Hon. Michael Chong (Wellington—Halton Hills, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss oral questions.
More than four in 10 Canadians refused to vote in the last election, and that's a sign that our Parliament needs reform.
Question period has become an attempt to score easy political points rather than to focus on issues that are really of concern to Canadians.
I think it's clear that many people would like to see the behaviour in question period changed. That's evidenced in a recent Nanos policy options poll. In the last election more than four out of ten Canadians refused to vote, which is a record low voter turnout since Confederation. I think both these facts--the polling data and election turnout--are evidence of a growing gap between Canadians and their Parliament.
I think this growing gap undermines the relevance of Parliament to many Canadians and is forcing a lot of the public policy debate into other fora, such as the courts, the Internet, and civil society. While these fora are important, they cannot represent the democratic will of the Canadian people. Only the 308 members of Parliament elected by their constituents can do that. And if Parliament becomes increasingly irrelevant as a forum for debate, then public policy will be determined, certainly, but not in a democratic fashion.
How can we restore Parliament's relevancy to Canadians? I think a first small but important step is to take a look at reforming question period.
If there's one thing we as members around the table have all heard over the last number of years--it may not be the most intense thing we hear, but we hear it consistently during election campaigns and between elections when we go to public schools--it's that many disapprove of the way question period is conducted. So I think there is a growing divide between a body politic that is becoming increasingly apolitical and a Parliament that is becoming more and more partisan.
So what really is the problem with question period? I think the general perception in the public and among Parliament watchers is that the behaviour is terrible, it lacks substance, and is overly rhetorical. While all these are undoubtedly true, they are simply symptoms of a much deeper underlying problem. I think the real problem with question period is that members of Parliament have been stripped of the right to ask questions of the government, with the result that the vast majority of members in the House during question period are no longer true participants in question period, but mere spectators.
Let me pause here to make three very quick points. First, this is not about the current class of elected officials. I don't think that in this Parliament we have a class of elected officials who are somehow less capable and less talented than at any other time in Canadian history. I don't think the behaviour is because somehow they're a lesser group of Canadians. In fact, many have argued—and Ned Franks is one of them—that there were times in our nation's past when elected officials acted in a manner far worse than today, especially before the advent of television cameras. In my view, if you put any group of 308 Canadians in that room, within six months it would descend into the same sort of system you see today. I think the problem with question period is fundamentally its format, and the format drives the behaviour.
The second quick point I want to make concerns the decline in decorum. Some believe that decorum has really declined in recent years; others dispute that fact. People like Professor Ned Franks at Queen's University have said that there was never a golden age of Parliament.
Regardless of which point of view is correct, something has changed today. Because of modern technology like the Internet, iPads, and smart phones, what was once unseen and not televised is now not only beamed directly through television, but also beamed directly through the new media instantaneously into the cars, meeting rooms, board rooms, kitchen tables, and dining rooms of the nation. As a result, Canadians now see what was once unseen, and what they see is not something they approve of.
The third quick point I want to make is that this is not about turning question period into afternoon tea with crumpets. This is not about removing the intensity, passion, and debate from the House. It is not about making this a big round-table session where we all hold hands and hug. It's not about removing heckling. It's about fixing some of the more dysfunctional aspects of question period and making it more relevant.
The central point I want to make today is if there is one thing I would focus on out of all the six proposals in the motion, it's the fact that members have been relegated to the role of mere spectators and not participants in question period.
About 30 years ago, Speaker Jeanne Sauvé introduced changes that stripped members of the right to spontaneously rise in the House and catch the eye of the Speaker to be recognized for a question. These changes that Speaker Sauvé introduced mean that unless a member gets on the party list and has their question vetted beforehand, they cannot ask a question. The Speaker recognizes only those people on the four party lists that he or she receives each day. As a result, most members—I'd say 250, 260, 270 out of the 308 members of Parliament—are relegated to the role of spectators, since most rarely get on these lists. Rather than being attentive and potential participants in question period, members behave accordingly, as any spectator would in any forum.
I'd like to remind members that up to the 1980s, members of Parliament had the right—as Speaker Jerome called it, the right, not the privilege—to rise in the House, catch the eye of the Speaker, and ask questions of the government that were often driven by the concerns that members had heard from the previous weekend when they had returned home to their ridings. That no longer is the case. I believe this is one reason for the growing disconnect between the people we represent and the topics being debated in the House.
The party lists also weaken the authority and discipline of the Speaker. If a member misbehaves in question period one day and the next day appears on the party list, the Speaker has no authority to not recognize that member. Up to the 1980s, if a member was misbehaving the Speaker would refuse to recognize them for days, if not weeks. At some point the member realized that if he or she was going to be able to represent their constituents, they would have to be on better behaviour in order to be recognized by the Speaker.
I think the party lists are another big reason for the dysfunction we often see in question period.
My motion has proposed six areas of reform; I'm not wedded to each and every one of them. This Parliament is made up of 308 members. It's the wisdom of the 12 members on this committee to decide which of the six, or other proposals, to proceed with, and it's up to the House as a whole to concur in that report.
If I were to pick one of the six proposals, it would be the fourth proposal that is the most important, which is to allocate a portion of the questions each day for backbench members.
The committee has up to six months to consider the various proposals, and other ones. It may decide to reject, amend, or adopt the six proposals I've made. It may decide to add additional proposals for change.
I think the motion provides some viable and reasonable proposals for reform, and I hope the committee will be able to report back to the House by April 6, 2011.
Thank you very much.
Ms. Judy Foote (Random—Burin—St. George's, Lib.):
And thank you to Mr. Chong for being here as a witness today. I think you're right when you say that Canadians want to see a change in the House of Commons, particularly during question period.
I think all parties have endeavoured to do something about the decorum in the House, and I think we all need to be recognized for that. That's not to say that there still aren't improvements that can be made.
