How can we make question period better?

For decades, experts have thought up ways to improve the most important hour of the day at Queen’s Park. Henry Jacek is one of them
By Steve Paikin - Published on June 5, 2019
Premier Doug Ford in the Ontario legislature
The hostile environment of question period has made it ineffective as a means of holding the government to account, according to some political observers. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Question period, in our Westminster parliamentary system, is either an effective (albeit theatrical) way for the opposition to hold the government to account, or it’s an utter waste of time that has become so hostile that teachers are now afraid to let their students attend, lest they be shown politics in its ugliest form.

Or both.

For decades at Queen’s Park, successive governments have tweaked question period in hopes of making it more relevant and civil. So far, it has to be said, they’ve done so without much success. But that hasn’t stopped generations of political scientists from advancing ideas that, they hope, might improve the most important hour of most politicians’ days.

Henry Jacek has been teaching political science at McMaster University for half a century. In 1975, he set up the legislative internship program at Queen’s Park, which gives university students a front-row seat to see how politics really works. (Each student staffs both a government and an opposition MPP’s office over a 10-month span). So Jacek has seen more than his share of question periods, and he’s come up with a list of suggestions that he thinks would make it more relevant.

Right off the top, he’d like to see more members afforded the right to ask questions, which would result in the party leaders hogging less of the limelight. He’d also eliminate “supplementary questions” so that even more members could have a chance to get some face time. “Westminster has no supplementary questions,” Jacek pointed out in a recent speech to the Association of Former Parliamentarians of Ontario. “That gets more members involved and improves the tone as well.”

The Speaker of the legislature is responsible for keeping things as orderly as possible. But, in our current system, they have no power to enforce that responsibility.

In Jacek’s view, the parties should decide who asks questions for the first 40 minutes of the hour-long session, but then the Speaker should decide who gets the floor during the final 20.

“Those members who misbehave or are insulting won’t get to ask any questions,” he says. “It’s a great disciplinary tactic.”

Jacek would go even further, empowering the Speaker to determine whether a minister’s answer has actually addressed the question asked. The longstanding joke in politics is that it’s called question period, not question-and-answer period — because, oftentimes, the questions aren’t answered at all. Jacek would give our Speakers (like those in the U.K.’s House of Commons) the power to call out ministers for non-answers.

Jacek has also lost patience with the annoying and “insipid” softball questions that too many government backbenchers ask. He says it takes time away from the important exercise of holding the government of the day to account.

One of his more controversial ideas is to ban clapping and desk-banging, the thing that teachers often point to when they criticize members for bad behaviour. Quebec’s National Assembly overwhelmingly opted to ban such displays, and the initial verdict is that it’s working well to encourage a more serious and respectful atmosphere in that chamber.

Doug Ford’s government has been notorious for taking the opposite approach. The premier and his senior officials urge (some would say “force”) backbenchers to give repeated, boisterous standing ovations after the premier or cabinet ministers have answered questions. That certainly raises the “rah-rah” energy level during question period, but it doesn’t do much to establish a collegial tone.

“Heckling and humour are okay,” Jacek clarifies. “But it’s gone too far, and now teachers are embarrassed to take their students to see question period.”

Are Jacek’s ideas worth pursuing? Tune in to The Agenda tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., where two former Speakers of the legislature (David Warner and Dave Levac), a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister (Janet Ecker), and Globe and Mail journalist Laura Stone will weigh in.

And for more on the ins and outs of question period, listen to TVO’s #onpoli podcast, hosted by John Michael McGrath and yours truly. It’s available for download from wherever you normally get your podcasts, or you can find it on our website.

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