State of question period shows ill democracy


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OTTAWA -- If the state of democracy is only as strong as its institutions, then this week's question period put democracy on life-support.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/09/2014 (3054 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — If the state of democracy is only as strong as its institutions, then this week’s question period put democracy on life-support.

Question period has always been a theatre for politicians to make some of their best barbs.

But when Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to answer questions almost anywhere else, question period is the one place left where the government might be expected to face some questions it doesn’t really want to answer.

CBC power and politics NDP MP Paul Dewar reacts with a face-palm on CBC's Power & Politics as Conservative MP Paul Calandra tries to defend his question-period performance.

Harper’s caucus took question period to a new low Tuesday during the opening exchange between NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Paul Calandra, Harper’s parliamentary secretary.

Mulcair was asking about the timeline for the Canadian deployment in Iraq, and Calandra kept answering by quoting a profanity-laced anti-Israel Facebook rant of an NDP staffer.

It is certainly not new for a government to obfuscate during question period. It is an art form for the government to answer questions without actually answering questions.

But most saw this exchange between Mulcair and Calandra as perhaps the furthest it had ever been taken, and potentially the nail in question period’s coffin. All Mulcair was doing was asking the government to confirm in Parliament something Manitoba MP James Bezan had already said on television.

And it was on an issue that deserves much better than political cuteness. Military deployments have a tremendous cost — both human and financial. Knowing how long the government plans to deploy special forces in Iraq is information Canadians deserve.

Calandra said on CBC later in the day he hadn’t done anything wrong. He said he was asked a question about foreign affairs so he answered on the topic of foreign affairs. That he could say so with a straight face caused NDP MP Paul Dewar, sitting right next to him at the time, to do a face-palm.

The government might have seen how ridiculous it made them look because 24 hours and a lot of criticism later, Bezan delivered the answer Calandra should have given in the first place.

Was that really so hard?

For his part, Scheer says precedent dictates he can intervene when a question is deemed irrelevant to government business, but he can do nothing about the content of the answers.

The same is not true in Britain, where the Speaker of the British House can, and does, cut off the government for such hijinks. Last April even Prime Minister David Cameron was shut down when he was making fun of Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband. When he complained he wasn’t finished, Speaker John Berkow assured him he was.

Can anyone actually imagine Scheer saying the same thing to Harper?

How refreshing would it be if someone in the House of Commons was actually representing the interests of MPs and the Canadians who elected them rather than representing the interests of political parties. If Scheer could actually compel the government to answer questions.

Scheer told MPs Wednesday his hands are tied by rules and precedent and if MPs don’t like them they have to be the ones to change things.

And change things they must.

Exit interviews done with outgoing MPs by Samara Canada show many MPs regret how badly they and their colleagues behave in question period, and how little influence individual MPs actually have on the day-to-day happenings of government.

But as long as the Paul Calandras of the House are able to stand up and openly mock the purpose of question period — and MPs sit on their hands without doing anything about it — the one place left where a government might be forced to be accountable to Canadians will remain on life-support.


Mia Rabson is the parliamentary bureau chief for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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