At the time this article was written Greg
Deighan was a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island. This
article is based on his presentation at the 22nd CPA Canadian Regional Seminar
held in St. John's, Newfoundland in October 1999.
Question Period is the time
during the daily legislative proceedings when the opposition parties hold the
Government responsible for its actions. This article looks at the conduct of
Question Period in Prince Edward Island and points out some similarities and
differences with other assemblies in Canada.
In Prince Edward Island our
official rules state that “The Speaker shall preserve order and decorum,
enforce the Rules and decide questions of order”. While the role of the Speaker
has remained virtually unchanged for many years, the duties involved with
preserving that expected order and decorum have dramatically been altered with
the onset of technological advances.
With the introduction of video
cameras and live Internet coverage, we have seen increased public awareness of
the workings of the Legislature – and Question Period in particular. While this
increased awareness is a positive step in the efforts of many provinces to make
the assembly more accessible and more understandable to the people, it places
new demands on the person whose duty it is to uphold order and maintain
fairness – the Speaker of the House.
In Prince Edward Island, the
local cable station plays Question Period twice daily, when the House is in
Session. We jokingly call it PEI’s most popular soap opera. This increased
exposure means an increased awareness among the political parties that public
perception is often influenced by the performance of the elected representative
on TV. This means we have opposition parties who are not just asking questions
to hold the government accountable, but who are strategically planning their
questions to win the most favourable public exposure.
For the government, it does mean
more accountability than ever before. Before TV and the Internet the press
reported only on the most controversial or most newsworthy issues discussed in
Question Period. The average constituent had little knowledge of the workings
of the Assembly or the issues dealt with on a daily basis. Now, every issue,
big or small, is public – and Governments can no longer get away without fully
answering to each and every question.
For the Speaker, it means he or
she has two or more areas of the House vying for the best airplay and it
sometimes means the job of refereeing is more complex than ever before.
In PEI, for our Speaker, that
daily task usually begins with 40 minutes of Question Period. To quote from our
rule book: “The Oral Question Period shall be limited to forty minutes on each
sitting day, not inclusive of any time required for Ministerial responses to
Oral Questions taken as Notice.”
While the responsibility of the
Speaker is similar in most jurisdictions, the rules which he/she is charged
with upholding vary as does the time limits for Question Period and for
individual questions. For example, in PEI and in Manitoba, Oral Question Period
is scheduled for 40 minutes. The times in other provinces range from 15 minutes
in British Columbia, 25 minutes in Saskatchewan, 30 minutes in Yukon and 50
minutes in Alberta. The House of Commons allots 45 minutes to Daily Question
Period, however with four recognized opposition parties, the federal Speaker
has his work cut out trying to limit each question to 35 seconds and each
response to 35 seconds as well.
In PEI, our third party has only
one member but, because it is a recognized party, the Leader is given 6 minutes
during Question Period. In Nova Scotia, a party must have run 10 or more
candidates in the most recent election to be recognized by the Legislature as
an official party. In the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, where there are 103
sitting members of the provincial parliament, there were nine members of the third
party elected. The House Leaders agreed to grant official party status to the
third party. Alberta which has 83 sitting members, grants official party status
to the third party, with only two elected members.
In provincial and territorial
legislatures, the preamble and questions are not officially limited but most
try to keep a timeframe of about 30 seconds to one minute for the preamble and
question, and a reasonable period of time for a brief response. Most
jurisdictions limit their supplementary questions to two per main question
although in British Columbia the number of supplementary questions is left to
the discretion of the Speaker.
timing, one of the most challenging duties of the Speaker on a daily basis is
to determine whether the content of the questions and answers is appropriate.
Our PEI rules state:
Upon the order of business
“Questions by Members” being called, oral questions of an urgent nature
relating to public affairs may be put without notice to Ministers of the Crown.
An oral question shall be
concisely and clearly put and shall refer only to a matter which may reasonably
be assumed to be within the present knowledge of the Minister.
The Minister to whom an oral
question is directed may forthwith answer the question, or state that he takes
the question as notice and answer it orally on a subsequent day under the same
order of business, or state that in his opinion the question should be put in
Where, in the opinion of the
Speaker, a question put to a Minister is of such a nature as to require a
lengthy reply, he may, upon the request of the Minister, direct the question to
be put in writing, or to stand as Notice and be transferred to the Order Paper.
