Andrew Scheer on Question Period

The Speaker explains his approach
House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer stands during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday November 29, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Yesterday the Speaker intervened during a question by Liberal MP Scott Andrews and this morning, in response to a point of order raised by NDP House leader Nathan Cullen in December, Andrew Scheer addressed the House about the parameters for questions and responses during Question Period. I’ve fussed over these issues before—see here, here, here and here—with some general feeling that the Speaker might adopt a stricter understanding of what is and isn’t worth the House’s time (including, at that last link, my submission that the Speaker might cut responses short on occasion).

Here is how Speaker Scheer explained his approach to the daily airing of grievances.

On December 9, 2013, the hon. House Leader of the Official Opposition (Mr. Cullen) raised various issues relating to Question Period.  Other Members from all parties in the House have from time to time voiced similar concerns.  In view of the desire for clarification regarding the rules and practices governing the conduct of Question Period, I undertook to return to the House and I would like to take a few minutes now to address the principles that govern this proceeding.

A good place to start is Chapter 11 of the second edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice which describes the evolution of Question Period from an historical perspective.  What is immediately apparent is that the practice of Members posing oral questions to the government has been a part of our daily proceedings since before Confederation.  The longevity and staying power of this practice flow from the very principles that underpin our system of parliamentary democracy. 

As House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, states at page 491:

(quote) “The right to seek information from the Ministry of the day and the right to hold that Ministry accountable are recognized as two of the fundamental principles of parliamentary government.  Members exercise these rights principally by asking questions in the House. The importance of questions within the parliamentary system cannot be overemphasized and the search for or clarification of information through questioning is a vital aspect of the duties undertaken by individual Members.” (unquote)

That is not to say that it is only recently that the conduct of Question Period has become a topic of public debate.  On the contrary, virtually every Speaker, at one time or another, has had something to say about Question Period. 

In the 1870s for example, when Question Period was still in its infancy, Speaker Anglin declared that Members ought to confine themselves to seeking information from the Government and that it was not appropriate to (quote) “proceed to descant on the conduct of the Government” (unquote).  By the 1940s, Speaker Glen was pointing to the need for questions to be brief and that these (quote) “must not be prefaced by any argument” (unquote).  It was always understood, of course, that questions were to relate to matters that were “urgent and important”.  Other guidelines came and went, depending on the times. 

In the early 1960s, Speaker McNaughton unsuccessfully tried to enforce several long-standing unwritten rules regarding the content of questions.

In 1964 a report by a special committee set out certain guidelines respecting questions and went so far as to say that (quote) “answers to questions should be as brief as possible, should deal with the matter raised, and should not provoke debate” (unquote). 

In the 1970s, O’Brien and Bosc tells us at page 495, Question Period became (quote) “an increasingly open forum where questions of every description could be asked” (unquote), this despite Speaker Jerome having identified several principles underlying QP and issuing guidelines for its conduct.  Many attributed these developments to the advent of the television era but whatever the cause, this trend to a more free-wheeling Question Period continued unabated by a statement made by Speaker Bosley in the mid-1980s aimed at curtailing the lack of discipline.

A simple review of the section entitled Principles and Guidelines for Oral Questions, found at pages 501 to 504 of O’Brien and Bosc, shows just how many of these “guidelines” have fallen into disuse, some fairly recently.  Throughout all these changes, one thing remains clear: the Speaker, as the servant of the House, can enforce only those practices and guidelines the House is willing to have enforced.  Very often the particular circumstances of the moment dictate how far the Speaker can go without unduly limiting the freedom of speech of Members.

But when content causes disorder, the Speaker must step in, all the while acting within the confines of our rules and practices.  This is particularly necessary given that this House is one of the few Westminster-style deliberative assemblies where neither the question nor the topic of the question need be submitted beforehand.  While this certainly makes for a lively and much watched parliamentary exercise, it does little to make the Speaker’s job any easier.

