OTTAWA — How many government staffers do you need to polish a veteran Liberal’s “friendly” question for a government minister? The answer, according to internal emails released by the House of Commons’ health committee, is at least 10.
The emails were part of a new batch of documents released to the committee in its study of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The House approved a special production order in October that requested the ongoing release of relevant documents.
As a result, select emails between political staff that would usually fall outside the scope of the Access to Information Act are not exempt from disclosure.
On May 5, Muna Tojiboeva, a writer in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), emailed staff in two ministers’ offices with a draft of a “friendly” question Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia wanted to ask during the special committee on the COVID‑19 pandemic the next day.
Scarpaleggia is chair of the federal Liberal caucus. His question was for Health Minister Patty Hajdu.
Tojiboeva sent the proposed wording of the question to Hadju’s spokesperson Aisling MacKnight and Tristan Laycock, an advisor for Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand. Another MP staff member was also copied on the email.
Tojiboeva shared a draft of the question with MacKnight and Laycock. It included mention of “the obvious fears about the procurement of personal protective equipment.”
The Montreal-area MP also raised concerns about the private sector’s access to “this crucial equipment” and asked the health minister to “tell us whether the federal government will play a direct role in the supply chain for this crucial equipment.”
MacKnight responded to the email by saying the question seemed to be about Public Services and Procurement Canada’s supply council, an advisory group of public and private sector leaders announced two days earlier. The supply council is tasked to provide the government with “advice on the procurement of critical goods and services.”
“I have to defer to Tristan on this one,” MacKnight wrote in response to the email.
In a separate email thread, Laycock shared the draft of Scarpaleggia’s “friendly” question with five colleagues in the Public Services and Procurement minister’s office.
“MP Scarpalleggia [is] planning on asking this friendly tomorrow. I think the wording may go a bit too far, thoughts? Will send around a draft answer for review,” Laycock wrote in an email to his colleagues.
Anand’s parliamentary affairs director, Elliott Lockington, replied: “This is very strong.”
The next day, Laycock returned to the original thread with the PMO and health minister’s spokesperson. He included a version of “the response and revised Q that we worked on with MP Scarpaleggia.”
The revised version of Scarpaleggia’s question removed mention of “obvious fears” about PPE procurement.
Both the question and response drafted in the email closely matched the remarks Scarpalleggia and the health minister said in the chamber later that day during a segment of the special committee allotted for questions to ministers.
Watch: Liberal MP asks health minister ‘friendly’ question. Story continues below video.
The performance and ritual of question period has recently been on the minds of MPs.
Question period is a 45-minute block where members of Parliament get a daily opportunity to ask questions to a government minister, Board of Internal Economy spokesperson, or committee chair. Regularly, a government backbencher gets time to ask a “friendly” question. Members of all parties often read directly from notes in front of them.
On Monday, MPs resumed debate over the rules and procedures that govern proceedings in the House. Members from all parties shared their two cents on changes they would like to see to modernize House rules.
Bloc Québécois MP Denis Trudel, who worked as an actor before being elected to Parliament in 2019, said it’s the friendly questions the government asks itself during question period that he finds too self-congratulatory and “completely ludicrous.”
“Every question period, a Liberal backbencher asks a question to a Liberal minister,” Trudel said in French via a videoconference link. “The Liberal minister then has the audacity to thank the member for their very pertinent question, even though we know very well that the minister wrote the question and the answer is scripted.”
Conservative MP Eric Duncan compared scripted lines to a “crutch” members need to stop relying on.
The Green party’s parliamentary leader, Elizabeth May, suggested elected members’ reliance on reading notes is a disservice to the House of Commons.
“If we were confined to only those members of Parliament who could actually speak to the issue without notes, we would not be able to put up a bunch of wooden soldiers that last forever to block debate and make the House less functional.”
Liberal MP Scott Simms, who hasn’t had any qualms about breaking ranks with his own party, agreed with the point.
If members can’t stand in the House and speak for 10 minutes without relying on notes, they probably should not be here, he said.
“I am not diminishing the role of people who write speeches and send them off to the House of Commons to be read by whichever department or minister’s office. It is a part of who we are and a function of who we are,” Simms said
“However, we need to broaden this more to help people who want to speak freely and openly about these debates, whether it is something they feel, as a parliamentarian, is dear to their heart or it is something dear to the hearts of their constituents.”
Those sentiments, he said, “may not be caught up in a sound byte or a phrase the government or opposition wish to put out there, but it could be in their own words, which I think is very key to this. I would endorse that.”