The Transformation of Question Period

By Conley, Richard S. | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

The Transformation of Question Period


Conley, Richard S., Canadian Parliamentary Review


This article provides descriptive data on the number of prime ministerial interventions in Question Period from the 35th to the 40th Parliaments, including the ministries of Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper. Cataloguing a total of 7,227 questions, this study classifies prime ministers" answers by policy area and controls for the number of responses that relate to ethics and scandals across both majority and minority governments. The study underscores the stunning growth of prime ministerial interventions from a comparative, historical perspective with the advent of four-party politics in the House of Commons. The analysis suggests that while scandal was a central component in Question Period during the Chretien and Martin ministries, and to a lesser degree in the last Harper minority government, allegations of wrongdoing typically comprised fewer than a third of all questions answered by the Prime Minister from 1994-2011.

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Several hypotheses have been offered to explain the transformative deterioration of Question Period in the last several decades. The first is that the atomisation of the Canadian party system is to blame. The 1993 federal elections ushered in a minimum of four sizeable parties that were a staple in Parliament until the 2011 election. The net result has been a putative explosion in the number of questions posed to the Government, which has arguably complicated the Speaker's job in enforcing the 35-second rule as opposition parties clamoured for attention. (1) A second recrimination is that Question Period is now a reflection of scandal-driven politics. The focus on alleged ethics violations by members of the Government or scandals involving government programmes supposedly drowns out meaningful debate about the Government's agenda, and as a consequence, the questions posed do not necessarily reflect Canadians' policy concerns. (2) Finally, a third charge is that the advent of minority government between 2004-2011 has, per se, exacerbated these dynamics as MPs placed political gain above substantive policy debate. (3)

But just how bad is the situation? Has the number of questions prime ministers answer increased dramatically in the longer view of history? Has scandal become the dominant theme in questioning the head of Government? And what do the results of an analysis of Question Period in the last two decades suggest about scholars' concern about an alleged "decline of Parliament" or executive-centric governance that has supposedly led to a decrease in prime ministerial attention to parliamentary affairs?

This article takes these questions to task with empirical data on the number of prime ministerial interventions in Question Period from the 35th to the 40th Parliaments, spanning the ministries of Chretien, Martin, and Harper. This study catalogues a total of 7,227 questions answered by prime ministers between 1994 and 2011. The study moves beyond prior research by classifying prime ministers' answers by policy area and controlling for the number of responses that relate to ethics and scandals across both majority and minority governments.

Charting the Transformation

Prime ministerial activity in Question Period represents a fundamental component of democratic accountability that is crucial in parliamentary systems. In theory and in practice, opposition parties and individual MPs are able to hold the cabinet responsible for its policies and actions by posing questions to, and scrutinising the head of Government in an open forum. As such, Question Period--whatever its putative inefficiencies or frequently raucous nature--is vital in the maintenance of confidence in the Government by the legislature.

The first question central to this study is whether the 1993 federal elections marked a definitive turning point in the number of questions to which prime ministers have responded. To answer this query it is imperative to turn to the methodology and findings of prior scholarship. …

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