Speech: Modernization of Question Period in the Senate
Honourable senators, I welcome the opportunity to speak to the ninth report on Senate modernization, which seeks to reform Question Period in the Senate.
I think we can all agree that Question Period plays an important function in this chamber, given it provides all senators the opportunity to question the government on timely issues of importance. We can also agree that Question Period works best when it follows an orderly, transparent process.
The ninth report of the Senate Modernization Committee seeks to improve the Senate's Question Period practice by making three recommendations for reform.
First, the report advocates formalizing in the rules the current practice of inviting government ministers to appear in the chamber during Question Period. This recommendation supports what I believe has been one of the very best reforms to take place in this chamber under the leadership of Senator Harder, and I fully endorse it.
Second, the report recommends periodically inviting officers of Parliament, such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer or others, to respond to questions from senators. This is another good reform.
Third, the ninth report recommends that Question Period be limited to two days per week, with one day being devoted to questions for a government minister and one day devoted to questions to the government leader in the Senate. This is where the ninth report takes a serious wrong turn, in my opinion.
The suggestion that the number of days allotted for Question Period be reduced from every sitting day to only two days per week is troubling. If we are seeking to enhance the degree of democratic accountability in this chamber, restricting the opportunities for senators to ask questions of the government moves the dial in the wrong direction. The current practice of setting aside time on a daily basis for the government leader to respond to senators' questions is a far more open, transparent and modern practice than to limit questions to the government leader to only 30 minutes per week.
Therefore, I strongly urge this chamber to keep Question Period part of our daily routine in the Senate.
Having outlined the three major recommendations contained in the ninth report, I will now address some of the issues not covered by the report.
Scrutiny of the government is a fundamental pillar of a healthy democracy, and while this responsibility falls on all senators, it is of particular weight to those who sit in the official opposition and who are tasked with the honourable and necessary duty of responsible and thoughtful opposition. In the process of formalizing the rules, it would be useful to enshrine this principle: That Question Period must honour the critical and vital role of the opposition to hold the government to account. In the other place, the first three questions of QP are reserved for Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. This provides the official opposition the opportunity ask questions of the government that are topical and pertinent to the day.
I recognize that this place is different in many ways from the other place, but the principle that the rights and privileges of the official opposition should be safeguarded and protected is a tenet of all Westminster democracies. Furthermore, I believe it is important to formalize in the rules the process by which it is decided which minister is invited to appear in the Senate for Question Period.
To the credit of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, he has already adopted the practice of consulting and even deferring to the Leader of the Opposition on the decision of which minister should be invited to QP on any given day. However, the failure of the ninth report to formalize the role of the official opposition in the determination of which minister attends Question Period is a concern. Enshrining the principle of consultation with the official opposition and other non-government caucuses over which minister should be invited to participate in QP should be a part of any rule change on this matter, in my opinion.
Another area that could be improved is with respect to the rules or at least the conventions to do with the exchanges between senators and ministers. We are all familiar with instances where ministers appear in this chamber and begin with an opening statement or provide lengthy, meandering answers. To be fair, we senators can go on for longer than necessary as well. This impacts negatively on Question Period for all senators, as it limits the number of us who are able to pose a question on a given day.
I believe that ending the practice of ministers' opening remarks and placing time limits on both questions and responses would allow for the freer flow of debate and allow the greatest number of senators to participate in what is necessarily a constrained amount of time.
Finally, ministers appear before us because they are fulfilling their duty of transparency and accountability to Parliament. Therefore, displays of gratitude on the part of senators, such as applause, are out of place in this chamber. Needless to say, respectful debate and decorum are always appropriate, but that is the usually practice in any case.
I look forward to a thoughtful and wholesome debate as we seek to bring forward meaningful improvements to our Senate chamber's Question Period.