I accept your motion, of course, which passed in the House. I want the opportunity now to ask questions about some of the elements of your motion. I guess I'll start with the first one, where you talk about “elevating decorum and fortifying the use of discipline by the Speaker, to strengthen the dignity and authority of the House”.
My understanding is that the Speaker has all the authority he needs at this point to exercise discipline. You seem to think otherwise. Do you want to elaborate on that?
Hon. Michael Chong:
I think it would lead to better accountability. I believe it would afford the opposition parties much more time to prepare the research and the detail they need to ask tougher questions.
I know how question period works. I've been in opposition, and I can tell you exactly how it works. You get up in the morning, the office of the leader of the opposition reads the National Post, the Toronto Star, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, The Globe and Mail, La Presse, Le Soleil, Le Devoir, and says what the issue of the day is. We'll pick a couple of questions that the front pages of the newspapers are leading with, and those become the questions of the day, because the opposition is stretched for resources and doesn't have the resources to do the research.
If you do it once a week for 45 minutes it's slightly more time for the Prime Minister. And as the British model shows, it is more accountable, because it becomes the focal point of the week. Everybody saves up their questions for the week and the Prime Minister is on the hot seat for a full 45 minutes. He cannot avoid the questions; he cannot defer those questions to other ministers. He has to answer for a full 45 minutes.
I think you'll get more accountability out of the system while at the same time providing a better use of resources on the part of ministers and the Prime Minister.
Mr. Scott Reid (Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Mr. Chong, for being here. I agree with you, by the way, about the inherent shallowness of question period by virtue of the fact that it's driven by the day's headlines. That was certainly my experience when I was helping to coordinate it back in the days when the Reform Party was the opposition. We were actually the third party in those days, but I remember it was a lot shallower than we thought it was going to be when we imagined ourselves coming to Ottawa to bring depth to the process and then realized the process is inherently shallow.
Having said that, I want to ask you about questions. I think there are two ways of asking questions, and we use both of them and aren't even aware of it. In the House of Commons, like the 35-second question, you as the minister have a 35-second answer. If I go to the late show, we change the timeframes, but it's the same thing: I get a four-minute question; you get a four-minute answer, followed by a one-minute question and a one-minute answer. So the idea is just a lock-in proportionality.
We come here and we have seven minutes. I can ask you a question that lasts one minute and you can take six minutes answering it. Or I can ask you a one-minute question and you can take however long it takes to answer and I can ask another one. We have seven minutes for our exchange. Does anybody use that kind of model used in committee in question period? Is that part of what you're contemplating? Or is that, in your opinion, unlikely to work, where we get a kind of dialogue going between us?
Hon. Michael Chong:
Mr. Reid, I think you've raised a very good point.
I think the first half of question period you leave to the parties and the party whip. That unfolds as it does now. You have the leader of the official opposition, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, the leader of the New Democrats, and then their designates in the second and third rounds. You'd leave that as it is.
In the second half of question period, you go to the random selection by the Speaker. Now, you ensure that in the second half it's still allocated by party. So there'd be party slots for the second half, as there are now, except the slots would not be filled in by the parties; it would be up to the Speaker. I think the whip would be ineffective, because the Speaker chooses who to recognize.
It would be odd, I would think, and I think the Speaker would rightfully make a point of it during question period, if only one member rose during that second half for each party. The Speaker would right away clue in that a member's right to ask a question was being infringed upon and could rightfully make the comment, “I'd like to remind members of the House that it is a right, as Speaker Jerome said, for members to ask questions. I see only one member rising per party on backbench questions, and I think parties should remind themselves of the fact that it is a right.”
The minute you get two or three rising, it is up to the Speaker to pick. Once you set that practice in place for a week or two, it becomes set. I think we're then well on our way to affording that right back to members.
Mr. Pierre Paquette (Joliette, BQ):
First of all, thank you for appearing before the committee. As you know, we voted against your motion and are still opposed to most of the motions you have introduced.
With respecting to elevating decorum and fortifying the use of discipline, we are in favour of that. We also talk about that every week at the meeting of house leaders. Yesterday, however, it was the government house leader who sparked a confrontation by virtually accusing one of our members of being a member of the FLQ. So it's all well and good to change the form of the questions, but if there is no political will on the part of each party to discipline itself, I don't think the format will change the result in any way whatever.
Second, we had the member for Lévis—Bellechasse who came and said that one of our members was financing cocktail parties with Islamists. So I'm in favour of decorum, and perhaps the Speaker can be more severe. For example, I move that the groups that loudly applaud every time one of their ministers rises—I must say it is often the Conservatives—should lose their right to ask questions. They don't have the chance to ask many, three in fact. So the Speaker could rule that any group that delays oral questions through somewhat excessive expressions of enthusiasm should be penalized. I have no problem with that, but I would be quite surprised if the format of oral questions changed anything whatever.
As for lengthening the amount of time given to questions and answers, my party and I are prepared to examine that option. That time is indeed relatively short. Furthermore, as you mentioned, the Assemblée nationale has another way of operating. It seems to produce results, but it clearly reduces the number of questions.
Reviewing the convention whereby the minister questioned is not required to answer could also be a good suggestion.
Where the matter becomes complicated is when it is suggested that half of the questions every day should be allocated for members whose names and order of recognition are randomly selected. I did understand that the first half of oral questions would remain as it currently is. The purpose of question period is normally to be accountable to Parliament. In that context, members are entitled to ask the government questions, even government members, in which case, generally speaking, these are planted questions, that is questions designed to put forward what their government considers is one or another of the good aspects of its policies. The fact nevertheless remains that, in general, it is the opposition parties that ask the government to explain a situation or a policy. It is very rare for government members to take a critical look at their own government.
That means that, regardless whether the government is a minority or majority government, many questions will be asked by government members. You mentioned that that would change the nature of oral questions. I understand that. That will indeed be the case. It will penalize the opposition parties, particularly the smallest ones, hence my surprise that the NDP is supporting this motion, unless it is doing so opportunistically. Ultimately, however, this is still an open question. In short, this may not be acceptable to us since, as you know, we will always be in opposition.