The main purpose of Question Period is undoubtedly the opportunity it provides to the legislative branch to seek information from the executive and to hold the government to account.  This opportunity is particularly important for the opposition parties.  We all recognize that the opposition has the right and, indeed the duty, to question the conduct of the government, and every effort must be made in the enforcement of our rules to safeguard that right.  But the government can only be held to account for matters that fall within its administrative responsibilities.

For example, that is why my predecessors and I have frequently ruled out of order questions regarding election expenses.  Elections Canada is an independent, non-partisan agency of Parliament.  While in a technical sense, there is a Government Minister responsible for Elections Canada (the Minister transmits the agency’s estimates, for example), the fact remains that the Chief Electoral Officer reports to the House through the Speaker.  As Speaker Milliken noted in a ruling given on October 22, 2007, at page 209 of Debates, it is difficult to ask questions about Elections Canada to the Government, unless there is a link to the administrative responsibilities of the government (a link such as questions about changes in the law respecting Elections Canada, for example). 

It is for similar reasons that questions that concern internal party matters or party expenses, or refer to proceedings in the Senate or the actions of Senators, or indeed of other Members, risk being ruled out of order.  On the latter point, as Speaker Milliken stated in a ruling on June 14, 2010, found in Debates at page 3778, (quote) “the use of […] preambles to questions to attack other Members does not provide those targeted with an opportunity to respond or deal directly with such attacks.” (unquote)  Thus, unless a link to the administrative responsibilities of the government can be established early in the question to justify them, such questions can be and indeed have been, ruled out of order by successive Speakers.  I discovered this myself once when in my early days in the Opposition, a question of mine was ruled out of order by Speaker Milliken. 

As always, however, the Speaker faces many challenges in applying the rules the House has set out.  Anytime a Speaker rules a question out of order, the Member concerned will claim a legitimate reason for asking it: will claim that it is in the public interest; will claim it is something that Canadians have a right to know; will claim that there is no longer a distinction between acting as party leader and leading the party in the House – and the list goes on.

But the Speaker must adhere to the longstanding principle that Question Period is intended to hold the government to account.  I have to look at whether the matter concerns a government department, or a minister who is exercising ministerial functions, as a minister of the Crown, and not just as a political figure or as a member of a political party.  The Speaker must ask whether the question was actually touching upon those types of government responsibilities, or whether it was about elections or party finances or some other subject unrelated to the actual administrative responsibilities of the government.

These principles apply to everyone who gets an opportunity to pose questions in Question Period – including backbench Members of the governing party.  Indeed, because the fundamental purpose of Question Period is to provide a forum for the legislative branch to hold the executive to account, it is meant to be an opportunity – for those Government Members fortunate enough to get the floor – to ask probing questions of the Government on matters that fall within its administrative responsibilities.  That said, it is not surprising to hear what might be called “friendly” questions from these Members, since they are, after all, supporters of the Government. 

But lately, we have witnessed a growing trend: we hear preambles to questions that go on at some length to criticize the position, statements or actions of other parties, Members from other parties and, in some cases, even private citizens, before concluding with a brief question about the Government’s policies.

What we have, therefore, is an example of a hybrid question, where the preamble is on a subject that has nothing to do with the administrative responsibility of the Government, but which concludes, in the final 5 or 10 seconds, with a query that in a technical sense manages to relate to the Government’s administrative responsibilities.  The House needs to ask itself if taken as a whole – lengthy preamble and desultory query – can such a question reasonably be assumed by a listener to respect the principles that govern our Question Period?  I would submit that it is because this formulation is actually about other parties and their positions, not about the Government – that I have had to rule such questions out of order from time to time.

To complicate matters, as I said on December 1, 2011 (Debates, p. 3875), the Speaker is called upon to make decisions about the admissibility of questions on the fly.  In that regard, since Members have very little time to pose their questions and the Chair has even less time to make decisions about their admissibility, it would be helpful if the link to the administrative responsibility of the government were made as quickly as possible.

