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Political theatre.

For most Canadians who pay any attention, Question Period is the only part of the parliamentary process they see; unfortunately, it is probably Parliament's least important activity and the one that shows politicians in their worst light

Question Period is I rooted in the centuries-old British parliamentary system. It is designed to make sure that government is accountable to the people. All questions and answers are formally addressed to the Speaker of the House. The process gives MPs a chance to question the government on matters of state.

While some say Question Period is the essence of accountability in our democracy, others describe it as very bad theatre; a show that is about making speeches, not about seeking information.

"Question Period has always brought out the juvenile in MPs," writes Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson. "...it is the sheer intellectual emptiness of the whole affair that leaves such a bitter aftertaste...It's rough-and-tumble stuff at the best of times, the continuation of the election campaign by other means, the opposition's best platform... questions (are) designed exclusively to catch the media's attention...(and) you wonder why we in the media get sucked into playing the game every time."

An editorial in the same newspaper expresses another view: "Parliamentary debate...is a form of combat -- the combat of ideas. At its best, the combat is governed by the rules of chivalry: no shooting the wounded, no dumdum bullets, no round bayonets. But it is combat all the same. By its very nature, it is raucous, rude, fierce, and unruly.

"Trying to make it otherwise is both futile and destructive...It is vital that different views should be exposed to the most thorough, intense, and rigorous debate. It is inevitable, and in fact desirable, that the debate should be passionate, open, and unrestrained.

"...Nor should we quiver at the sound of invective or sarcasm, properly used...(to effectively make a point)

"Like it or not democracy is a noisy business."

The Question Period broadcast began in 1977. If politicians were previously putting on a show for their colleagues, their audience multiplied dramatically when the cameras started to roll. It may not be primetime TV, but the "political theatre" starts at 2:15 every afternoon (11:15 a.m. on Fridays). For 45 minutes members of the federal government respond to carefully drafted questions, mostly from the opposition. The otherwise quiet House of Commons swells with politicians, press-gallery members, and crowds of spectators.

The curtain rises and the stage is set for politicians to try to get their message across.

Here's a typical exchange from April 1997.

Chuck Strahl, Reform MP for Fraser Valley East rises to ask a question about employment. Mr. Strahl prefaces his question with a pungent attack on Liberal Party patronage appointments. This is a frequently used strategy and is tolerated by the Speaker, up to a point. If the partisan attack goes on too long the Speaker will direct the Member to ask the question. In this case, Mr. Strahl limits his statement to three or four sentences before asking his question: "Will the Prime Minister drop the Liberal agenda and come down to the people's agenda of jobs for ordinary Canadians, not just highly placed Liberal

Of course, Chuck Strahl is not really expecting a meaningful answer to so loaded a question. Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, sitting in for the Prime Minister, gives a typically meaningless response: "Mr. Speaker, I find it slightly hypocritical on the part of the Reform Party --"

Oops. Ms. Copps has gone too far and the Speaker stops her. Members are not allowed to call each other hypocrites, or liars, or a number of other things. So, the Speaker warns Ms. Copps to watch her language. Unaffected by the reprimand, Sheila Copps carries on: "Mr. Speaker, the Reform Party is publicly decrying the government for making investments in very important job creation issues. However, just before Question Period the Member for Edmonton Southwest (the Reform Party's Ian McClelland) slipped me a note asking if he could get a $40,000 government grant for someone in his constituency."

Chuck Strahl expresses outrage: "Mr. Speaker, I will let the member from Edmonton deal with this issue of funding for a centre for the handicapped. She can deal with that herself. It is interesting: once a rat packer, always a rat packer."

At this point, Ian McClelland, angrily yelled at Ms. Copps using a couple of swear words for which he was later hauled on the carpet.

Mr. Strahl launches into another attack: "Day after day the papers are revealing more about the avalanche of pre-election goodies being poured out by Liberals for Liberals...

And, so it goes, as insults are traded back and forth. Notice that at no point does anybody, questioner or questioned, address the issue of employment for Canadians.

The media compounds the problem. When Question Period is over the reporters pounce on Ian McClelland and grill him about the obscenities he used in the House.

While Question Period has been described as a relatively fact-free and low-fibre show, it's also seen as a primary way for everyone to learn what issues and politicians are hot.

Members want to give messages to their voters when they speak, up in Question Period. They're telling their constituents at home their Member of Parliament is on top of a particular issue.

If substance is not a top priority, style, and performance are. Cabinet ministers huddle with their staffs each morning to prepare for Question Period. They try to anticipate what questions will come up and rehearse their "answers." But, however well prepared, ministers must still be able to think on their feet and deal with the unexpected. Those that can't do this are likely to be savaged brutally. The whole process can be very intimidating even to experienced lawyers (which many MPs are).

It's a tough act which one observer says Prime Minister Jean Chretien handles well: "When he sits down after he's [been] asked a question, he'll glance our way and smile and kind of indicate that it is a bit of a game. I think he's quite good at fuzzifying and putting across this image of just a regular guy."

Those who can play the role are "rewarded" immediately after Question Period in the lobby outside the House of Commons. That's where journalists and politicians "serum," a term derived from rugby. (Oxford Dictionary defines the word as tussle, confused struggle, brawl.)

Watching reporters question MPs as they leave the House of Commons after Question Period might give the impression that it's the politician's who are under fire. In fact, the politicians control the game. In spite of seeming to be under siege, they can choose which questions to answer and when to move on.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney avoided the serum but sometimes spoke from a side stairway, always making sure he was physically several steps higher than the hordes of reporters. His lieutenants and then Opposition Leader Jean Chretien craved the serums to defend or promote their interests, to the point of hanging around waiting to be interviewed -- or "trolling for quotes," as both sides call it.

Not all MPs leaving the Commons are of interest to the waiting journalists. As the big stars leave, one of the serum explains that they "form around lesser lights, like moths shifting when a bulb burns out. If there is not a big story, any story is better than no story at all.

"Some opposition members stroll through several times, [looking] for microphones, occasionally getting nibbles, often being ignored."

In 1994, MPs pledged to make the House of Commons Question Period a more civilized forum for high-minded debate. But within an hour, it returned to "what it has always been -- a chance to try to score political points in the guise of soliciting information from government ministers."

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES:

1. "Question Period is that important high profile that (MPs) ignore at their own peril." Do you agree or disagree with this statement. Why? Discuss ways in which Question Period could be improved.

2. Have students watch Question Period which is broadcast daily on the Parliamentary Channel C-Plan when the House of Commons is in session. Ask students to discuss what they've seen and what it tells them about the democratic process.

FACT FILE

In 1991, it cost an average of $8,000 to research a question placed on the written order paper for Question Period.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Parliamentary Question Period in Canada
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Words:1411
Previous Article:Right system wrong place.
Next Article:The trust gap.
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