Politics·Analysis

Who wants to know? Tracking the daily politics of Parliament's question period

Over the course of three question periods this week, opposition MPs put 109 questions to the government. So what did they ask about and what does that tell us about each party’s preoccupations and how they use question period?

The questions asked by opposition parties tell us something about their priorities and strategies

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Over the course of three question periods this week, opposition MPs put 109 questions to the government. So what did they ask about and what does that tell us about each party's preoccupations and how they use question period?

A Parliament can last as long as four years and field thousands of questions, so the first 109 queries probably don't constitute a representative sample. The issues that were current this week may fade from relevance. New issues will arise. But you can still make some observations about how everyone is approaching the most-watched 45 minutes of every sitting day.

Seventy-four of those 109 questions were asked by Conservatives, the Official Opposition with 119 seats. Just a handful of topics accounted for most of those questions.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Conservatives asked 24 questions about inflation, 17 questions about American tariffs on softwood lumber, 11 questions about labour shortages and six questions about COVID-19.

That distribution of questions can be traced back to the fact that the Conservatives tend to like to give special focus to one topic each day. So inflation was the topic du jour on Wednesday (accounting for 17 questions that day), softwood lumber was their preoccupation on Thursday (13 questions). Following confirmation of a new coronavirus variant in southern Africa, COVID-19 got most of the attention on Friday.

Of the Bloc Quebecois's 19 questions, five each were devoted to federal funding for health care, climate change and gun control — which has become a major concern in Montreal since a 16-year-old was recently shot and killed.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Of the NDP's 15 questions, six concerned climate change.

The Greens — who do not have enough members to constitute an official party in the House of Commons — got one question. Elizabeth May used it to ask about climate policy.

A lot of these questions are on-brand for the MPs asking them. The Conservatives have tended to focus on so-called "pocketbook" issues. The BQ takes every opportunity to dwell on federal-provincial tensions — in this case, over health care funding.

(Liberal MPs also get to ask three questions each day. But since questions from the governing party's backbenchers tend to be less than challenging — ministers typically are asked to stand and expound on the government's greatness — I'm excluding them from this analysis.)

Are MPs asking the right questions?

But here's a harder question to answer. When broken down by subject matter, do these 109 questions offer an accurate reflection of either the public's greatest concerns or the most important issues facing this country?

In a way, that might be an unfair question to ask.

If question period was ever solely about soliciting information and explanation, those days are long past. But the 45 minutes set aside for "oral questions" each day are still about holding the government to account and pitting opposing views against each other.

Question period has other uses, of course. It generates soundbites for newscasts and clips that can be pushed on social media. MPs want to rile up their own supporters and show constituents that they're being represented. Opposition parties naturally direct their questions to where they think the government is most vulnerable.

The Conservatives justifiably think the government is vulnerable on inflation. New Democrats think they can score points over fossil fuel subsidies. Question period can't be separated from the larger media-political ecosystem in which it exists.

Which is not to say that question period shouldn't ever be judged by how well it reflects the public's concerns. All of the issues raised in QP this week were certainly relevant. But it might seem odd that the flooding in British Columbia was not a focus (the disaster was the subject of an emergency debate in the House on Wednesday night).

A house in Princeton, B.C. is emptied out by volunteers on Wednesday, November 24, 2021 in the aftermath of major flooding. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

American journalist James Fallows, a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter, has noted that the questions presidents get asked at citizen town halls are very different from the questions asked at news conferences with the Washington press corps.

Members of the public tend to ask about the "what" of governance, Fallows says, while journalists tend to ask about "how" and "who."

That doesn't mean reporters are wrong to ask the questions they ask. There's a place for both town halls and news conferences — and for question period. Each forum serves a purpose and each can complement the others.

But journalists probably could benefit from imagining the sorts of questions their audiences would ask. The same is probably true of parliamentarians.

Parliament Hill is too often derided as a "bubble." Most of what happens in the bubble has value and purpose. But the institution of Parliament also benefits most when it is most relevant.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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