What price, democracy?

Answering order paper questions costs money. So does all that clapping.
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

Conservative MP Mike Wallace was right to investigate how much it costs for the government to answer one set of written questions filed by opposition MPs. And Conservative MP John Carmichael is right to investigate how much it cost to answer another set of questions. And Conservative MP Brian Jean, since resigned, was right to investigate the cost to answer such questions on three different occasions in 2012.

For we must always think it right to scrutinize the spending of public money.

“I think,” Mr. Wallace says, “government and Parliament could run more efficiently and effectively in a lot of areas and this is just one little tiny example of where, are we sure we’re getting value for the dollar?”

Good question.

We might think that our democracy is so important that money should be no object—that no expense should be spared in pursuit of a more open society; that nothing else can be more deserving of our money than the foundational principles and institutions that bind us together as a people. But paying for democracy is basically like buying a quart of strawberries or a package of socks. The same question holds: Are you getting your money’s worth?

For instance, since 2006 the Harper government has spent $3.8 million advertising its programs and initiatives during television broadcasts of the NHL playoffs.

Now, one might think of all the answers to order paper questions that might’ve answered. But if the government had spent all that money answering questions posed by our elected representatives, it wouldn’t have had money to advertise a program that did not yet exist (the Canada Job Grant™) or its preferred three-word phrase for describing its approach to resource policy (Responsible Resource Development™).

And you’ll understand that that is the responsibility of a responsible government.

“Mr. Speaker,” Tony Clement informed the House this afternoon when the NDP’s Eve Peclet had the temerity to complain about the government’s ad buys, “the government has a responsibility to communicate with Canadians about programs and services available to them.”

A responsibility so important that Mr. Clement’s government has not seen fit to adopt a model whereby such advertising would be submitted to the office of the auditor general to ensure such communications were in order. You can just imagine how inefficient such a system would be.

Of course, a value-for-money audit might suggest other options. We could, for instance, construct a large public forum in a central location, in which appointed representatives of the government could stand and communicate important information about the government. We could probably do this in an abandoned airport hangar, but for the sake of impressing upon the public the value of the place, we could dress it grandly and make it very important-looking. These representatives could deliver speeches and those speeches could be televised and the press could be invited to report on those speeches. The setup costs might be high, but some kind of permanent forum of this sort would save us the cost of scripting, casting, shooting and airing a new ad each time the government decided it had done something that it wanted the public to know about.

Ms. Peclet’s question was followed by a similar complaint from the NDP’s Dan Harris. Mr. Harris was apparently unimpressed to learn that the government had spent $2.7 million in the last fiscal year to maintain regional offices for cabinet ministers, some of these offices apparently linked to “patronage.”

“Mr. Speaker,” explained Bernard Trottier, parliamentary secretary to the public works minister, “unlike the previous government, we believe that all Canadians should have reasonable access to government ministers’ officers.”

Once again, you might think of all the order paper questions that might be answered with that money. But then where would ministers sleep when they visited these towns? (They do sleep in these offices when they come to town, right? In the interests of ensuring value for money, they must.)

That both the amount of money spent on advertising during the NHL playoffs and the amount spent on ministerial offices were revealed as a result of order paper questions filed by opposition MPs might suggest some particular utility to the facet of our parliamentary system.

But still, couldn’t this business of getting answers from the government be done more cheaply?

We do already have time set aside each day for the opposition to ask questions of the government. But we are surely not getting all of the value we might wring out of that.

From Monday through Thursday, this business of Question Period tends to result in nearly all of our elected representatives gathering around for upwards of an hour, most of them with nothing to do for that hour beyond clap for the interventions from members of their team or perhaps yell something at someone on the other side. All while being paid, mind you. Think of the lost productivity that results in a year from the sheer amount of clapping that our MPs do. Think of the time and energy put to clapping that might’ve been put to something else. We’d probably have figured out how to get to Mars by now without all that clapping. Or at least found a way to regulate the GHG emissions of the oil and gas sector.

Consider the poor Conservative backbencher, who, if he or she does get to contribute to the official record, generally only stands to offer some unremarkable query or deliver some rant against someone on another team. This afternoon, Mr. Carmichael stood only to ask Mr. Clement what the government was doing to reduce the regulatory burden on smaller businesses. If we just went ahead and built that large public forum, we could have Mr. Clement stand and give speeches about such things and then Mr. Carmichael could have those 30 seconds back to do something else.

Here, indeed, is how we might save some real money. At present, we make maybe 100 more MPs than necessary sit in the House each afternoon for something like an hour. Now, granted, some of them wisely use that time to do other things. Like catch up on signing Christmas cards and such. But we could just as easily have them all spend that hour finding responses to those order paper questions.

And if they find themselves with some free time after doing all that, perhaps we could have them design a non-laughable access to information system.