National Column: Trudeau promises Parliament will be all ears, more relevant

When the House of Commons convenes Monday for its first daily question period in almost six months, we could be witnessing the beginning of the end for some hidebound traditions.

Among the promises of the new Liberal government were vows to make Parliament more relevant, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau more accountable and the day-to-day workings of the place more open to Canadians.

The time for this is now. The relevancy of the place has slid badly over the years and no Canadian can be blamed for tuning out.

We’ve emerged from an era in which question period featured partisan shots as “answers,” committee hearings were used to promote government legislation, cabinet meetings were secret and talking points trumped substance. Dreary stuff.

Though it was not specifically mentioned in the Throne Speech, Trudeau has pledged to move to a British-style Prime Minister’s question time. The Liberals have said such a move would need all-party buy-in, but there is a question as to whether this would actually make Trudeau more accountable.

If the government was to adopt the British system, it would import a system in which British Prime Minister David Cameron takes questions from MPs, from both the government and opposition side, in a
30-minute slot every Wednesday at noon.

The session is unscripted and Cameron can take about 25 questions during the allotted time, including six from the leader of the opposition and two from the leader of the third party.

Under the Trudeau plan, ministers would, by necessity, take challenging questions and show their political mettle but it would give the prime minister more time out of the Commons hot house.

Such a move would be in keeping with Trudeau’s philosophy.

He believes elections are not won or lost and governments do not rise or fall in popularity during the daily cut-and-thrust of the Commons.

He just proved it.

He missed six of 10 Question Periods as Liberal leader, but as leader of the third party with a Conservative majority, his role was going to be minimal anyway. The heavy lifting in the daily round of questions fell to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair who could not take his success in the Commons on the road during the campaign.

There is nothing to preclude Trudeau attending question period more than once a week. Should he wish to be there to put out a fire, he will be, although it would immediately raise questions about the severity of the problem at hand and the ability of the minister to handle his or her file under pressure.

The Liberals have also promised more free votes – under specific conditions – and to ditch the useless Friday sittings.

The Liberals don’t want to impose these changes on the opposition. They want them to come from an all-party committee to study the issue.

But have Canadians permanently checked out on Ottawa?

Trudeau, in a pre-election interview with Huffington Post Canada said the idea that the only way to hold a government accountable is to question the prime minister is a Stephen Harper construct. Being out in
the capital talking to Canadians instead of opposition MPs and reporters doesn’t make him less accountable, he said.

Harper typically spent no more than three days in Question Period each week, never Monday or Friday, answering questions only from other party leaders.

According to a study by the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor, Harper’s attendance at question period declined every year he was in office, bottoming out at 35 per cent in 2015. Harper was at question period 64 per cent of the time in his first year as prime minister.

Mulcair had the best attendance record, then the steepest fall during the campaign. That was not so much an indictment of the NDP leader as it was confirmation that no one outside Ottawa was watching his performance.

If they are to watch again, it will not be because of the time Trudeau spends answering questions. It will be because he actually answers the questions.

That’s a tall order. It’s natural for politicians to deflect, obfuscate or misdirect when under attack.

If Trudeau believes he can be accountable by spending more time out of Ottawa, he will be taking advantage of the irrelevance of Parliament, not doing anything to improving the place. There are almost 200 MPs taking their seats for the first time and they are understandably thrilled to be here.

If Liberal pledges to make the place more relevant slide, they’ll be surprised how quickly the thrill is gone.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1-

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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