Then it is suggested that Wednesday should be exclusively dedicated for questions to the Prime Minister. We might be able to consider if there wasn't this idea of exclusivity. However, I went to Westminster with Speaker Milliken this summer. During question periods other than those in which the Prime Minister answers questions—he does that in the second part of the question period on Wednesday—not only are there no journalists, there are also no members. The chamber fills only when the Prime Minister is there, unless of course a terrible tainted blood scandal has broken the day before and the health minister's turn comes round that day. Otherwise, there are no journalists or members in the House of Commons. Once again, I believe there is an advantage from the standpoint of accountability if the opposition parties are able to question the government immediately, depending on current events.
I'll give you an example. We've just learned that the UN representative believes that Canada has made a mistake in deciding not to consider Omar Khadr a child soldier. That's what I want to question the Minister of Foreign Affairs about today, not next week, whereas that won't at all be the case given current events.
In our view, these two questions, rotation and the order of recognition being randomly determined, are measures that give the government an advantage, not the opposition, and therefore not Parliament. That somewhat explains our opposition.
However, thank you for your effort. Like you, I am in favour of decorum. As you can see, I'm hardly shouting at all. In any case, I'm not shouting "Get out."
Thank you for listening to my comments.
Hon. Michael Chong:
Thank you, sir. Perhaps I can respond to the issues you've raised.
First, the issue of the Prime Minister appearing on the Wednesday of every week. The major problem now is that every minister uses four hours of his time every day to prepare for question period. However, only eight or 10 ministers answer questions during every question period. In other words, after using up four hours of their time every time, 30 ministers of the Crown attend oral questions every day but to do nothing. That's a major problem for their ministers.
For the vast majority of backbench members it's the same thing. I've been going to question period for six years, and it's a two-hour part of time out of my day, and I often wonder how effective it is for the 260 members who are there in the House. We are all very busy with committee work and answering the concerns of our constituents, and we often don't have enough hours in the day to keep up, and yet we have to sit through question period and not play any meaningful role at all.
The other thing I've noticed is that I think it's very important for the Bloc to have the same amount of time in the House to ask questions as they do now.
You're an elected member. We live in a democracy, and it is therefore very important for the members of the Bloc Québécois, including yourself, to have the same time to answer questions as is currently the case.
So I'm in favour of making sure they have the same amount of time they have now. This is not to diminish the amount of time given to the opposition parties to ask questions.
The problem of oral questions in the House of Commons is not a matter of decorum. The fundamental problem is the rules. If we change the rules, we'll change decorum.
So I think previous attempts to change decorum in the House have focused on the symptoms of the problem rather than the underlying problem, which is the format. The format drives the behaviour, so I think we need to change the format in order to address decorum.
Mr. David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, NDP):
Thank you, Chair. I appreciate it.
Mr. Chong, thank you again for the work you've done. It is very interesting.
Like you, I have a lot of concerns about the way we do things. I got into politics, as most of us did, to change things that we didn't agree with, but I have to say that my experience has tempered that a bit, in terms of change for the sake of change isn't always the way to go. You have to make sense, particularly when we're dealing with the traditions of Parliament, and we need to walk carefully.
Like some members here, I have a fair bit of experience in these areas, having served on city and regional councils and then in the Ontario legislature, where I both asked questions and answered questions as a minister, and I've done the process of preparing for question period. I've also been a house leader and a deputy speaker, and there are my six years plus here. I have some idea of these issues in other arenas too.
Let me say at the outset, for the 26 years plus that I've been in elected office, in every arena I've been in, there has always been an issue that the current clowns in place are worse than the previous clowns, and decorum is always the issue. On the Hamilton city council, when you're having fist fights in the back parking lot, there might be some justification, but for the most part it's always thus and everybody is always better.
We've had them. It's true. There are those of you who know.
I want to be specific. I'm just going to throw some thoughts out to you, in no particular order, Michael, and get your feedback.
On increasing the time of the question, I was one of those who had to learn to go from one minute to 35 seconds, and being somebody who is long-winded to start with, this was a major challenge. But I have to tell you, in terms of the quality of the responses, I'm not yet convinced they're either any better or worse. For the person asking the question it was often better because you had a little more time to lay out the issue, to put things in context for anybody watching who didn't know the issue. And most people don't know the particular issue, especially if it's local or a very detailed one within a portfolio. Ministers can use the one minute usually to get up, as they do now only for twice as long, to brag about what's great about their ministry and their government and their leader, etc.
I have to say also that this occurred to me, and again, this is the benefit of being on all sides of the House: there are times when the answer to a question is no, and to have the Speaker say they took 45 seconds to ask the question and he wants you to take 45 seconds to answer it, well, no, no, no.... That could become a joke too. I'm just not sure that alone nails it.
I don't have a lot of time, so I'm just going to jump around. I'm going to jump to the end so I get this in. I do believe, however, that the absolute key to everything you've raised for the most part comes down to Parliament telling the Speaker to increase the level of discipline through the rules. I've seen deputy speakers, who don't have the same relationship with Parliament that the Speaker himself, in this case, has. But Speakers are sovereign. Whatever they rule, that's it. There is no appeal. There's nowhere to go. And I have seen Speakers stand up and just by standing the place goes dead quiet. If you're heckling, you're watching the Speaker because they're one of those who don't let you get away with it.
Chris Stockwell, if anybody knows Chris Stockwell, was one of the best speakers I've ever served under, and it was partly because he was really tough on the rules, but he was really fair. He was always fair-minded about things. So I'll get that out there.
