01/30/2021 12:30 EST

Bigger Parties Are Blocking Greens From Asking Trudeau Questions: May

The Greens' parliamentary leader called the practice undemocratic and said it leaves her party's voters with less of a voice.

The Canadian Press
Former Green party leader Elizabeth May speaks ahead of the party's leadership announcement in Ottawa on Oct. 3, 2020.

OTTAWA — The Green Party is accusing mainstream parties of freezing it out of chances to question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament.

The Greens’ parliamentary leader, Elizabeth May, raised the alarm this week on what she described as an undemocratic practice that leaves the 1.1 million Green Party voters in the country with less of a voice in the House of Commons.

The Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP have conspired to “block” the Greens from holding Trudeau’s feet to the fire by preventing her party from asking questions on Wednesdays — the day the prime minister responds to questions from all MPs — she told HuffPost Canada Friday. 

Nobody will confirm who took the lead, or who, if anyone, opposed the move, May said, “but definitely the House leaders of the Conservatives, Liberals, Bloc and NDP signed off on rules to the Speaker that said none of the Green MPs, not Jody Wilson-Raybould, nobody who isn’t in one of our parties will ever have a question on Wednesday.”

What’s more, she added, the Greens now have to share the weekly question slots reserved for independent MPs with the rejected MPs from major parties.

The Canadian Press
Green Party MP Paul Manly rises in the House of Commons on April 20, 2020 in Ottawa.

In a call with the media, B.C. Nanaimo—Ladysmith Green MP Paul Manly said Canada needs to get rid of its first-past-the-post system of electing MPs and develop better rules for the House of Commons.

“Now we have to compete in the House of Commons with a rogue gallery of MPs who were kicked out of every other party for corruption, for nepotism, for pandering to, you know, right-wing white supremacists, for criminal charges,” he said.

“And when we get back into the House of Commons we are going to be sitting there [with them] and there goes the neighbourhood,” Manly added. 

Question slots for independents

At issue is the number of question period slots independent members of Parliament are granted. Back in 2019, when three Green MPs were elected and Jody Wilson-Raybould won her Vancouver seat as an independent, the four MPs were granted four slots total a week — albeit none on Wednesday when Trudeau is present and the media spotlight is on.

But now there are four additional independents:

- Kitchener South—Hespeler MP Marwan Tabbara, booted from the Liberal caucus after being arrested on charges of assault, harassment and breaking and entering;

- Don Valley East MP Yasmin Ratansi, also removed from Liberal caucus for breaking House of Commons’ rules by hiring her sister to work in her office;

- Hastings—Lennox and Addington MP Derek Sloan who was turfed from the Conservative caucus after leader Erin O’Toole accused him of accepting a $131 donation from a known white supremacist. (Sloan said he was unaware of the donation and asked the party to return the sum, but his colleagues still gave him the boot, angered by the negative spotlight he brought and fed up with his antics);

- and Brampton Centre MP Ramesh Sangha, who was just shown the door Monday by the Liberal caucus after he was accused of making “baseless and dangerous accusations” against a number of his colleagues. (In a Jan. 21 radio interview with South Asian radio Channel Y, Sangha accused former innovation minister Navdeep Bains of being a Khalistani extremist. There is no evidence of this.)

While some independents — such as Rantasi, who has asked only one question since September — seem uninterested in asking questions, the Greens worry their usual thrice weekly slots are at risk — and their chance of raising issues of concern to their constituents will further dwindle.

“Derek Sloan is dead keen to grab questions,” May noted as one example.

May said she’s written three times to the larger parties, begging them to change their minds, and allow her party a bit of mid-week limelight. But she’s been met with stone cold silence.

“We didn’t get a single answer from any party.”

Asked whether he is prepared to give an additional question period slot to the Greens, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told HuffPost the current rules are fair.

“The general idea being that an official party should ask questions makes sense to me,” he responded.

The Canadian Press
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday.

Any party with more than 12 MPs elected to the Commons becomes an officially recognized party. With that status comes hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra funding, salary bumps to MPs in key caucus roles, voting seats on committees, and the ability to question the government every day of the week.

