Question period in the National Assembly: theatre or fundamental democratic process?

Ever since I first began as a political staffer, quite a few years ago now, I have made a point of watching and listening to the oral question and answer period in the National Assembly. It’s an old habit of mine, and one that I continue to uphold in my work as a consultant lobbyist.

The process is virtually unchanged since I first took an interest in it, except that since fall 2015 parliamentarians have been barred from applauding after an answer from a fellow party member is given—regardless of how relevant or important the answer is.

This alteration, both noteworthy and beneficial, has made question period a much smoother ride. However, the 45-minute question period is still filled with oratorical sparring that, more often than not, ends up being partisan and sterile. The characters may be recast every five years or so, but the theatre and drama haven’t disappeared. It can’t be easy presiding over the National Assembly every day!

Question period seems to interest the public more than any other parliamentary process, but the unruly behaviour that is so rampant and the shortness of speaking time aren’t effective at fostering the exchange of ideas. Party leaders are allowed to raise points of order, but this rarely illuminates the discussion. Quite the opposite, in fact: all it does is fan the flames.

Here’s a question I’d like to hear the premier and his ministers answer: “Should question period be abolished in the National Assembly?” One former National Assembly president, Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, already came out publicly in favour of scrapping the process in 2008.

From where I sit, I’m still persuaded the answer is no. Question period is a democratic process that all citizens can access, now that the debates can be viewed on television and online. I do have a “but” to add, however: in my opinion, a revised format for question period would encourage more eloquent exchanges for the benefit of the electorate.

For example, close to home, raising points of order is prohibited in the House of Commons. Or why not take a page from the book of the United Kingdom—whose parliament and ours share many similarities—by allocating a full day to questions solely addressed to the prime minister? Or how about extending the process to a full hour instead of 45 minutes, and allocating more time to each speaker?

Changes like these could result in questions that are better articulated and more focused on the government’s actions, rather than media-friendly sound bites and clips.

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