Having the Prime Minister on one day is probably one of the ones I'm most interested in, simply because most of us don't get an answer from the Prime Minister. Most of us can stand up and ask the Prime Minister a question in our third, fourth, fifth question slot. The Prime Minister normally doesn't respond, throws it over to another minister or the House leader. The only time the Prime Minister.... And this was true of the premiers in my day: they would only answer questions from the leaders. They felt obliged to do that to show the respect for another leader who could theoretically become Prime Minister, so they would give them the respect of standing up. Sometimes they'd look at them, sometimes they didn't, depending on the relationship, but they did stand up and address the questions that came from the leaders. Beyond that, they'd toss it to somebody else.
The idea of an ordinary backbencher getting a shot at the Prime Minister has some real merit. And in terms of looking at this in a non-partisan way, the notion of freeing up the Prime Minister of the day--not the other ministers, I'm not as keen on that at all, and I'll explain why if I have time--to spend more time doing the Prime Minister's job has some merit. It's a complex country, a complex world, so I'm a bit open to that.
I'm not so open to scheduling the ministers. I understand what you're saying about the wasted time. I went through that--the butterflies in the stomach every day when you have a front-page issue and you're getting ready for question period and you know you're about to be drilled and so much is riding on it. But on the other hand, the ministers also don't know what you're going to ask on any given day, and that forces a good minister to stay on top of all their files. A bad minister, quite frankly, can keep an eye on three or four files or be prepared for a day or two. But on any given day, someone could stand up and ask you anything in your portfolio, and you had better know your major files; you had better know the procedures that are involved; you had better know where things are, and if you don't, it's going to show very quickly.
The other thing on that is that as tough as it is and with the time that's wasted, the most wonderful sound in the world when you're a minister is “this House now stands adjourned”, because then there's no more question period, and you're in control of everything. Life as a minister when the House isn't sitting is really good. When the House is sitting, it's really good, but it's really tougher.
So in my view there's a balance there. I have some other thoughts, but I'll give you a chance to respond, if I've left any time.
Hon. Michael Chong:
Thank you, Mr. Christopherson, Mr. Chair.
I think we're all concerned about any change to an old institution, but I think we know the consequences of some of the changes I've proposed, because some were past practice in the Canadian House of Commons for many decades. Arguably the question period we have now is an aberration. It's a question period with rules that were established only in the last 30 years. Question period started after Confederation under unwritten conventions, but nevertheless it existed for many decades before the more recent changes that were introduced in the last 30 years. We know the consequences of some of these changes, because they were past practices in the Canadian House of Commons.
We also know some of the consequences of the other changes I've proposed, because they're present practice in other Westminster-style parliaments. So we can look to those parliaments to see how question period functions in them.
The other thing I'd add about change is that we weren't cautious about the change in 1980 when we stripped members of the right to ask questions in the House. We weren't cautious in 1997 when we decided to go from minute-long questions and minute-long answers to 35-second questions and 35-second answers.
There seems to be a great deal of caution when we're trying to restore the right of members to represent their constituents to ask questions, but not a lot of caution when we need to further centralize power among the party leadership in all the parties.
Ms. Yasmin Ratansi (Don Valley East, Lib.):
Are you kidding?
Mr. Chong, thank you very much for being here.
This is something that needs to be done, because students and other people come from my riding, and they see us, and they wonder. Knowing my professional vantage especially, people wonder how a person who used to do receivership can be in such a position where everybody is yelling. Everybody is supposed to be quiet--right?
I'll give you a few questions, and then you can take the time to answer them.
When you talk about elevating the decorum and fortifying the use of discipline by the Speaker, doing so is at the discretion of the Speaker. You stated there was a specific incident in which the Speaker enforced the true meaning of the rules, and there was a revolt. So the Speaker either has the power or doesn't have the power. Could you tell me what happened?
You are suggesting that he fortify it. How can he fortify it? If the weapon is available, why isn't he using it? I know Speaker Blaikie used to use them quite effectively.
Ms. Yasmin Ratansi:
Somehow we need to do that.
You talk about lengthening the amount of time given to each question and answer. Would you be suggesting that we lengthen the question period? Or would you be suggesting what they have in Britain, where the questions are all pre-submitted and the only spontaneity is during the supplemental questions, which are off the cuff? If ministers are required to respond, they do respond, and I'm sure my Bloc colleague was saying that, but how do you get substantive answers? Do you want to call it answer period instead of question period? Is that the way you want to change it? Perhaps we could do it.
You asked to allocate half the questions to backbenchers. That's something you want. Do you mean government backbenchers? Because if you look at the opposition, their backbenchers ask questions on a regular basis. So where is this coming from?
You want to dedicate Wednesday exclusively for the Prime Minister. I know that happens in Britain, but what happens if the Prime Minister is missing one Wednesday? Does he have to do two days the next week?
If you can answer those, then I'll see how much time I have.
Hon. Michael Chong:
Look, heckling is part of parliamentary debate. I think the occasional heckle is a good thing. But I would say that the problem isn't with the heckling, the problem is with the screaming, the fact that we need to use earpieces turned up on full volume.
I can tell you I think I've suffered some hearing loss in the last six years—and this is no joke, and my wife often says to me that I'm speaking too loudly—as a result of the fact that the noise levels in the House are often so loud. Now, they haven't been recently, but often in the last year they've been so loud that you couldn't hear the person next to you speaking, even with your earpiece turned on full.
One of the solutions the committee might recommend is for the House technicians to turn the maximum volume down by half. When the volume's turned down by half, the House will automatically quieten, because in order to hear what the question or the answer is, you'll need to have a degree of quiet in the House.
Quickly, to answer your other questions, I'm not proposing to lengthen the amount of time for question period from 45 minutes.
And in terms of what happens when the Prime Minister is missing on a Wednesday, in the British Parliament the Deputy Prime Minister steps up to the plate and answers the questions for the full 45 minutes. The British Parliament used to have two separate 15-minute question times per week for the Prime Minister; they've combined it to one. I think this is something we should take a look at too.
Mr. Harold Albrecht (Kitchener—Conestoga, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
And thank you, Mr. Chong, for being here today.
