Changes to question period could put the prime minister on the spot

The Liberals have promised to adopt a "prime minister's question period" session inspired by the model used in the United Kingdom. But the form it takes will determine whether it means Justin Trudeau answers more questions, or fewer. Éric Grenier takes a look.

Justin Trudeau may answer just as many questions, or more, with a British-style 'Prime Minister's Questions'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked his government House leader, Dominic LeBlanc, to consult on changes to question period that could allow government and opposition MPs to question him directly. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's first week of question period as prime minister may be his only one, as the Liberals propose to change the format in which the prime minister is asked questions in the House of Commons.

The Liberals campaigned to introduce a "prime minister's question period" modelled in part on the current practice of the British House of Commons. This commitment was reiterated in question period on Monday.

"I have asked the government House leader [Dominic LeBlanc] to work with other parliamentarians," Trudeau said in response to a question from Liberal MP Larry Bagnell, "to reform question period so that all ministers, including the prime minister, can be held to greater account.

"I look forward to participating in prime minister's question period some time in the future."

Prime Minister's Questions, as the session is called in the United Kingdom, occurs every Wednesday when the British Parliament is sitting, and is the only regularly-scheduled time that the British prime minister takes questions in the House of Commons.

During this session, the prime minister answers questions from both opposition and government MPs, who must submit them in writing beforehand. A random draw is held to decide which MPs get to pose their question.

In addition to these MPs, the leader of the official opposition also gets to ask six questions.

The highlight of the political week in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister's Questions is not immune to the same sort of criticisms heard in Canada concerning civility and the varying quality of both the questions and the answers.

By the numbers

Though it occurs only once per week, a large number of questions are fielded during Prime Minister's Questions. In the last four weeks before the British election campaign began in the spring, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron answered an average of 29 questions each time.

About a third of them came from fellow Conservatives, though because of the random selection process the party has no control over who asks a question.

As question period is held on a daily basis in Canada, the prime minister theoretically has the chance to answer a much greater number of questions from the opposition in a given week. In practice, however, that is not the case.

In the final four weeks of the last Parliament, Stephen Harper answered an average of nine questions in question periods in which he was present. And those were rare — he took questions in just five of the last 20 question periods. 
British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, might have some advice for Justin Trudeau on how to handle Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

An analysis by the Ottawa Citizen earlier this year found that Harper attended 48 per cent of question periods throughout his tenure. In their final years as prime minister, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin had similar attendance records.

If the typical Canadian prime minister attends less than half of question periods and, on average, opts to answer about nine questions per session, then he or she could be expected to answer little more than 20 questions per week.

By sheer numbers, then, if Canada adopts a once-weekly prime minister's question period, the end result may be that the prime minister answers just as many questions from opposition MPs in a typical week as is currently the case.

LeBlanc said Tuesday, however, that the Liberals are not suggesting that a prime minister's question period will be held just once per week, only that he is still in consultation with the other parties about what form it might take. If held more than once a week, or if questions by government MPs are more limited in number, then a new format may actually see the prime minister answer more questions from the opposition.

Pros and cons

Critics of Canada adopting a British-style Prime Minister's Questions point out that, if held infrequently, it would allow the prime minister to avoid having to answer questions on the top issue of the day. The leader of the Official Opposition would also get more limited time to grill the prime minister. During the height of the Senate scandal, for instance, Harper was answering about 20 questions per day in the House. 

Cameron speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the U.K. Parliament in this image taken from video. The British prime minister answers about 30 questions in the weekly sessions in the House of Commons. (U.K. Parliament/Pool/Reuters)

But Canadian prime ministers rarely answer questions posed by anyone other than fellow party leaders. Ministers or parliamentary secretaries are able to answer questions from opposition MPs, even if they directly address the prime minister. The British system, on the other hand, obliges the prime minister to answer questions from leaders, opposition critics and backbenchers alike once a week.

Not only does this prevent the prime minister from avoiding a question, it also has the effect of forcing the prime minister to field questions on a wide variety of topics. This requires the prime minister to be briefed on more than just the major files, as the British prime minister often fields questions of regional or local concern.

Prime Minister's Questions is also a focal point for the media and the public, allowing the PM's statements to perhaps be heard by more people. By comparison, the Canadian prime minister's irregular appearances in question period as currently configured may be more easily drowned out on a day-by-day basis.

We may know more of the format the parties in the House settle upon in January, when MPs return from Christmas break following this one-week sitting. Depending on what they decide, Canadians may see a very different question period in 2016.

But, in the end, whether it will be an improvement over the current model will largely depend on what questions are asked, and how they are answered.


  • This story has been amended to clarify that 'prime minister's questions' is not the only time a British prime minister answers questions in the U.K. House of Commons. He or she can be called to the House to answer 'urgent questions,' and also can answer questions when ministerial statements are made in the House.
    Dec 09, 2015 10:19 AM ET


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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