QP: The PMQs trial run

For caucus day, the benches were largely filled, and the PM was indeed present before heading off for London, Ontario. Rona Ambrose led off, asking about a response to the chemical weapon attack in Syria. Justin Trudeau, with a more uncharacteristic script in front of him, read a statement of condemnation and promises of humanitarian assistance and noted Chrystia Freeland’s presence at a conference where the issue is being discussed. Ambrose asked about the reports that our allies didn’t object to pulling our CF-18s out of Iraq, and Trudeau, this time without script, talked about discussions with allies and finding better ways to help, which they found. Ambrose asked again, wondering if the PM was simply misinformed, but Trudeau stood firm that their new mission was well received. Ambrose moved onto the issue of Bombardier and a muddled question on tax hikes, and Trudeau reverted to some fairly standard talking points about middle class tax cuts and hiking them on the one percent. For her final question, Ambrose accused the PM of handing bonuses to Bombardier while not funding families with autism, but Trudeau was not easily baited, and spoke about how much they support families with autism. From the NDP, Murray Rankin and Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet led off by bellyaching about changes to the Standing Orders, and Trudeau spoke sweepingly about looking to do better and looking for cooperation with other parties. Boutin-Sweet and Alistair MacGregor then turned to demands to criminalize marijuana, to which Trudeau reminded them that decriminalization doesn’t protect children nor does it stop criminals from profiting.

Round two, and Denis Lebel railed about the lack of progress on softwood lumber (Trudeau: We are working with the Americans, and need to do better to explain free trade to them), Pierre Poilievre and Gérard Deltell demanded a ban on bonuses for Bombardier (Trudeau: We believe in the industry and are loaning them money to succeed). Ruth Ellen Brosseau worried about supply management (Trudeau: We are looking to present a unite front to protect it), and Scott Duvall asked about StelCo (Trudeau: We are looking to promote the growth of the steel industry). Blake Richards, Luc Berthold, and Mark Strahl worried the PM was avoiding accountability (Trudeau: I’m answering all questions and we are looking to work with other parties). Karine Trudel worried about delayed changes to Access to Information but asked her own party’s committee vice-chair (Blaikie: The Liberals voted our motion down), and Blaikie asked the government the same thing (Trudeau: We are keeping our promises for greater accountability).

Round three saw questions on Liberal appointments (Trudeau: We are keeping our promise to modernize the appointment process), costs for the PM’s vacation (Trudeau: This was a private family vacation), changing the Standing Orders (Trudeau: I look forward to your suggestions and contributions to improve this place), the CF-18s in Iraq (Trudeau: Our allies were interested in how we would contribute), bonuses for bureaucrats involved in the Phoenix pay system (Trudeau: We are working on the Phoenix issue that you left us), Manitoba flooding (Trudeau: We are working with First Nations in the region), autism funding (Trudeau: We are working on an Accessibility Act), and reforming environmental assessments (Trudeau: There is more work to do).

Overall, this was a trial run of PMQs and hey, the government was able to do it without changing the Standing Orders – just like I’ve been saying for months now. Of course, as we also saw, this really didn’t offer anything new other than a bit of novelty. As what happens with pretty much any QP in this country, it was a lot of sanctimony and faux outrage met with some fairly banal talking points and generalities, and there was very little in the way of genuine exchanges of questions or answers. While it was notable that Trudeau spoke without scripts for most of the day, he relied on them for both questions on the gas attack in Syria, and on backbench softball questions (which infuriates me most of all because if there is any question they should be most prepared for, it’s those). It was also a rowdier day than usual because especially on the questions of changing the Standing Orders, anything Trudeau said just drove the opposition benches crazy, and heckling was louder today than usual. This all having been said, why this particular trial run of a change is largely a waste of time is because until we change our parliamentary debate culture, these kinds of changes are useless. If we want meaningful changes to QP, then we need to ban scripts and speaking lists, loosen the clock, empower the Speaker to demand actual answers, and above all, we need to get rid of message discipline. So long as it’s an exercise in providing a buffet of media clips of key messages for the evening news, then no amount of other cosmetic changes will mean anything.

Sartorially speaking, snaps go out to Catherine McKenna for a dark grey dress with a black three-quarter sleeve jacket and boots, and to Pierre Paul-Hus for a tailored black suit with a crisp white shirt and purple tie. Style citations go out to Scott Reid for a tan brown jacket with a light blue and white stripe shirt and grey slacks, with a black tie, and to Diane Finley for a tan brown blouse and slacks with a black jacket.