I want to agree with my colleagues who applaud you for the spirit behind the initiative you're bringing forward here, the way you've done it. I think you've brought it forward in a very good way.
I think we all agree that we'd like to see the decorum in the House of Commons improved. Mr. Paquette referred earlier to what he called “an inflammatory comment”. All of us around this table could give evidence of what we consider to be inflammatory comments by others. I think, to be fair, it's human nature for us, and probably even our duty, to in some way respond to a comment that we feel is either blatantly false or is simply made to inflame, and I think we will continue to heckle.
You made the point that the issue isn't about removing heckling, but it is about removing some of the volume of that. Otherwise, why would the students who have come here be so disappointed in what they see? I don't imagine they're disappointed that they have a 35-second question when there's a 35-second answer; they're disappointed in the volume that's going on back and forth.
So we could say it's juvenile to heckle, but sometimes the questions themselves may indicate the need for that kind of response.
I have just two quick questions, two points. One is the discipline that you're calling on the Speaker to enforce. You mentioned the possibility of ignoring the member. That would be one form of discipline. Do you have other ideas as to how the Speaker could be more effective in bringing the discipline you're calling for?
Mrs. Claude DeBellefeuille (Beauharnois—Salaberry, BQ):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you for appearing here this morning, Mr. Chong.
I listened to your responses to the various colleagues around this table, and what surprised me is that you suggested that the ministers who are not likely to be asked questions during oral questions are wasting their time, in the same way as backbench members who don't have the opportunity to ask questions. I'm a whip, and I don't have the opportunity to ask a lot of questions, but I believe that question period, for me, is an exciting and formative time in shaping my knowledge. I like to hear the questions from the other parties, and I like to hear the answers from your ministers—when they give any. It's also important for me to hear the answers and not just to ask questions. I'm very much insulted when I see a minister, for example, who knows the subject does not concern him, reading his newspaper or Maclean's magazine without paying attention to the questions of the other parties or to his colleagues' answers. I believe it is part of our job to ask questions, but also to listen to what the others say. That enables us to open our minds.
Decorum is a lively topic of discussion for us, as Mr. Paquette said earlier, particularly since the start of the session. I believe that the problem is not the way question period is conducted, but rather decorum. Decorum is based on one thing, the willingness of the Speaker, leaders and whips to enforce the rules already in place. If the Speaker were more respectful of the rules and enforced them more, if the House leaders of each party set the example and the whips enforced the rules, quite sincerely we would not be here around this table discussing a reform of oral questions.
The proof of that is that significant efforts have been made in the past few weeks. As a result, for example, the Bloc Québécois has often been allowed the seventh question. Consequently, there are more questions, more decorum, more respect, less racket and more exchanges between the opposition and government parties.
We agree about the lack of decorum, Mr. Chong, but we don't agree on the nature of the problem. I would say to you that, even if we change the container, the content will still be the same; we won't be changing much or improving much.
Don't you think that the role of the opposition is to ask the government the best questions, the most embarrassing questions possible, until it proves to us that we are wrong and it is right? In that way, democracy is practised in a much fairer manner. If government backbenchers ask questions only to promote the actions of their government, I don't believe we're doing citizens a service in the discovery of reality. In other words, don't you think that question period will lack appeal if all we do half the time is promote what the government is putting forward rather than raise questions the government will have to answer?
Hon. Michael Chong:
Yes, the subjects being asked about and answered would be far more diverse than today, but that's democracy. That's the nature of democracy. Ministers are going to get these obscure questions.
In speaking to Don Mazankowski, who was a 25-year member from Alberta in the House of Commons, he told me that for 15 of those years he sat as an opposition member. He also told me recently in Calgary that he gave his questions to the minister ahead of time to allow the minister to prepare an answer. I've heard that from other members as well who used to serve in the House of Commons in the 1970s and even the 1980s. In fact I was speaking two weeks ago with somebody who worked for Monsieur Chrétien.
He was the assistant to Mr. Chrétien. He told me that, during the war between Iraq and Kuwait, the first Gulf War, before oral questions, Mr. Chrétien submitted to Mr. Mulroney—the Prime Minister in 1990—the question he wanted to ask him because it was an important question for Mr. Chrétien and he wanted a real answer.
So there has been a tradition of giving ministers a heads-up. I'm not suggesting that we do that, but if you're a backbench MP who has a question that a mayor or a group of constituents has sincerely asked you about, you might rise in the House three or four days before you get recognized. Maybe on the fourth or fifth day you get recognized. Before you get recognized, you give the minister the question and say, “Here's the question. I'm just going to ask it. Maybe you don't have an answer but I want to be on the record with my constituents, in a public forum, in the interests of transparency, that I'm representing them and their concerns to Parliament.” Then I can go back and say, “Mr. Speaker, I have a mayor who's voiced concerns about an infrastructure project that may not be completed by March 31 of next year. Could the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities tell this House what the government will do if particular infrastructure projects are not completed?” I then can go back to that mayor and say, “I've asked the question on your behalf. The minister said they'll take it under consideration.”
Mr. David Christopherson:
I will, thanks.
Just on that last point, I've done that both ways. On a local issue, it does make sense. If you want a positive answer on a local project and you give the minister a heads-up, you stand a better chance than catching them off guard and their answering with a place-setting negative, because they can always change the answer to positive much more easily than saying yes initially and then trying to say no later.
Conversely, I've had people come to me and do the same thing when I was a minister and say, “This is what I'm looking to do and here's the question I'm going to ask you. I'm hoping we can advance this. I'm not looking for conflict.”
It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it can be effective. I don't know that we need to change the rules for that. Maybe we just need to enlighten members that there are different ways of approaching Parliament, rather than just putting on our body armour and heading in.
The point I want to make is that in my experience the behaviour you refer to affects the format. I'm looking at this and thinking that the dynamics around behaviour are going to be the same, although they're going to be applied in a different format. So many of the things we're concerned about—control, authority, and all of those things—are going to evolve quickly back into the same dynamics because of behaviour. The format may give a different end result, but the input is still going to be the same, if you know what I'm saying.
