If the House is broken, MPs should fix it

It is a time for choosing

Colin Horgan notes John Williamson’s concerns about the power of party whips to decide who asks questions during Question Period.

Here is what Mr. Williamson cited from the book, How Parliament Works.

Later, regarding questions in the commons, it states on page 337: One of the main opportunities for backbench MPs on all sides of the House to pursue and expose issues and to get the government of the day to put information on the public record is the question period. The very existence of parliamentary questions and the opportunities that they provide for the representatives of the people to question the government of the day are of constitutional importance. Their effectiveness has always been down to the tenacity and skill of individual MPs, but whether the system can survive the strains that are now being put upon it is also in the hands of MPs generally.

Here, meanwhile, are some of the questions Mr. Williamson has put to the government over the last several months.

Mr. Speaker, the Irving refinery is a key employer of highly paid workers in New Brunswick. I am proud to say I support a pipeline from Alberta to Saint John to support jobs and economic prosperity. The Minister of Natural Resources recently visited the Saint John refinery and expressed our government’s support for this pipeline. On the other hand, the NDP leader recently made unclear and contradictory remarks about the pipeline. Could the Minister of Natural Resources update this House on our government’s position on the west-east pipeline to Saint John?

The NDP and Liberals have chosen to ignore the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Police Association, victims organizations, immigration lawyers and experts and have voted against the faster removal of foreign criminals act. They are voting to allow foreign nationals who break the law to remain in Canada. With the final vote on this bill taking place tonight, can the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism please update this House on our government’s commitment to protect the safety and security of Canadians?

Mr. Speaker, it is easy to overlook the role that sound public policy has in building a strong economy. Our government is focused on job creation, growth and long-term prosperity. Since July 2009, Canada has created nearly 900,000 net new jobs, the strongest growth record in the G7. This did not happen by accident and despite ongoing global economic turbulence, Standard and Poor’s today reaffirmed Canada’s AAA credit rating, joining Moody’s and Fitch by again giving our country a top score. Could the Minister of Finance update the House on our economic record?

Mr. Speaker, the NDP has a plan to impose a carbon tax that would raise the price of everything and hurt the Canadian economy and job growth. The NDP’s $21 billion cap-and-tax scheme would punish job creators, raise the price of gasoline and diesel, and essentially tax everything made in Canada. Could the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans please inform the House how the NDP’s hidden tax agenda will punish fishing communities in Canada?

If the government whip no longer decided who got to ask questions each day, would Mr. Williamson have asked these questions of his own volition? If so, what good would it do to remove the power of party whips to determine the QP line-up? If not, why did he allow himself to be sent up with these questions? Does he believe he was fulfilling his duty of holding the government to account in asking these questions? Was he speaking for other MPs who feel the current system doesn’t work?

Those questions aside, the last bit of Mr. Williamson’s citation is important: “whether the system can survive the strains that are now being put upon it is also in the hands of MPs generally.” If MPs would rather the system function somewhat differently, they should move to change it. They are not captives. They are not hostages. They may be subject to any number and size of political pressures, but they are ultimately responsible for what they do or say in the fulfillment of their elected duties.

Chris Hall argues that anti-abortion MPs are cynically invoking the idea of MP independence.

He and his supporters argue MPs must be allowed to represent the views of their constituents, an argument that obscures the fact that this is the second attempt in six months to use their public platform to re-open the abortion debate against the express wishes of their party leader. It’s clever, and principled up to a point, though it is also totally cynical.

These same MPs haven’t said a peep in the past about being told what to say by the prime minister’s officials. They, and others, routinely devote members’ statements to read Conservative Party attacks on NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s “$20-billion-carbon tax” and the like. Before that, they just as routinely assailed then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff for ”just visiting” his home country. These statements hardly qualified as issues of local concern to an MP’s riding — the purpose of the daily 15 minutes devoted to member’s statements. And they are so similar in tone and content that it’s clear they’ve been written by a single hand.

Fair enough. Let’s allow that many MPs—including Mr. Williamson and Mr. Warawa—have allowed themselves to become regurgitators of party scripts. And let’s allow that abortion is the concern that convinced some MPs to demand a certain amount of independent thought and expression. Does that make it any less objectionable that Mr. Warawa’s motion was ruled out of order? Does that make it less objectionable that he was prevented by his party whip from delivering a statement in the House? Does that make it less objectionable that party whips decide who gets to speak during the time reserved each day for statements by members? Does that make it more acceptable that party whips have total control over who gets to ask questions during Question Period?

However we got here and whoever is to blame for it, we find ourselves in a bad place. And whoever created it and for whatever reason, an opening has now been presented. Any and every MP—pro-life, pro-choice or otherwise—now has an excuse to step forward and state their concerns. Whoever has something to say about the way the House of Commons functions on a daily basis, now has an opportunity to say it. Mark Warawa might have started this, but it is now a matter for every MP in the House. And it is MPs who are responsible for the chamber’s upkeep. It is our House, but it is they who we hire each election to mind the place. If we believe there is a problem, we should say so. And if they believe that something should be done, they should both say something and do something about it. It is a time for choosing.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.