A recent letter to the editor of a local newspaper was sharply critical of the conduct of our Members of Parliament when they participate in a daily vaudeville show from Ottawa called “Question Period.” The writer was upset because the questions were being asked as if spontaneously with the cabinet ministers’ answers delivered from notes – a sure indication that the ministers had been given notice of what the questions would be.
It’s not a new complaint from people interested in the goings on in our national and provincial parliaments. In fact, despair over Question Period in BC is the most consistent complaint I hear about whoever is in government federal or provincial “because they never answer the questions.” I usually suggest a visit to a library with a good reference section and a quick look at BC Standing Order 47A in Orders of the Day, the rule book for all the games played under the Belleville Street dome – where the distressed will find a description of how Question Period should proceed. Readers will note the qualifier “should.”
The standing order states: There shall be a 30-minute (originally it was just 15) oral question period at the opening of each afternoon sitting on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday which shall be subject to the following rules:
(a) Only questions that are urgent and important shall be permitted;
(b) Questions and answers shall be brief and precise, and stated without argument or opinion;
(c) Supplementary questions may be permitted at the discretion of the Speaker. There shall be no supplementary question to a question taken as notice;
(d) Debate shall not be permitted.
(The supplementary question rule means if when the question is first asked, the minister responds with a promise to “take it as notice,” that assurance ends the issue for the day. The minister is, in effect, saying the answer needs a little research before it can be given.)
In addition to the precise rules, former Clerk of the Legislature George MacMinn’s (LLB, QC) Third Edition of Parliamentary Practice in British Columbia presents a long list of other rules “which members have received from time to time.” They are quite precise as to the language a questioner and responder can use. A few: “In putting a question a member must confine himself to the narrowest limits”; a question oral or written must not be “ironical, rhetorical, offensive, or contain epithet, innuendo, satire or ridicule.”
And, maybe the toughest task for those asking questions or answering when their tongue is racing ahead of their reason or they haven’t paid due care and attention to question or answer, they should never: “Be trivial, vague or meaningless.”
You would think that with all these carefully spelled out rules intelligent men and women – watched over by an equally intelligent Speaker who should be able to recite the rules as well as enforce them – would be able to get through 30 minutes of questions without a hitch or voices raised in satirical rhetoric or meaningless trivia. It is true question period has been around for only about 50 years, but that should be long enough to at least learn the basic decencies of asking a serious question and getting a clear and equally serious answer.
Many times during his 20-year and 45-day reign, Premier W.A.C. Bennett was bombarded with demands from opposition politicians and members of the public that BC establish a question period. When he refused he was taunted with the charge that he was afraid to face the heat of tough questions. He was unmoved – and he never changed his simple reason for not liking the formal question period used in England and all Commonwealth countries.
It was his belief that official question periods were well-rehearsed affairs where the questions are partisan, and asked not to gain knowledge or advance and improve good programs, but to win a political point. Questions were delivered with political “spin” and governments responded with a counter political spin to win a few one-upmanship battles.
It became a standing joke that BC had a question period and would one day introduce an answer period.
It was Bennett’s contention that opposition members in the BC Legislature had ample time to hold a government’s feet to the fire during the time allowed for full debate when ministry budgets were tabled and spending estimates questioned clause by clause. It was his way of providing all the time legislators needed for questions, even if it meant sitting all night. The opposition called it legislation by exhaustion, but he boasted that as premier he was just responding to the Opposition demand for more time to challenge. He claimed he didn’t force the lengthy session, he was just patiently providing all the time required.
In his fine biography, W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia, writer-historian David Mitchell suggests tea-total Bennett undoubtedly would have concurred with hard-drinking Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald when he said: “In a young country like Canada, I am of the opinion that it is of more consequence to endeavour to develop its resources and improve its physical advantages, than to waste the time of the legislature and the money of the people in fruitless discussions on abstract and theoretical questions of government.”
I spent a long afternoon with W.A.C. back in 1975. It was on Sept. 5th, the day before his 75th birthday. He confirmed his related thinking with Macdonald but with simple words more suited to a small town hardware store owner: “You build a home to protect your family. That’s what I tried to do when I was in office. I tried to build a home for BC strong enough to withstand the storm we all knew was coming. I even had a few ‘nuts’ in the basement you know. Even squirrels do that. But inside of three years, they’ve made it a shambles.”
Born in Hastings, New Brunswick in 1900, W.A.C. died in Kelowna on Feb. 3rd, 1979. He was 78.