A sad spectacle occurred in Question Period this Tuesday, with an exchange between Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair and Paul Calandra, the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Secretary. Mulcair asked the government whether the Canadian military mission in Iraq would extend beyond thirty days. Calandra responded by questioning the NDP's commitment to Israel by discussing inflammatory statements made by one of its fundraisers.
Mulcair, with a witty retort on Paul Calandra confusing Iraq and Israel, asked the question again, to which Calandra gave the same reply. After Mulcair tried for a third time, he used his subsequent question to challenge the Speaker's neutrality.
According to the House of Commons Compendium of Procedure, Government Ministers (or Parliamentary Secretaries acting on their behalf), when responding to a question, may:
- Answer the question
- Defer their answers
- Make short explanations as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or
- Say nothing
A Member cannot insist on an answer, and moreover:
"The Speaker has no authority to compel a particular Minister to respond to a question [...] The Speaker ensures that replies adhere to the dictates of order, decorum and parliamentary language. The Speaker, however, is not responsible for the quality or the content of replies to questions."
Attacking the neutrality of the Speaker, who is enforcing parliamentary procedure, is a serious charge to be levelled. It is a challenge against an impartial arbiter of Parliament. Thomas Mulcair often challenges Harper for failing to respect parliamentary institutions.
We must be careful to differentiate between substance and procedure in today's debacle. Mr. Mulcair would have been rightly justified in attacking the Conservatives for failing to respond to a pertinent question that the Canadian public deserves to know. After all, the Conservatives committed troops to Iraq, reportedly in a non-combat advisory role, without debate or a vote in the House of Commons. Calandra's disingenuous dodging of a critical issue should raise eyebrows. Why is the government not willing to defend its decision?
Indeed, the purpose of Question Period is to make the government defend its decisions in public. After witnessing today's spectacle, and the general lack of decorum and substance that permeates all such interactions, it seems like a thorough overhaul of procedure would be warranted. For instance, the Speaker should be able to reprimand a government response if the topic is changed.
Mulcair made the biggest blunder in the exchange. He failed to differentiate between substance and procedure. His frustration in his inability to get the government to respond is understandable, but as the rules currently dictate, the Speaker was enforcing the rules of Parliament. Mulcair's criticism of the Speaker in this scenario is thus akin to disrespecting the institution of Parliament itself.
It may be the case that a Speaker, who is elected to Parliament initially as a partisan MP, fails to carry out his duties in an impartial manner. As Andrew Wherry notes:
"There is perhaps something to be said for not thinking of the Speaker as beyond reproach. He is not quite the Pope. But the NDP leader might've mounted an actual argument here, rather than passively-aggressively questioning Scheer's fitness for the job."
Mulcair, an experienced legislator and lawyer, undoubtedly knew the procedure. And this wasn't the first time this issue had been raised. On January 28, Andrew Scheer delivered a ruling regarding government responses in Question Period:
"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. [...]
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 long-standing 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. [...]
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 to the House, the Chair will endeavour to implement any changes to the Standing Orders or to question period that the House chooses to adopt."
Mulcair should apologize for his misdeed and instead work with the other parties towards changing the rules of procedure to allow Question Period to serve its true purpose of holding the government to account. The institution of Parliament would be strengthened immensely if such an undertaking were to succeed.
Originally published in The Prince Arthur Herald.
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