A reminder about the bounds of QP

In advance of the gasket that I’m inevitably going to blow during QP today, I offer you a few reminders of what is and is not fair game about the current Clusterduff Scandal. While Harper won’t be there to answer any of these questions all week due to previously scheduled foreign travel, the designated back-up PM du jour will be handling this file, but that doesn’t mean that the opposition (and hopefully government backbenchers – oh, dare to dream) can’t ask the right kinds of questions.

  1. Nigel Wright is entirely to do with the PMO, and is fair game. He was a Harper appointee, he is not a public servant, he serves the PM and his discretion, and his actions are the responsibility of the PM.
  2. The appointment of Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau are the responsibility of the Prime Minister. But that is as far as his accountability for them lies.
  3. Senate reform questions, while they could be answered by the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, will be entirely red herrings. None of the proposals on the table currently, or any proposals period, have anything to do with this scandal. Abolition will also create more problems than it solves – never mind that niggling detail of the amending formula of the constitution. Not that it will stop the Conservatives or the NDP from their respective campaigns of constitutional vandalism where the Senate is concerned.
  4. The actions of the Senate are not fair game. The Senate is not controlled by cabinet, and nobody can answer for them. It has nought to do with government operations. Asking what the government is going to make the Senate do about the current scandal is wasted breath, and out of bounds for QP.

But why, you ask, can’t these questions be asked? Why can’t the PM or somebody answer these questions? The answer is that the PM is not responsible for the Senate.

The point of Question Period is to ask the ministers responsible for the departments responsible for the operation of government questions about their activities. The Senate is not a government department that answers to any minister of the cabinet. Hence, there is no minister in the cabinet that can answer for it. The Senate is, in fact, a wholly separate and independent arm of Parliament. The NDP haven’t seemed to grasp this constitutional reality, however, judging from the kinds of questions they tend to ask about it.

And before I get into yet another argument over the Twitter Machine with someone about why this matters, about why I should be such a stickler for rules “that nobody follows anyway,” the answer is pretty simple. Democracy, my friends, is rules and process. This fact cannot be stated strongly enough. If democracy is to work, it is because rules exist and are to be followed, and rules and process are what translates everything into action. If you throw out these rules because it’s inconvenient, or because you’re not getting enough self-righteousness about what you think the government should or should not be doing, well, then you might as well grab your pitchfork and torch, because you have just joined an angry mob. And last I checked, democracy is not mob rule.

If Question Period is to mean anything, it has to be done with the understanding that these rules exist, that responsible ministers answer for their departments. Questions that have nothing to do with government operations – be it backbench suck-up questions, or the kinds of theatrical questions that the NDP are throwing around about the conduct of certain senators – should be disallowed. The Speaker should be standing up and making that point clear.

But he doesn’t, and on the occasions that he actually bothers to get up and remind the honourable members of this fact, the government nevertheless has a ready response of talking points designed to bash back at the opposition, and they are all to happy to be given the opportunity to recite them before the cameras in the hopes that maybe – just maybe – it’ll be a clip that makes the six o’clock news.

Opposition is an integral part of our democratic system. It should be incumbent upon our opposition parties to respect their role and ensure that these rules are observed so that their role and their hour to shine in the daily business of the nation – QP – has meaning. It’s not about the “decorum” distraction or the heckling, but the quality of the questions asked. And if the opposition can’t fulfil this basic role, understanding what it means, then our democracy is in a much sorrier state than any of us should be comfortable with.