Inside Politics

HouseWatch: When it comes to Commons debate, silence isn't always golden

As previewed in OotD, NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen kicked off the week by continuing his party's proud tradition of decrying the dearth of decorum in the House of Commons. In presenting his latest pitch for a kinder, gentler Question Period, however, Cullen may have unwittingly confirmed that, once again, the Official Opposition appears to be more preoccupied by the challenge of providing camera-ready clips for the nightly news than in actually holding the government to account.  

Rather than encourage the speaker to take direct, immediate action against members who actually interfere with the proceedings -- by warning them by name, and expelling them from the Chamber if necessary --  Cullen appears to be endorsing a form of collective punishment that would restrict the rights of individual MPs based on the actions of their caucus colleagues -- one that would indeed have a far more significant effect on the ability of opposition MPs to do the job for which they have been sent to Ottawa than it would those on the Conservative backbench. 

There is, after all, a reason why government MPs get fewer questions than their counterparts on the other side of the House: given their shared party allegiance, they have -- or, at least, are thought to have -- more opportunities to bring their queries and concerns to ministers -- at caucus, in the Lobby and at other party-organized events.  

As for the other side of the aisle, with the exception of lead critics and other frontbenchers, the prospect of getting to pose a question to the government isn't much better for opposition MPs. Although their parties do have more QP slots than the government, only a handful of MPs will get to ask a question, and on the off chance that a backbencher makes it onto the speakers' list will almost always be expected to pose a query on a particular topic, often using a pre-approved script drafted by caucus strategists.  

Is it any wonder, then, that some members may occasionally be moved to let loose the occasional "Oh! Oh!" if only to break the tedium? Under the current system, that may be their only opportunity to share their thoughts on the state of the nation. 

This, it seems, calls for an ever so slightly immodest, but entirely serious proposal.  

Instead of invoking the threat of a Speaker-imposed gag to silence off-mic debate, why not give MPs from all parties more power to hold the government's feet to the parliamentary fire by borrowing a page from the Mother of all Parliaments?  Specifically, the page with the Urgent Questions provision, which allows individual MPs to request, on short notice, that a minister -- or prime minister -- be summoned to the Chamber to make a statement, and take questions on any matter adjudged by the speaker to be of clear and present parliamentary concern. 

At the moment, the closest parallel within our Standing Orders is the the emergency debate, requests for which are almost never granted without all party support, and even when that happens, the debate itself is shunted to the end of the sitting day,when attendance in the House is at its most sparse and the media at its least attentive. There is also no requirement for a minister -- or, indeed, any government representative -- to take part. 
Compare that with what happened earlier today in the British Chamber, where Speaker John Bercow ruled in favour of an Urgent Question request filed by Labour on the ongoing controversy over Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, thus obliging Prime Minister David Cameron to cut short a campaign tour in order to make himself available to the House of Commons that same afternoon. 

The PM didn't seem terribly pleased to be there, mind you, but he held his own throughout the 52 minute session, during which 42 backbench MPs -- from all parties, including his own -- were able to take the floor. Was there heckling? Oh, of course there was, but it didn't impede the process, most likely because the MPs present were, in fact, sufficiently engaged in the debate as to actually want to hear what was being said. 

Instituting a Canadianized Urgent Questions provision would not only relieve the sense of quiet desperation that leads to disorder on the backbenches, but would preserve -- and even enhance -- the spirit of lively debate that is at the heart of our parliamentary tradition. 
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