When the content of a question
or its answer is questioned by a Member, the Speaker is challenged to make a
ruling based on the rather ambiguous notion of what is an “urgent nature
relating to public affairs”. Prior knowledge of the question to be asked may
make the Speaker’s job easier, but at what expense to the goal of the
There are no provinces where
members are required to file notice to the Speaker of what questions they will
be posing to the Government, but in some provinces, as well as in the House of
Commons, the Speaker is provided with a list of opposition members who will be
As Deputy Speaker, I have sat in
the Speaker’s chair during Question Period and I can certainly see the value of
having the Speaker provided with a list of members who will be questioning the
Government. Ours is a relatively small Chamber, with 27 sitting members,
including the Speaker, but even in our House, it is sometimes a challenge to
determine who the next questioner will be, simply by catching the eye of the
member who indicates he or she is waiting.
In Prince Edward Island we have
17 Government members plus the Speaker, eight members of the official
opposition and one member of the third party. During our 40 minutes of Question
Period, the Leader of the Opposition usually, but not always, takes the lead in
asking questions. Our Speaker has allowed the Leader of the Opposition
considerable time for a preamble, and does not limit the time the Premier or
Minister takes to answer the question.
Our private members rarely ask
questions during Question Period. However, on December 4, 1998, the Speaker was
called on to make a ruling on the timing and order of questions due to a
concern raised about whether Private Members should be given some of the
precious 40 minutes to ask questions. At that time, the Speaker ruled:
It is not uncommon to have a
member from the Government side ask a question. When I became Speaker, with the
Assistant Clerk and the then Clerk, it was decided that we would allow the
Opposition 25 minutes. We would bring in the Leader of the Third Party for six
minutes. And if there was a question from the private members on the Government
side, we would allow one question per day ...it is quite common to have a
question from the Government side and we should have, perhaps one, with no
The remaining time reverts to
the Official Opposition so they can conclude their questioning for the day. The
House of Commons Précis of Procedure give one excellent example of a
slight, but significant adaptation of the rules, to better fit the expectations
of the people of this decade:
Among the many pronouncements
and observations on the conduct of the oral Question Period, some guidelines
were adopted by the House in 1964 and others set out by the Chair in 1975. On
February 24, 1986, the Speaker indicated that certain traditional guidelines
would remain in force, while others had changed with practice over time, and
that the appropriate guidelines for Question Period ought to be respected for
the realization of the principal objective: “the seeking of information from
the Government and calling the Government to account for its actions”.
These guidelines leave the
Speaker discretion in allowing a question and even wider latitude with regard
to supplementaries. For several years, the Speaker has generally interrupted if
the question is too long or if the length or technical nature of the answer
suggests that it would be better dealt with as a question on the Order
This statement set a precedent
which gives Speakers throughout the country the freedom to chance and adapt the
rulings in regards to the questions, answers, and timing of such in each
individual legislature and each individual Question Period.
Perhaps security issues have
become more visible during Question Period because this is the most popular
time for visitors to the public gallery. This is a new development for the
Speaker to deal with, but unfortunately one that is only recognized following a
In May 1999, during Question
Period, our Speaker was forced to deal with an unruly visitor in the public
gallery, who had strong feelings about an issue being debated on the floor at
the time. This gentleman yelled from the gallery, argued with the Speaker and
refused to leave. He was finally escorted from the gallery and the building,
but the incident was quite disrupting to the daily proceedings and to us as
Members, sitting below in the Chamber.
With increased public
awareness of the daily proceedings of the House, and in particular the events
during Question Period, our Speaker has faced an increased need for security.
For the first time many of us
realized how vulnerable we are, sitting exposed to the guests in the public
gallery. For the first time, our Speaker was faced with a security issue, for which
we were ill-prepared. The incident forced us as MLAs and the Speaker, as the
person in charge of security during the Legislative Session, to take a serious
look at security and specifically the security provided for Members inside the
rails of the Chamber.
The Speaker’s responsibility to
the House extends beyond preserving order and decorum within the rails – it
also encompasses ensuring order and security in the public galleries. It has
always been the tradition of the House to accommodate visitors in the public
gallery but traditions cannot be put ahead of individual security.