The Conservatives, with 120 MPs, typically have 76 questions a week (24 on Mondays and Thursdays, 25 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays); the Bloc Quebecois, with 32 MPs, has 32 questions a week (six on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, seven Mondays and Thursdays); the NDP, with 24 MPs, has 25 questions (five per day), and the Liberals, who have 154 MPs —  78 if you subtract cabinet ministers, parliamentary secretaries and the speaker — have 18 questions a week (three per day).

Singh said the four weekly rotating slots for independent MPs were “put in place to reflect the will of the people, and that an official party has certain abilities to reflect people more than independents, and I understand that.”

It’s something, Singh added, “that has been decided as part of our electoral system.”

Still, he said, he’d “reflect on it.”

The number of questions MPs are granted to hold the government to account isn’t specifically determined by the electoral system but rather it developed over several decades through the behaviour of larger, recognized parties in the House of Commons. 

The Canadian Press
Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota rises in the chamber as he delivers a statement in the House of Commons on July 22, 2020.

Friday, the recognized parties were unwilling to acknowledge the role they play in dividing up the questions, putting the blame — or the responsibility — at the feet of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic … members from all parties, including the Green party, and independent members, have asked many questions,” said Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez’ spokesperson, Simon Ross, in an email.

“Questions about the rotation are best put to the Speaker,” he added.

Conservative House Leader Gérard Deltell’s spokesperson Nathan Ellis told HuffPost question period questions are allocated in proportion to the number of seats held by each party.

“Conservatives respect the Speaker and the rules that govern the House,” he wrote.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said the NDP feels it is already shortchanged by only getting five questions each day. Julian said he approached Rota about increasing the New Democrats’ allotment to six but the Speaker wouldn’t budge from the larger parties’ negotiated agreement. Losing one question in order to give it to the Greens, Julian suggested, is not in the cards.

All MPs are technically equal in the chamber but political parties have wrestled a lot of power away from individual members of Parliament. When MPs have been given the chance to offer independents a larger voice, at least twice since 2007, they have refused.

The latest offer came in the fall of 2018, when then-speaker Geoff Regan declined to offer the independents, then numbering 15, a 15th slot. The group, which included 10 Bloc Quebecois MPs, had been granted 14 slots a week to ask questions.

Regan said the speaker “endeavoured to call on independent members to ask questions that roughly matched their proportion in the House” but that “the allotment of the different speaking slots ... has historically been determined through extensive discussions among the recognized political parties.”

He felt “the current allotment of 14 questions per week for independent members maintains an appropriate balance with respect to the management of time, the rights of independent members,” but he welcomed any direction from the House either “through negotiations between the parties and independent members” or by way of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. This was never acted on.

A footnote in the “House of Commons Procedure and Practice” resource book, states that: “The general principle observed since the time of Speaker [Peter] Milliken is that independent Members are entitled to their mathematical proportion of questions.”

May argues the 40 daily question slots — 39 on Wednesdays — should be rejigged in order to ensure independents have the weight their numbers now suggest.

Rota’s office declined to weigh in specifically on the dispute.

“At the beginning of each Parliament, the recognized parties negotiate the order and percentage of questions each party will get and the different rotations schedule of debates. This is shared with the Speaker for his or her guidance,” spokesperson Heather Bradley told HuffPost.

The Canadian Press
Green Party Parliamentary Leader Elizabeth May speaks during a news conference after the presentation of the government's fiscal snapshot on July 8, 2020.

Canada, May notes, is the only country with a Westminster system of Parliament which has granted such lopsided rights to recognized parties.

If each party were to give up one Wednesday question a month, the Greens would likely get at least one a month, she said.

“The impact on [the major parties] as a caucus would be infinitesimal, but at least one of us would have the chance,” she said.

The issue, May added, has dragged on long enough.

“We’ve been protesting it for more than a year now. I’ve tried negotiating with all the other parties. The Speaker is aware of it but he leaves it for us to try to get someone, anyone, to explain this to us….

“I just think [this] would surprise Canadians. That there could be that kind of closed-door decision by the bigger parties to reduce the rights that [we] used to have.”

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