The last two years have been marked by direct challenges to parliamentary authority: from last year’s battles over detainee documents and the government’s rejection of calls for political staff to testify before parliamentary committees to a current squabble over the government’s refusal to turn over technical information related to its own legislation. But if the government is susceptible to charges of disrespect, the opposition—divided and fearful—has not always functioned as an effective check on authority.
And abuse, whatever the source, may be a natural result of disregard. When it came time last fall to present the traditional economic update that follows the budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did so in a speech to the Mississauga Chinese Business Association, on the Tuesday of a parliamentary break week. Opposition MPs fumed that Flaherty was avoiding the accountability of the House, but the chamber is rarely the scene of a closely watched address. Aside from the residential schools apology, two addresses on the arrival of foreign dignitaries, and customary replies to two Throne Speeches, Prime Minister Harper’s remarks to the House over the last three years have been almost entirely limited to the 35-second replies of question period.
“I worry about it,” says NDP MP Joe Comartin, about the state of Parliament. “I don’t think we can continue on this path for much more than another five or 10 years. We are eroding… the role of individual parliamentarians. And eroding the role of the ministers as well. Eroding the role of committees. Eroding the debate, the importance of debate and the effect of that debate on the public discussion. We have to reverse that course.”
By 1 p.m. on that recent Thursday, the House is ready for a vote on the proposed amendments to the Aeronautics Act. A sufficient number of MPs enter the House from the adjacent lobbies to ensure the necessary quorum—just 20 MPs are required. The acting speaker asks for those in favour to say yea, those opposed to say nay. In her opinion, the yeas have it, but a recorded vote of all members is requested for the following week. (It will pass with all but the NDP voting in favour.) The House then moves to consideration of a free-trade pact with Panama.
As the clock nears 2 p.m., the noise of humanity begins to fill the House. The benches on both sides are suddenly occupied; the south gallery fills with tourists and interested observers. Invited guests and staff members file into the east and west galleries. Even the press gallery sees a half dozen reporters.
Monday through Thursday, question period—”oral questions” on the official schedule—takes place for 45 minutes each afternoon, starting at 2:15 p.m. The 15 minutes immediately preceding are reserved for statements by members. During this time, any MP may stand to speak for one minute on a topic of his or her choosing. Mostly it is a time for members to honour favourite causes and constituents. On this day, Deepak Obhrai rises to address a recent spate of executions in Iran. Liberal Jean-Claude D’Amours salutes several award-winning entrepreneurs in his riding of Madawska-Restigouche. In recent years, despite objections from Speaker Milliken about the personal nature of some attacks, this time has also become an extension of question period: MPs rising to spout uncontested partisanship on the off chance anyone’s paying attention. This afternoon, Liberals Shawn Murphy and Yasmin Ratansi rise to respectively condemn Conservative policy on taxation and foreign affairs, while Conservative Tilly O’Neill-Gordon praises government efforts in her riding of Miramichi.
The 45 minutes that follow are both the most-watched and most-bemoaned portion of each day in Ottawa. In its wake, there are regular complaints about decorum, mindless partisanship and unanswered questions, most of which may misunderstand entirely what it is that ails the House. “Decorum,” says Comartin, “is almost more of a symptom than it is a disease itself.”
Monday through Thursday, question period brings perhaps 250 MPs to the House. The vast majority will have no direct involvement in what follows. They are here not to speak, but to sit around those who are speaking and nod their heads for the sake of the television cameras. They are here to stand and clap and cheer for their side and heckle and sneer at the other. A few government backbenchers will be given the honour of rising to ask a planted question of whichever cabinet minister has something self-aggrandizing to say that day. Here the MP is at once at his most prominent and least useful.
Immediately following this show, there are often complaints from the floor—MPs rising on points of order or privilege to claim some slight or offer some further argument of an issue raised. Mostly these interventions come to nothing, seemingly raised only for the sake of getting something on the record. On this day, Liberal Wayne Easter will rise to complain that his involvement in plans to run an underwater cable between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick has been misrepresented by Transport Minister Chuck Strahl. Government House leader John Baird will then stand to ridicule Easter’s version of events. Speaker Milliken will dismiss the dispute. “I do not think that is a point of order. It sounds like a dispute as to facts,” he says. “I suggest we move on to orders of the day.”
By 3:20 p.m., moments removed from question period, there are just 15 MPs in the House as debate resumes on free trade with Panama. In the relative quiet, Scott Brison, a lively and entertaining speaker, engages in a spirited back-and-forth with the NDP’s Peter Julian, an insistent orator, over the moral obligation of international trade and the politics of Central America.