BY Nick Thompson
For those familiar with Canadian politics, Question Period is arguably the most important part of a given day in the House of Commons. One of the only times where all Members of Parliament (MPs) are present at once, it regularly produces the nightly news’ most played clips. What is often mentioned less, however, is the rigid structure Question Period follows. This rigid structure not only serves to provide some order in an often-unruly parliament, it frames our most important national debates.
An average Question Period is 45 minutes and contains 39 questions – a pace unrivaled by virtually any other portion of parliamentary proceedings. These 39 questions are divided amongst opposition parties based on current party standings. At present the Conservatives have the most questions, followed by the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP, with a select few questions from non-recognized parties and the governing Liberal party itself. Non-recognized parties are those with fewer than 12 seats – the Green Party may be the most familiar example for many. To provide for some variety, questions are asked in rounds with several questions from each party in a row until all 39 questions are exhausted. Several additional conventions exist. First, it is common practise that party leaders, if present, ask and answer the majority of questions in the first round. It’s for this reason that you most often see clips of Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer or Jagmeet Singh on the nightly news. Second, it has also been common over time for questions to be answered in the official language in which they are asked. In general, these procedures are followed throughout most instances of Question Period unless altered at the discretion of the Speaker.
On the surface this may seem like relatively technical information only relevant to those working at the centre of Canada’s parliamentary proceedings. These mechanics, however, have massive implications for ongoing national conversations. Nothing highlights these implications better than the recent transition from the 42nd Parliament to the 43rd Parliament following the October 2019 election. Beginning first with language, Question Period’s design serves to promote French language in the new parliament. This is made clear when looking at the distribution of MPs from Quebec, Canada’s only primarily francophone province. Prior to the election, 39 of the 153 opposition MPs were from Quebec – roughly 25.49%. After the election, 43 of the 181 opposition MPs were from Quebec – roughly 23.75%. Despite this decrease, Canada’s only party comprised solely of Quebec MPs, the Bloc Quebecois, actually saw an increase in its Question Period allotment. Prior to the election, the Bloc would frequently receive 1 of the 39 questions. Following the election and the Bloc’s seat gain, it now receives on average 6 of the 39 questions. This means there is a guarantee of a minimum of 6 French questions per Question Period. In addition, Question Period’s rigid structure and fast pace means that English language viewers cannot easily tune out when first-round questions are now more frequently in French. These two benefits considered, Question Period in the 43rd Parliament is a clear win for Francophones. Its structure means more French clips on the nightly news, more national dialogue in French and above all else a focus on policies crucial to Canada’s French communities.
Question Period’s structure, however, is not always a force for good. Specifically, the new Parliament has highlighted Question Period’s ongoing lack of space for those from non-recognized parties. Despite forming 14.38% of opposition MPs in the previous Parliament and 2.21% in the new Parliament, MPs in this category have had remarkably few opportunities to pose questions. The previous Parliament saw the 1 allotted question per Question Period frequently go to the Bloc who were non-recognized at the time. Given the reduced number of MPs in this category in the new Parliament, MPs left in this category are not even allotted a minimum number of questions per question period. Not only does this provide fewer opportunities to engage in national conversations, it steers nightly news clips towards established messaging from recognized parties. As these questions are asked last, if at all, and are the farthest from questions asked or answered by major party leaders, it is no surprise they are picked up by the media less frequently. As a result, even the most thought-provoking or revelation-inducing policy questions are less likely to make the nightly news than a far more basic question asked by an important member of one of the larger parties. This is an issue because sometimes it’s the smallest parties in Parliament that have the flexibility necessary to focus in on policy issues often over-looked due to more pressing national matters.
Question Period may only last 45 minutes but the conversations it generates last for years to come. It’s the mechanics and rules that govern Question Period which frame these conversations. They decide how many questions get asked, who gets to ask them and ultimately whose message will be broadcast across the country. With the ushering in of the new Parliament several things are now clearer – French will play a crucial role and non-recognized MPs will continue to lack a platform.
Statistics in this article were based on data from the House of Commons website (https://www.ourcommons.ca/en)
Nick Thompson is currently a first-year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He comes to the realm of public policy from having spent his undergraduate degree working in positions on Parliament Hill, at Queen’s Park and with student government organizations. He is interested in how some of the country’s most complex public policy issues come face to face with its political institutions.