How to Fix Question Period -- Part 2

01/09/2012 12:44 EST | Updated 03/09/2012 05:12 EST

In my previous post I looked at some steps that could be implemented to improve Question Period and at the same time help to fix our dysfunctional parliament. These included allowing the Speaker to skip over disruptive MPs whose names are on his list of questioners for that day, and extending Question Period beyond 3 p.m. when the government side wastes time with disruptive behavior or standing ovations for ministers.

Today I will suggest a few other Question Period remedies. Again, these don't require public consultations as was suggested for Michael Chong's major overhaul of Question Period. These are much easier to work out between the Speaker and opposition House Leaders.

It has long been a practice that the use of props is not permitted. The most recent example, although not part of Question Period itself, was Jason Kenney's use of a backdrop when appearing at a standing committee. These were ordered taking down when opposition members wisely protested.

To improve the flow in Question Period, as well as cut back on some of the negative attacks each side inflicts on the other, I would suggest the reading of notes when asking a question or a Question Period briefing book (on the government side) be treated the same as the use of props.

This would force MPs and cabinet ministers to ask and answer questions without reading them. It will also cut down on a lot of the fancy attack questions we see and stop a lot of the scripted answers we get from ministers. Both of these increase the temperature and bad blood between the opposing sides in the House. The government side resents the carefully-worded insults hurled at ministers and the opposition is frustrated when answers are read from a carefully prepared script that often ignores the question.

Gone would be a lot of the over-the-top attack questions that MPs or their staff have spent hours writing to get that perfect 10-second clip on TV. Gone too will be most of the pushback quotes the government side likes to use on opposition questioners.

It is a small step, but a lot of the negativism in Question Period comes from the use of these carefully worded questions and answers. It would be up to the House Leaders and the Speaker to agree on when exceptions might be allowed. For instance, quoting from media reports, quoting statistics, etc.

It would also be a small step to improving public perception of our MPs and ministers. Nothing is more boring than watching a minister stand and read an answer word for word. Especially when they read the same answer if asked several questions in a row. The public is left with the perception that the minister doesn't know the file when in reality they most likely do.

Are our MPs incapable of asking a 35 second question without reading it word for word? Are our ministers so poorly briefed that they can't respond to a question within 35 seconds without reading a scripted answer word for word?

The answer is that they are quite capable of doing so. Wouldn't it be nice to see MPs and ministers think on their feet for a change? At the same time this would highlight those MPs and ministers that are really good and flag those who don't measure up.

None of these suggestions by themselves will cure the ills of Question Period or eliminate the caustic atmosphere in the House, but when added together they will make a difference.

Keith Beardsley was a senior Conservative staffer with over two decades of experience with Question Period. His blog can be found here