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Question periods in Canada and the United States August 25, 2008

Posted by tomflesher in Canada.
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“I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.” – John McCain, suggesting a Question Period should be part of the President’s duties

In Friday’s Globe and Mail Opinion section, Preston Manning uses the metaphor of a circus to criticize certain aspects of the Canadian political system. Hardly anything unusual, but Mr. Manning is quite incisive with his specific metaphor – that of Cirque du Soleil wriggling into a monopoly held by the now-merged frontrunners of the old system (Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey).

This comes a scant three weeks after the Congressional Research Service issued a report in which they vetted a parliamentary-style question period as it would apply in the United States. (The version here is cited from the Federation of American Scientists.) John McCain is of the opinion that a question period would be a good thing, while, in Manning’s view, the Canadian electorate would apparently be better served without it.

Discussion behind the cut.

Manning’s criticism:

These gong shows, in which the most aggressive political animals on both sides vie for 10-second evening news hits, have an increasingly negative image among the public. Yet this is the image of our parliamentary system most frequently presented on television, contributing significantly to the declining respect for politicians, parties and Parliament itself.

(… followed by a glib suggestion of an “Answer Period” in which the government is given a “meaningful opportunity to explain and defend their positions” as a replacement.) Thus, the criticism is not of the question period per se but of politics by sound bite. The CRS notes this on page 29, under the heading of “Intensification of Partisanship,” as well as touching on it two pages later as a “Quality of Debate” issue. The New York Times, ever optimistic, suggested in June that question periods “feature literate parries and thrusts, complete sentences, artful arguments, all to a chorus of noisy yeas and brays,” and that the tradition requires “gumption.”

Although I don’t have the data, or the gumption required to crunch the numbers, I would be very surprised if Question Periods actually lived up to the Times’ view of it – an exciting, intelligent forum for debate. Instead, I think the CRS’ view that it would be expensive and difficult to implement is more likely to be accurate.

Idea: For a specific session of Parliament, track topics discussed in the Canadian House of Commons. Starting in that session and exctending into the next, track new germane legislation introduced subsequent to questions as a proportion of all new legislation. Significant?

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