I am now prepared to rule on the point of order raised on November 2, 2023, by the member for New Westminster—Burnaby concerning the admissibility of questions asked during Oral Questions.
In his intervention, the member asserted that, in recent weeks, oral questions have deviated from their primary purpose, which is to hold the government accountable for its actions. He said that a number of questions have been asked of government backbenchers and opposition members, and he argued that this should not be allowed. The member noted that multiple Speaker’s decisions support that interpretation, including a ruling delivered by one of my predecessors, the current member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, on January 28, 2014.
After the member for New Westminster—Burnaby raised his point of order, other members offered their perspectives. Some also asked the Chair to examine oral questions that referred to a so-called coalition government. I would like to thank all members who made arguments on these important issues.
One of the main goals of question period is to enable all members to ask the government questions in order to obtain information about matters under its jurisdiction. In this way, it can be held to account, within the bounds of its responsibilities. This is a fundamental principle of our parliamentary system.
As the third edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice states on page 497:
The importance of questions within the parliamentary system cannot be overemphasized and the search for or clarification of information through questioning is a vital aspect of the duties undertaken by individual Members.
It is true that we have recently heard many questions that seem to include preambles with little or no connection to the government's administrative responsibility. For instance, questions have referred to the opposition parties, backbenchers and even provincial governments. Most of these preambles were followed by a question addressed to the government or a minister. The question often related to an area of government responsibility, but not always.
The Chair would like to thank members for quoting the ruling of January 28, 2014, from the current member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, which touched on similar issues. That ruling can be found on pages 2202 to 2205 of the Debates. Allow me to read a few excerpts:
...lately we have witnessed a growing trend: we hear preambles to questions that go on at some length to criticize the position, statements, or actions of other parties, members from other parties, and in some cases even private citizens before concluding with a brief question about the government's policies.
What we have, therefore, is an example of a hybrid question, one in which the preamble is on a subject that has nothing to do with the administrative responsibility of the government but which concludes in the final five or ten seconds with a query that in a technical sense manages to relate to the government's administrative responsibilities.
The House needs to ask itself if, taken as a whole, such a question—a lengthy preamble and a desultory query—can reasonably be assumed by a listener to respect the principles that govern question period.
Further on, it also states, and I quote:
...since members have very little time to pose their questions and the Chair has even less time to make decisions about their admissibility, it would be helpful if the link to the administrative responsibility of the government were made as quickly as possible.
Accordingly, these kinds of questions will continue to risk being ruled out of order and members should take care to establish the link to government responsibility as quickly as possible.
This direct link is essential. It must be established in order for members to obtain an answer from the government. In fact, members have a vested interest in favouring direct questions if they wish to receive direct answers.
The Chair is empowered to rule any question out of order. If it becomes clear that no link can be made, the Chair may rule the question out of order while it is being asked or afterward. Depending on the circumstances, the Chair may ask a member to rephrase the question, interrupt the member or recognize another member, yet judging the admissibility of an oral question in a matter of seconds is no easy task.
Cutting off a question a little too soon could cause the member significant prejudice. While wrongly depriving a member of the opportunity to ask a legitimate question could ultimately damage this essential mechanism of accountability, members must keep in mind that they are primarily responsible for quickly establishing this direct link with government affairs in their questions. Members, therefore, should get straight to the point or they risk bearing sole responsibility should the Chair interrupt their question.
Likewise, in asking the government a question, members would benefit not only from drawing a link to its administrative responsibilities, but also from expressing themselves clearly. I would certainly hope that a clear question would merit an equally clear and specific answer that would also pertain to the government's administrative responsibilities.
Furthermore, while the government may be asked whether it supports a particular measure or proposal, a minister cannot answer for the positions taken by another political party or a provincial government. Consequently, like my predecessor, I encourage members to pose their questions in a way that clearly connects them to the federal government's administrative responsibilities.
However, the Chair will continue the practice of recognizing any minister who wishes to answer the question nonetheless, again in the interest of preserving the accountability mechanism.
In addition, ministers and parliamentary secretaries are clearly the only individuals who can answer questions, except in those limited exceptions for questions addressed to committee chairs or a representative of the Board of Internal Economy. Since both opposition members and government backbenchers cannot answer questions, they cannot be called to account for the actions of the executive. Oral Questions must not be used to ask questions that attack a colleague who is unable to respond.
More generally, the Chair will continue to be guided by the statement of October 18, 2023, on order and decorum. Excessive heckling, provocations and unnecessarily personal criticisms intended to denigrate a member will not be tolerated.
Before concluding this ruling on the content of questions, the Chair would like to address the point raised by several members regarding whether or not a coalition government exists in the House.
Members may recall that the Deputy Speaker dealt with this issue last year. I would, therefore, refer members to the decision of March 29, 2022, which can be found on pages 3689 and 3690 of the Debates. In short, it states, “Fundamentally, the agreement in question is a political one. It is not the Chair’s role to interpret or give meaning to such agreements between parties.” Accordingly, a question will not be ruled out of order based on this criterion alone.
In conclusion, I would invite members to reflect on the statement made by Speaker Jerome on April 14, 1975, which appears on pages 4762 to 4764 of the Debates, and I quote:
The question period is a unique feature of the Canadian House of Commons where the ministry is required to be accountable to the House on a daily basis without advance notice. It is an excellent feature of our parliament, and while we have much to learn from other governmental systems, the question period is one area in which we are in the forefront of responsible government, and every effort must be made to preserve the excellence of this practice.
I thank all members for their attention and their patience.
I wish to inform the House that because of the deferred recorded division, Government Orders will be extended by 12 minutes.