I'm very keen on the suggestion you're making about half the question period being the set format we have now and the other half being opened up. You said that if one person stands up, the Speaker could say, “Hey, something's going on, there's only one”, because someone's not using their right. But within a caucus, the dynamics could evolve very, very quickly, so that everybody will soon tacitly agree, in the interest of the caucus and furthering their agenda, on who will stand up. Where you'll have an exception is somebody in caucus who says “I'm not agreeing with that and I'm going to stand up anyway”. So really, all we would have done is potentially allowing, if you will, those who are out of step with their caucus an opportunity to create a little bit of grief for their caucus, which makes for some entertaining politics, but I'm not sure it actually furthers the cause.
Or, if I'm with my colleagues and we're fighting for attention in our relatively small caucus, we might cut a deal that nobody gets up on Monday so that Harry can get his question. Nobody gets up on Tuesday, so Sue can get her question. Again that's why I said the dynamics around behaviour will still come into play.
So help me understand how that would work, because I'm open to it, I like it, but I'm just not sure how it will work.
Mr. Marcel Proulx (Hull—Aylmer, Lib.):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good morning, Michael, and thank you for appearing before the committee. There are a number of points in your presentation and in your bill with which I do not agree. As a whip, I'm opposed to the idea of randomly selecting the names of members who may ask questions. Unfortunately, we're required to enforce a certain discipline within the political parties. That applies to oral questions, to the period set aside for statements by members and to other privileges that must be applied in order to impose or restore a certain discipline. For example, I object to the idea of you randomly allowing a member who completely deviates from party rules to ask questions.
I have been objecting for a long time to the three questions that the government may ask. That gives it three opportunities to hold a press conference. If the government wants to hold press conferences, it can simply call them and disclose what it wants to announce.
When you say that ministers take four hours a day to prepare, you insult our intelligence, Mr. Chong. If we do a count, we realize that the same minister, your house leader, answers about 70% of the questions put to your government. In fact, some ministers in your party have never answered a single question. They have a car, driver, and staff. They act as though they have prepared for question period; they arrive in the House with documents and a computer in hand, but they know perfectly well that they will never have to answer a single question.
Furthermore—and I believe it was David who raised this question—a good minister doesn't need a four-hour briefing every day in order to know his files. He knows his files. You'll tell me that some parliamentary secretaries need a briefing before oral questions because they don't have the same opportunities. I agree. Having previously occupied that position, I know that's necessary.
You mentioned longer questions, but you say you don't want question period to be extended. In other words, you want to reduce the number of questions. I'm opposed to that. You say we have to restore to the Speaker of the House the rights he should have or to call members to order. I'm sorry, but the Speaker already has rights. A number of members, both David and I and others, have previously sat in that chair and used the existing Standing Orders to call members to order in various ways.
A number of years ago, when I occupied that chair, a member from your party constantly shouted and always offered his opinion when he didn't have the floor. At one point, I refused to give him the floor, and when your party's whip asked me why I had done so, I told him that member definitely had nothing further to say as he had spent half an hour shouting. Let me tell you that member stopped shouting and we allowed him to speak again.
In your bill, you raise a number of points that may be interesting in small doses. You present ideas with a view to restoring parts of rules and customs that should still be in effect. However, it's been a very long time since the Speaker of the House called a government member to order. I would say there are many occasions when he could do that. That's his choice. However, I don't think there's any genuine desire to change matters. On a number of occasions, it has been moved that decorum be restored to the House, but someone has always objected to that idea, or else accepted it then subsequently done the opposite.
As long as there are individuals in the government who continue to play the fool when they answer questions from the opposition parties, there will be no possible solution to the decorum issue. This situation merely encourages the opposition parties to become more talkative, indeed more violent. Many of our recommendations—
Am I done, sir?
Hon. Michael Chong:
Yes. I have a couple of points of fact.
It's not a privilege for members to ask questions in the House. Speaker Jerome has ruled; it's in O'Brien and Bosc; it was in Marleau and Montpetit. It is the right of a member of Parliament to ask questions of the government.
Second, I understand the need for discipline. Party whips and leaders have ample tools to enforce party discipline. The problem is that the autonomy of the individual member of Parliament within the party system has become so diminished that it's becoming increasingly difficult for individual members of parties to represent their constituents.
I think we need to rebalance some of the power in the House away from the parties toward individual members--within the party structure. I'm a proud Conservative and am proud of my party and its leader, but I do believe that we need a greater degree of autonomy to represent our constituents. We need to do that in order to restore Canadians' faith in their Parliament.
Quickly, on the last point, the four hours a day to prepare is a problem.
In 1970 or 1971, Mr. Trudeau, who was Prime Minister at the time, adopted the same idea as I am presenting in my motion, that is to say of a system of rotation for ministers and the Prime Minister. So this is a longstanding problem within our system of government.
It's not a recent problem of our government. It's been a longstanding problem. Even Mr. Trudeau, when he was prime minister, realized it and adopted a similar rotational system for his ministers in the early 1970s. I don't have the exact details, but it was drawn to my attention recently.
Mr. Randy Hoback (Prince Albert, CPC):
Thank you, Chair.
I hope Mr. Proulx wasn't suggesting he take up my time. Of course he would never suggest that.
Mr. Chong, one comment I want to make to start is that I'm not sure if this is the right way to go or not. I haven't made that decision. I want to listen to all the facts and hear all the different ideas. But you're addressing something that a lot of constituents have asked to have addressed, and that's decorum in the House. You're addressing it in a way that is.... Maybe one of the ways to look at it is whether the process of the House, the way the House operates and functions, can improve the decorum.
