Theresa May's marathon Q&A shows there's more than one way to pester a prime minister

British Prime Minister Theresa May spent nearly three hours answering Brexit questions from MPs Wednesday. Could Justin Trudeau ever face such a marathon grilling in Ottawa?

While Canadian MPs fight over reform, the British might have some examples worth considering

British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Wednesday she has sent the letter to trigger the process of leaving the European Union. That was followed by questions. Lots of them. (REUTERS)

When the prime minister had finally finished, having taken dozens of questions from MPs, the Speaker was moved to acknowledge the effort.

"In the name of courtesy, we ought to say a big thank you," he said.

The Speaker in this case was John Bercow, master of the British House of Commons at Westminster. The prime minister was Theresa May.

By that point Wednesday, May had been in the House for more than three hours, most of that time committed to a single topic: the United Kingdom's move to extract itself from the European Union. More than a hundred backbench MPs had asked questions of her.

More than a hundred MPs asked May questions following her Brexit announcement Wednesday. (REUTERS)

To be clear, this was an extraordinary circumstance.

It being Wednesday, May had appeared in the House for the weekly half-hour session of prime minister's questions (PMQs). After that, she delivered a statement to the House on Brexit, a moment of great historical, legal and practical import that resulted in a relatively unique display of prime-ministerial endurance.

But, in the midst of another spasm of interest in Canadian parliamentary reform, it is nonetheless a potentially useful reminder that there's more than one way to pester a prime minister.

May's display wouldn't happen here

There are significant differences worth noting here between how the Canadian and British Houses handle their business.

First, in the case of May's announcement on Brexit and the two hours and 40 minutes of questions that followed, May was making an official ministerial statement to the House of Commons. 

For all the time set aside for talking, it is rare that the Canadian House hears such a thing. And when a statement is made, it is generally to mark a special occasion or tragic event, like Remembrance Day or the February attack on a mosque in Quebec City.

Canadian ministers might make brief announcements in question period or speak to bills during debate, but they rarely use the House of Commons to announce government policy. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision in October to tell the House about his government's policy on pricing carbon is a recent exception (though that was offered during a debate and not during the time specifically allocated for "statements by ministers"). But otherwise, Canadian governments are generally happier to make announcements in factories, schools and such, where flattering backdrops and photo-ops can be arranged.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers are generally expected to show up for question period every day. Ministers in the U.K. appear on a rotational basis. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In the U.K., ministerial statements are a somewhat regular occurrence. As are similar appearances by ministers to respond to an urgent question.

But even if a Canadian minister does decide to make a statement to the House, there is no chance of anything like Wednesday's marathon Q&A in the U.K. breaking out in Ottawa. The rules don't allow for it.

In the Canadian Parliament, each recognized party is entitled to have a representative respond to a minister's statement, but no questions can be put to the minister who made the statement. Once the official responses are offered, the House moves on to other business.

Canadian expectations

It is also true that Trudeau and his ministers face expectations that don't apply to the May cabinet.

Canadian ministers are generally expected to be at question period each day, while the U.K. Parliament has a rotation for ministers to appear.

No rules would need to be changed if Trudeau decided he wanted to field more or all questions during question period. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

May spent three hours in the House on Wednesday, but she might otherwise make one weekly appearance for PMQs. A Canadian prime minister, on the other hand, will be judged harshly if he or she doesn't appear two or three times per week (even if the Canadian and British prime ministers might end up responding to a roughly equal number of questions).

Mind you, a British prime minister is also expected to make two appearances each year before a select committee of the House to discuss government policy.

Perhaps neither system is inherently superior; much will always depend on the quality of the questions asked and the responses offered. Although, the tight time limits on questions and responses in the Canadian House — 35 seconds — present a challenge in that regard.

Both QP and PMQs have been lamented by participants and observers.

What if Trudeau offered more time?

But the reform debate in Ottawa need not be a matter of choosing one system or the other.

Nor must it wait for the impasse at the procedure and House affairs committee to be resolved.

Implementing a new system for statements by ministers would require changes to the standing orders that govern parliamentary business (though ministers and MPs would also have to start believing that government policy should first be announced to the House).

But the prime minister could simply decide to offer himself up for a dedicated session of question period. He could announce tomorrow that he will be taking every question for a full 45 minutes at the next Wednesday session of question period. Or that he'll be doing so once every two weeks from now on.

It wouldn't be a full three hours, but it might be a start.


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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