during question period. Imagine their reaction when they see what goes on in the House.
What message does it send the public when the leader of the official opposition asks a direct question to the government in the House of Commons, in front of the media, and does not even remotely get an answer to his question? It is simple: it sends the message that the government is untouchable and that it does not listen to the public.
Journalist Michael Den Tandt, of the National Post, did a good job expressing this perception last week. He said:
|| First, by this logic, it now becomes acceptable for a government MP to say anything at all in Question Period. [The member for Oak Ridges—Markham] could, when confronted with an opposition question, begin chanting in ancient Greek. He could speak in Sanskrit, or in tongues; he could say “Lalalalalalalala” while plugging his ears, the way kids do. He could read his grocery list. He could recite the ageless “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet.
It is time for that to stop. In my riding, at events that took place over the weekend, people told me that they feel it is impossible to talk to the government. They feel that Parliament has become a media show because the concerns of those who do not think like the government are never taken into account or never taken seriously. A number of people quite simply are no longer interested in following politics. There is a great deal of cynicism and apathy, especially among youth.
Last spring, I held a forum on democratic reform. In their presentations, young people said that they feel as though they do not have the power to influence decisions, because when a majority government is elected, it can do whatever it wants without consulting anyone.
By providing any old answer to questions asked in the House, the government is only reinforcing this perception.
Democracy does not happen just once every four years. It must be evident every day in our communities and in the House.
I am now ready to answer my colleagues' questions.