Question period: A good waste of an afternoon

At least if you attend QP, it’s a chance to catch up on reading

Leona Aglukkaq (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Returning to the House of Commons with his veterans affairs minister in need of defence, the Prime Minister first assured members that the department had a very capable deputy minister. He then attempted to counter the Opposition’s complaint about the minister’s absence of last week.

“As for the travels of the minister of Veterans Affairs, the minister of Veterans Affairs was in Italy with veterans of the Second World War, who were celebrating the 70th anniversary of that successful Canadian military campaign,” Stephen Harper explained. “I can think of no greater honour than for the minister of Veterans Affairs to accompany those Canadian veterans.”

Well, sure. Unless you imagine that our veterans might have been implicitly honoured by the very act of a minister standing in our national legislature to immediately respond to the auditor general’s concerns about the performance of his department—as if that tangible act of accountability might hold some profound worth as a demonstration of the principles of peace, order and good government on which this country rests.

Which is not to say that the act of doing so would have looked or sounded at all profound. Had Julian Fantino been in the House and not in Italy last week, the minister would have stood and read aloud roughly the same lines that were delivered in his place by the Prime Minister, the defence minister and Fantino’s parliamentary secretary. The New Democrats and Liberals would have conveyed their complaints and the minister would have put his reassurances and retorts on the official record and, possibly, no one would have come away feeling better about much of anything in particular.

Which is not to suggest futility.

You’ll understand that there is also now some consternation at the sight of the environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, reading a newspaper while another minister answered a question about the welfare of citizens in Aglukkaq’s riding. On the evening news last night, this was described as a “telling moment.”

We might debate what, precisely, we should take away from the image.

As a general rule, one is probably not advised to be seen demonstrating such disregard for a seemingly relevant discussion. In fairness to the minister, the precise subject matter of the questions asked was most applicable to another minister’s portfolio and, in addition to being our pre-eminent forum of accountability, question period is also something of a waste of time—most literally in the case of MPs and ministers who are made to sit there every afternoon so as to fill out camera frames and be seen applauding their side, and who then pass the time fiddling with their phones or paperwork.

More profoundly, it is to wonder whether the act of reading a newspaper during QP is any more telling than what more officially occurs between 2:15 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

Pestered for the umpteenth time this afternoon to account for this country’s greenhouse gas emissions and the distinct lack of national regulations for the oil and gas sector, Aglukkaq read a sort of medley of the greatest hits, including that old (ridiculous) chestnut about how things would have been so much worse under the Liberals, and the other (ridiculous) one about how at least the government hasn’t introduced a carbon tax. If we might hope that question period could be a forum for truly discussing the difficult policy questions and choices of climate change, today was another example of how far that hope would have us traverse. And if reading the newspaper is more glaring, we might debate which is more galling.

But Aglukkaq would merely be a convenient symbol. The environment can probably claim to be our most stagnant debate, on all sides (the New Democrats and Liberals are right to agitate for answers, but it would be lovely to hear their alternative proposals). And even if the environment minister’s responses have become so repetitive as to tempt the creation of a mid-afternoon drinking game (if it would better to engage twentysomethings in our politics, we might want to give it a try), she is hardly alone in her rote approach. If question period can seem a waste of time, it is not least because of the banality of message discipline, typified by the white piece of paper or blue cue card taken in hand and dutifully read into Hansard for eternal preservation, most sadly by governing party backbenchers sent up to ask pseudo-questions so that ministers might be given 35 seconds to grandstand.

Which is not to say that those who don’t merely read are always shining examples of the sort of debate we might hope for, merely that they have exceeded a relatively low standard.

Which is to say that QP is in desperate need of small measures of reform: more time for each question and each response, an end to the party lists that determine who gets to ask questions, a rotation of ministerial appearance so that not every minister is expected to be there every day, the adoption of the urgent question procedure that allows for a minister to be summoned to the House, and perhaps some allowance for an emboldened Speaker, the general goal being an exchange, and a Parliament that befits a 21st-century, First-World democracy.

Which is also not to say that, at least in the meantime, Pat Martin’s ability to express indignation doesn’t remain something of a national treasure. Perhaps not a treasure we’d want to see displayed too often, but a gem worth showing off every once in awhile.

It was Martin this afternoon who asked a question that would go entirely unanswered. Seems Martin is troubled by recent events at the Canadian Wheat Board, so he sought to question the agriculture minister.

“My question is simple, and I ask it through you, Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Martin explained, rather demurely for what he was about to shout across the aisle. “Has the minister lost his freaking mind?”

The Opposition side laughed and cheered, the government side howled.

“Order, please,” begged the Speaker. “That is extremely unhelpful.”

Well, sure. In words, most certainly, this was not the sort of thing to be encouraged. But in sentiment and symbol, there remains much to commend a system that obliges our government to be challenged and hectored and sometimes yelled at on a daily basis.

There was shouting, too, from the Liberal Rodger Cuzner, who is quite good at yelling, and later, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair re-emerged to challenge something the Justice minister had said earlier, and there followed some cross words about gun regulation between the NDP leader and the Public Safety minister and, even if it was possibly the sort of thing you’d be tempted to casually dismiss as objectionable, we were possibly the better for it.

The questions might not always be useful and the responses might generally be banal and the time might be better used by some, but, with question period, the smudged crown jewel of our federal Parliament, it remains that grinding mediocrity is not to be confused with futility.

For one thing, it is somewhere the politician can’t quite hide. Even when absent.