It's interesting. I remember in the late 1980s, early 1990s there was this party called the Reform Party. It came to be elected in western Canada based on the fact that they wanted to improve decorum in the House. They wanted to change how Ottawa operated. They came to Ottawa. I talked to a couple of the older members who were there at the time. They talked about how they got to Ottawa and the first thing they did was a social with everybody, trying to bring everybody together. Their goal at the time was to create an environment where we could agree to disagree, but we'd still do what's best for the interests of Canadians.
I think about a year or two later they were getting picked on by their own members, who were saying they were ineffective in Ottawa because they weren't in the media, they weren't out and about, they weren't criticizing, they weren't doing X, Y, Z. Then I think we started to see things change back to the way it is today.
It's really interesting, because if there's one complaint I get consistently from people across Canada, and it's consistent with the school kids especially, it's on the decorum in the House. They want to know why it is the way it is.
I think that's a really good question that we should be trying to ask here. Is it the way we handle ourselves? Is it the fact that we feel we have to go for the throat every time we have a question or an answer? Is it the fact that we're not willing to give credit when credit is due on both sides? Is it the fact that the government may not be willing to listen to a good suggestion, or that the opposition parties aren't willing to give a good suggestion? Those are the questions I get asked in my riding quite often.
Some of the concerns I have when we look at the process are around the role of parliamentary secretaries in this type of situation. What would their role be and what would it consist of? What would the role of late shows be? How would that be affected? Would it change?
I guess I'll just leave it at that, Mr. Chong, and see how you answer those questions.
Hon. Michael Chong:
I don't think we can remove cameras from the House. We're in the modern age of technology and transparency. The public wants a light shone where things once were much more private. I don't think we can remove cameras.
Secondly, I don't think cameras are fundamentally the problem. In the occidental world, whether it's in continental Europe or the United States, there are cameras in those legislatures and we don't see the same kind of dysfunction that we see in ours. I don't think cameras are necessarily the problem.
I do think, though, that cameras exacerbate the problem as they are used in our House of Commons because the technicians have been instructed to go for the narrow shot, so you only get a shot of the person speaking and everything else is filtered out. Maybe a solution is to allow the cameras to go to a wide-angle shot of the entire House from time to time.
Maybe the solution is to cut the maximum volume of these earpieces by half. One of the reasons we have problems in our question period is because the noise levels are so loud that you can't hear anybody. Why is that? It's because you can put the earpiece on, turn the volume up, and it doesn't matter what the person next to you is doing. In most other legislatures where they do not have translation, they don't have that problem. They have no earpieces to listen with, so they necessarily get a lower volume in the House because they need to be able to hear without any assistance.
Maybe the solution is to cut the volume in half, which will have an enforcing effect of getting people to quiet down to be able to hear anything through the earpiece.
Mr. Tom Lukiwski:
Thank you, Chair.
Thanks very much, Michael, for coming here.
I think one thing we've discovered here today is that there's clearly a wide variance of opinion on your motion. Nonetheless, your motion is one that I think has a great deal of interest among all members here, and I think all members of Parliament. I'm glad we've got six months in which to write a report, because I can see this discussion developing among our members here, and perhaps even with other witnesses. Hopefully, at the end of the day, whatever this committee decides will result in some improved decorum, and maybe improved functioning of the House.
I want to make a few comments, and then ask one specific question.
With overall decorum, I still think, and other members have spoken before me and have said the same thing, it primarily is the responsibility of the members themselves, and particularly the parties and the House leaders. You mentioned earlier in your presentation that you have seen in the last few weeks an improvement in decorum, and so have I. That is a direct result of all the House leaders and whips getting together and agreeing to try to temper the enthusiasm, shall we say, of their members. Yes, from time to time there are still some outbursts, but generally speaking over the last three weeks I think we've seen a marked improvement in decorum. That's a result of, and credit to, all of the parties together agreeing to try to improve decorum. While I think the spirit behind your bill is laudable, I also firmly believe that the main function of decorum is the responsibility of the House itself and the parties themselves. So I hope we can continue to work together, and I've been very encouraged by what I've seen.
The second comment I would make is on the role of the Speaker. I agree that the Speaker, and I think other members have said this as well, needs to be more engaged, shall we say, in discipline. Whether it's the committee report that gives or encourages the Speaker to use the levers at his disposal more effectively, I don't know. I certainly would be in favour of that. But I think that some of the more effective ways of dealing with it you've already mentioned, and others have. Marcel just spoke about it when he was in chair. To me, the most effective way of say punishing or reprimanding a member is to make that member invisible to the chair. We all want to get on camera, right, and if you are not recognized by the chair, and this could go on for an extended period of time, that is going to smarten up that member very quickly. If that member is prevented from either asking a question, prevented from making an SO 31, prevented from doing anything in a public fashion, that's severe discipline. I think that's something the Speaker should be doing on more occasions than he has in the past.
Regarding technological changes, I hadn't thought about it, but I really like your suggestion for our consideration of lowering the volume of the microphones. I'll refer to an example, and I think everyone here knows it to be true. One of our members, Rob Bruinooge, when he was parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Indian Affairs, on many occasions would have to go up and answer questions in the House when the minister was absent. When Rob got up to speak, he's such a soft-spoken gentleman that automatically the volume in the House just went down, because they were straining to listen to what his answer was. He never did anything more or less. He always spoke in the same very soft tone. I think you're onto something there, that if we just lower the volume on our earpieces, that may be something.
I also agree with something you said--I had it down in my notes here, and you mentioned it just before I got to speak--on the use of cameras. When you've got hecklers, they're doing so I think as much as anything because they know that they're hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. If you opened up that lens, and if their constituents could see some of these people yelling and screaming, with their faces flushed, I think if they got a few calls from their constituents saying “You look like a complete jerk-off, what are you doing there?”, that would have a very positive effect on lowering the temperature.
Mr. Marcel Proulx: We already know the names of those.
Mr. Tom Lukiwski: I get those letters without even being on the camera.
I think that widening the camera lens is something that could be very positive.