Accordingly, these kinds of questions will continue to risk being ruled out of order and Members should take care to establish the link to government responsibility as quickly as possible.

With this approach in mind, let me turn now to the issue of answers to questions. 

There has been much discussion recently about the nature of answers during Questions Period, with calls for the Speaker to somehow intervene, citing practices in other countries.

It is true that there may be slight differences in the way Question Period is managed elsewhere due to each country’s unique set of traditions, but it is equally without doubt a widespread practice and tradition in Westminster-style parliament that the Chair does not judge the quality or relevance of answers.

For instance, it states on page 565 in Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, Third Edition, that:

(quote) “While Ministers are required to “address” the question asked in their replies, whether the reply provided actually “answers” the question asked is a subjective judgment.  It is no part of the Speaker’s role to make such a judgment.” (unquote)

In South Africa, a similar practice prevails and, according to the National Assembly Guide to Procedure, 2004, on page 211, (quote) “the Chair regulates the proceedings in the House, (but) it is not possible for the Chair to dictate to Ministers how they should reply to questions.” (unquote)

In the United Kingdom, Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 24th edition, at page 356 states:

(quote) “The Speaker’s responsibility in regard to questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House. Responsibility in other respects rests with the Member who proposes to ask the question, and responsibility for answers rests with Ministers.” (unquote) 

Each Parliament has its own traditions.  Successive Speakers in our House have maintained our tradition of not intervening in respect of answers to questions and I do not intend to change that.  For me to deviate from this longstanding practice would require an invitation from the House, probably stemming from a review of our rules by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

Given the widespread concern and commentary about Question Period, all Members may want to consider how the House can improve things so that observers can at least agree that Question Period presents an exchange of views and provides some information.  The onus is on all Members to raise the quality of both questions and answers.

While the framework, mechanisms and procedures associated with Question Period have evolved with time, its raison d’être and core principles have remained intact.  All Members, both in Government and in Opposition, need to ask themselves:  Is Question Period a forum that Canadians can look at and conclude that it constitutes a proper use of Members’ time? 

The principle of responsible government is that the government has to provide an accounting for where the money goes and to provide reasons for why decisions are made. In the Chair’s view, it takes a partnership between the Opposition and the Government to demonstrate a willingness to elevate the tone, elevate the substance, and make sure that Question Period is being used to do the job that we were elected to do, which is to represent our constituents, advance ideas, and hold the government to account.

In conclusion, I will continue to rule questions out of order that do not establish a direct link to the administrative responsibilities of the government.  In the same sense, so-called hybrid questions will also continue to risk being ruled out of order where this link is not quickly demonstrated.  Members should take care when formulating their questions, and establish this link as soon as possible in posing their questions to ensure that the Chair does not rule what may be a legitimate question out of order.

The onus is on all Members to raise the quality of questions and answers during Question Period.  The Chair notes with interest that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has been instructed to undertake a review of the Standing Orders.  As the servant of the House, the Chair will endeavour to implement any changes to the Standing Orders or to Question Period that the House chooses to adopt.

I thank all honourable Members for their attention to this important matter.

The Speaker’s suggestion that government members might ask “probing questions” is a conceivably important idea. At this point, it is probably taken for granted that the few questions allotted to the government side each day will be used to lob friendly queries at government ministers—stuff like the first questions asked by new Conservative MPs Terry Falk and Larry Maguire yesterday.

But, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. MPs belonging to the governing party might, instead, raise actual matters of concern. Without blasting their own side, they might ask questions that do not seem like arranged opportunities for the government to expound on its greatness. This is the sort of idea that the Speaker’s ruling on Mark Warawa’s question of privilege might have theoretically presaged and you might include it in any dream about what the House of Commons might be like: a place where the line-up for Question Period is not entirely determined by the lists submitted by the party whips and where MPs on the government side sometimes use that time to raise questions they or their constituents have about government policy.