Keith Beardsley Headshot

Why Cullen Can't Make Question Period More Civil

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Bravo to Nathan Cullen, the NDP House Leader, for at least attempting to clean up the poor decorum in the House. However, I doubt his suggestions will go anywhere as the Conservatives will have to cooperate and that is unlikely. The Conservatives will give the standard answers that they want to see more civility, but Cullen's motion will be shunted off to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and like the previous recommendations of Michael Chong, they will sit there gathering dust.

Cullen is right to focus on the issue of SO 31s being used solely for attack purposes. All sides use them to ramp up the rhetoric and all sides are guilty of misusing them to batter the other side. Why not ask all of the House Leaders to agree that the Standing Orders be amended in such a way as to limit the topics that can be discussed in an SO 31? Either that or do away with them altogether. In this day and age MPs have numerous ways to congratulate constituents or to flag individual contributions in their ridings. The SO31 is fast becoming a relic of the past.

It is almost impossible for the Speaker to discipline MPs for using extreme distortion of facts. That would involve them entering into the area of debate. That is not a situation most Speakers are likely to get involved in. At the same time, no Speaker can be an expert on all issues raised in the House and it's impossible for them to be able to decide in a split second whether an item or claim made in an SO31 is accurate or not.

Cullen wants to give the Speaker the power to suspend MPs and dock the pay of repeat offenders. However, Speakers have suspended MPs in the past; the catch is they have to be willing to do it. In the Mulroney years, MPs were suspended from the House, usually for a 24-hour period or until they apologized for their misdeed.

It didn't always work as on occasion to get that extra bit of media coverage that the MP wanted, getting thrown out of the House for a day or so provided a bit of incentive for bad behavior. I do recall a few of those suspensions being handed out to NDP MPs as well for a variety of offences that were deemed by the Speaker to be unparliamentarily.

If the offender is an opposition MP it is quite simple for the Speaker to skip over that individual in Question Period. If they are not in the Question Period line up (don't forget the Speaker has a list of all questioners for that day) then skip over one of that party's questions. It won't take long for party leaders and their House Leaders to realize that their side is hurting by not getting to ask questions that could earn them media coverage.

The government side is harder to discipline as the only questions they ask are the phony softball questions Conservative MPs lob at their own ministers.

On the government side, using up time in Question Period through the use of numerous standing ovations, extended applause for government answers, disruptive behaviour that requires the Speaker to stand to gain control of the House, works. The more time you waste, the fewer questions the opposition can ask.

The government side simply wants Question Period to end. They want to escape without some minister or parliamentary secretary messing up and handing the opposition further ammunition. Extending Question Period takes away any advantage gained through that type of behavior.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Cullen's proposals. Will they join Michael Chong's on the shelf or will all sides see it is in their best interests to improve decorum in the House?