I disagree with one thing you mentioned with regard to Speaker discipline, and that's expulsion, for two reasons. One, of course, is that many people--as, quite frankly, I sometimes did as a political adviser in years past before I was elected, I'm ashamed to say--would advise a member to get that person kicked out. Why? Because then you go right to the cameras outside the House, and you become a cause célèbre. You could become a spokesperson. Why were you kicked out? I was fighting.... It's an advantage to people to get kicked out sometimes, and they do it purposely. So I don't think that should be something that we really encourage the Speaker to do.
The second thing is that if you expel somebody, in my view there would have to be some sort of right of exception. Theoretically—and I hope this would never happen, but follow it with me—let's say there's a minority Parliament and there was a very important, very close vote coming up. Our speakers are elected. All of a sudden the Speaker, in trying to gain advantage to his or her own party, expelled somebody from the government, let's say because the Speaker knew the vote was going to come down to a difference of one or two votes. He was expelled the day before a critical vote and he was not allowed to come back into the House for a week. You deny that person his right to vote and it could affect the outcome of whether a government falls or not. If you do that, you would have to do something there.
The last thing I would like to say is that there has to be an exception rule—
Mr. Rodney Weston (Saint John, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Chong, thank you for coming. Certainly I want to commend you, as all members have, for starting the debate, actually starting the discussion, if you wish.
We had the pleasure one evening, over some chicken wings, to have a discussion about this, and I was struck by your sheer genuineness to want to accomplish something to try to increase the level of decorum in the House. I also believe you want to try to increase the substance in question period. To that effect there are some factors that obviously have played against that, whether it's decorum, or substance, in a sense.
We live in a world, as we've all talked about here, of the sound bite--the clip--and a lot of us play to the camera. We look to try to be on the evening news--or, as my colleague says, a cause for celebrity, status that we can take home with us.
Having said all that, my question is more around your thoughts on lengthening the amount of time given for each question and answer, whether it is necessary to have an equal amount of time for the question and the answer. If we're looking for the substance here, is the substance in the question or in the answer? I throw that out for further discussion.
Quite often we see things in the preambles to questions that we saw here earlier today. Monsieur Paquette, in his comments earlier--he wasn't really asking a question, he was making a statement--talked about items he raised in a point of order yesterday on the floor of the House; it gave him an opportunity to reiterate those same points once again. Quite often we see that.
When we have that in question period--those same points made over and over again--the ministers are put in a position to try for the one-upmanship. I guess that's one of the things I question: do we really need the same amount of time for the question as we do for the answer?
The other question I have, quite quickly, is on requiring the minister to respond to questions that are asked of him. I believe what you're saying is that if I get up and I want to ask a question of the Minister of the Environment, let the Minister of the Environment respond.
The other thought I had is how you require that individual to stand and answer the question. How do I actually require that minister to answer the question I've asked? I've heard what you said about reciprocity with the Speaker, in that sense, but there's still difficulty in trying to get that actual question answered.
Those are a couple of thoughts I had, and I'll throw them back for your thoughts, Mr. Chong.
Hon. Michael Chong:
With respect to lengthening the amount of time given to ask and to answer a question, I think whatever the committee proposes in that regard, if anything, is done in a way that is fair to all four parties and ensures that the current allocation of time in the House—a quarter to each of the four parties—remains the same, and that some of the opposition concerns about the government using this opportunity to provide longer answers doesn't give the government the advantage of using more time in their answers to prevent the opposition from having its fair share of questions.
I'm not wedded to anything specific. I think giving the Speaker the power of reciprocity between the length of the question and the length of the answer is a solution. Perhaps we have a minimum 35-second rule whereby anybody has a minimum of 35 seconds to ask a question and a minimum to answer a question. If the question is shorter than 35 seconds, the government still has up to 35 seconds to answer it. If the question is longer than 35 seconds and goes to a minute, then the minister has up to a minute to answer the question. There are different ways the Speaker could be instructed to deal with that issue.
In terms of the second part of your question that had to do with ministers answering questions, again, you can interpret that in various ways, but if we are going to go to a rotational schedule or the like, there are different ways to do it. Fundamentally, though, of all the proposals I've made, the most important one is restoring the right of backbench members to ask questions of the government on behalf of their constituents. That is the most fundamental change I think we need to make. I think it would restore the balance of power between the party leadership and individual members of Parliament in those parties.
We are a democracy, and I think Canadians, our constituents, look to us to represent them in the House. Give the first half to the party leadership—and all the four parties can do whatever they want with it—and give the second half of QP to the backbench, as it used to be for decades before the 1980s.
Hon. Michael Chong:
I was just going to suggest that.
A number of Canadians have indicated to me that they would be interested in testifying at this committee. Joe Clark, the former Prime Minister, has indicated to me personally that he would be interested in testifying on this issue. Mr. Broadbent, the former leader of the New Democratic Party, has participated in debates on this issue recently and has indicated an interest in it. I know that Mr. Preston Manning is interested in this issue and has recently written opinion editorials in The Globe and Mail on it. Those are just a few of the witnesses. I'd also suggest that you invite Mr. Robert Marleau, the former clerk of the House, who witnessed some of the changes I've talked about.
I have two other quick points. I hope the committee will endeavour to report this back to the House in advance of the next federal election. I think there's a possibility of a spring election. The order compels the committee to report it back by April 6, 2011. If there's an impending election in March of next year, I hope the committee will see that it is reported back to the House some time before those confidence votes.
Finally, if I were to pick one message or proposal that I think is critical to parliamentary reform and the reform of question period, it would be to restore the right, for one half of question period, of backbench members to represent their constituents and ask questions of the government. I think we need to rebalance the power in our system toward backbench members and away from the four parties. I believe in the party system and our parliamentary democracy, but I think we need to restore a right that members once held. I think that will go a long way to restoring Canadians' faith in our Parliament and in their democratic institutions.
Thank you for having me.