Is the Thursday Question a statement on our politics?

Partisanship in the late afternoon

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

“How many people do you know,” former Liberal House leader Don Boudria asked me last week during an interview, “who are grasping at every word that is said at 3:20 on Thursday afternoon?”

This, I think, is a reasonable question to ask about the Thursday question, a House of Commons convention I wrote about for this week’s print edition. Specifically, I look at how what might be a pro forma bit of housekeeping has turned into a partisan slapfight each Thursday afternoon.

The Thursday question is perhaps not something you’re familiar with (nor, I grant you, can I think of an obvious reason why you should otherwise be tuning in to catch). It is officially known as the “weekly business statement.” In theory, it is an explanation of the business the government wishes to pursue in the week ahead, traditionally prompted each Thursday afternoon by a question from the House leader of the official opposition.

Here is how that went on June 2, 1994.

Michel Gauthier: Mr. Speaker, I would like the leader of the government in the House to inform us of the order of business for the next few days.

Herb Gray: Madam Speaker, I am pleased to provide the weekly business statement. Tomorrow we will begin with Bill C-18 concerning the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. I will have a motion on the Order Paper by six o’clock this evening with respect to certain amendments. If the House deals with the matter quickly enough we will return to Bill C-34 regarding Yukon native self-government, followed by Bill C-33 respecting Yukon land claims.

Next Monday, as already announced and as already agreed to by the House, the House will commence its sitting at two o’clock in the afternoon rather than eleven o’clock in the morning in order to permit members to attend the service at the National War Memorial commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The government business for Monday when we come back will be the amendments to the Young Offenders Act. We will begin debate on second reading of the bill to carry out those amendments.

Tuesday and Wednesday shall be allotted days. Wednesday being the last allotted day for the present supply period, the House will sit late pursuant to the rules, with any questions necessary to dispose of the main estimates and the supplementary estimates being voted on starting at ten o’clock in the evening.

Subject to further discussions and to the progress in debate made earlier I would hope to call the bill reorganizing the Department of Citizenship and Immigration on Thursday. I will confirm the business for the latter part of next week at the regular weekly House leaders meeting early next week.

You might find that rather dry and boring (and relatively succinct). But we might appreciate dry and boring (and relatively succinct. At least for a few minutes each Thursday afternoon.

I’d copy-and-paste last Thursday’s exchange, but it measures just under 1,900 words. You can read it here in all its florid glory. It was sufficiently long enough to earn a complaint from Liberal MP Geoff Regan. This week’s exchange began with a word of caution from the Speaker and ended, 1,200 words later, with a request from Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux that, if the weekly statement is to be a debate, that the third party should be allowed to participate. Thus did the Speaker make the following plea.

I appreciate the hon. member for Winnipeg North raising this point, as his colleague from Halifax West did last week. I have had the opportunity to look at the scope of previous Thursday questions from previous years in previous Parliaments, and it does seem to the Chair that the length of time that the question takes up has certainly expanded.

I do ask members, the House leader of the official opposition, and the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons to keep in mind the principle behind the Thursday question, which is to inform the House of the upcoming business. There are other opportunities to debate aspects of the current legislation in terms of the timing of it. Especially as we get into these late days in June, it might be well for them to remember the purpose of the Thursday question and not to have an extension of question period or other types of debate.

I do ask them to keep that in mind. I think the House would appreciate a return to the more specific scope of the original Thursday questions.

I at least appreciate the Speaker saying as much the same day my story reached newsstands.

As I note in that piece, there’s something here of the permanent campaign—every moment is a chance to make some contribution to the effort of winning more seats in 2015. Even if what is said at 3:20pm each Thursday afternoon isn’t seen or heard by much of anyone. It is breath expelled on the off chance that every breath counts.

You can link this to how the time for statements by members—the 15 minutes that precede Question Period each day—have come to be used, with the parties taking some of that time to send backbenchers up with attack ads in human form.

In Britain, the business statement is actually subject to questions from other MPs—here, for instances, is this week’s back-and-forth (it goes on for quite awhile). If only to satisfy Mr. Lamoureux, the House could adopt such a practice. Otherwise, we might wonder whether we could have a few minutes each week that aren’t demonstrably part of the permanent campaign.

The NDP likes to be the party that will fight and there’s something to be said for that (both as a political strategy and a public good). A good fight is to be appreciated and, as Peter Van Loan will tell you, our system was premised on oppositional debate. But at what point does that go from healthy to unhealthy? I used the word insane in my story and I do sometimes wonder if the weekly statement has come to be in the grips of a certain kind of insanity. As I think about it, you might wonder the same about the permanent campaign. Is it what is necessary, in the current climate, to get people’s attention or does it contribute to people not wanting to pay attention?

Of course, it could just be that the current practice of Thursday question is simply silly. And in that regard, it would hardly be the only thing about the place that could be described as such (tune in next time for my essay, “Why are you people clapping so much for each other?”).

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