After the defeat of an NDP sponsored motion on Tuesday evening, the Speaker is to remain silent and not police question period.
On Monday, Government House Leader, Peter Van Loan threw a curve ball to the NDP’s efforts to tweak the Speaker’s powers by calling for the “question to now be put”. This means that, rather than debate the NDP motion they’ll debate about the debate, and if the NDP loses the debate, then there will be no debate on the other debate. Confused? Good. Clearly, our political system is working as designed.
The government won the vote by a small margin: 144 to 132. It was supported by four and then three Conservative MPs. Susan Truppe, MP for London North Centre, stood up for the yeas alongside her seat buddy Michael Chong (whose neutered Reform Bill passed last week), but later realized that she actually meant to vote no.
You might ask why there are only 276 votes here instead of the 308 that make up the entire chamber. Well, I can only surmise that the other 32 MPs went home early for dinner. These included 7 NDP MPs, 5 Liberals, 1 Bloc, 2 Independents, and 17 Conservatives. Maybe my math is wrong but, if the 15 missing Opposition MPs had been present and voted in favour of the motion, then it would have passed. Hopefully they had a good reason for missing the debate (a better one than just dinner), particularly for the missing members of the NDP. It won’t be long before their voting record is on trial, after all, and they like to sell their “spotless” attendance record.
In defence of retaining the status quo, Peter Van Loan argued that Canada has one of the “most accountable question periods of any Parliament in the world.” In comparison, he cited the United Kingdom, where all questions must be provided in advance. This is similarly the case in Australia and New Zealand. In those three countries, however, a full hour (instead of 30 to 45 minutes) is set aside for questions. Nevertheless, the extra 15 minutes might make a government only marginally more accountable.
What is startling is Mr. Van Loan’s accusation that the motion was a one way street—that it forced Government Ministers and Committee Chairs to answer questions posed to them, but didn’t do the same for the Opposition. Even the CBC, in its original reporting of the motion, seemed to suggest that the Speaker would only be required to keep members of the government in check. Feel free to read the text of the motion below, but my reading of it doesn’t find that it constrains the Speaker from keeping the opposition in line as well.
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.
Mr. Van Loan may be confusing the NDP motion with rules that already stand in the House regarding question period. Apparently, according to the Standing Rules, questions “should be addressed to a Minister” or other members of the government. Note the word should—it means that questions are primarily set out for the Government to answer, but there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the government posing a question to the Opposition. As the rules stand, those asked a question can either answer, defer to answer, explain why they can’t answer, or stay silent. Which is what Van Loan did when asked to make the motion a fabled free vote. Silence is golden, but not so great for the theatrics that question period has become.
It is sad that this small effort to band-aid our democracy failed, despite support across party lines. In this Parliament even three Conservative’s standing up to the
Dark Lord Sauron Stephen is impressive. Mr. Van Loan’s arguments against the motion have very little basis, given the way the standing rules and motion were written. Depending on how the next election goes it, will be interesting to see if the motion is put before the House again.