You may be forgiven if you turned off your radio or closed your web browser when you heard or read about the curfuffle raised by two of Alberta’s opposition parties over the amount of questions in Question Period, but if you had taken a second look, you would have seen something edging on the bizarre. This morning, Wildrose MLA Paul Hinman and NDP MLA Brian Mason held a joint media conference (and in an even more bizarre twist, Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman would later join them).
Although the three MLAs raised some legitimate questions about their situation, I believe that there is a larger and much more important question: Does Question Period really matter?
Anyone who has watched Question Period in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly can easily observe that most Government MLAs use their allotted time to read positive pre-written questions to Ministers, who then respond with pre-written softball answers. From another angle, some Government MLAs have been known to act as a faux-opposition, asking questions crafted to dilute the questions asked by actual Opposition MLAs.
Across the aisle, Opposition MLAs use much of their time to launch loaded questions crafted to illicit embarrassing responses from Government Ministers. Question Period is the bread and butter of Opposition MLAs. It is where they get the chance to score political points fit for the 6pm news. Some MLAs, including Mr. Mason and Liberal MLA Dave Taylor, have become particularly effective at crafting made for television moments in Question Period.
During their news conference today, the NDP Opposition released a chart (see above) comparing the amount of time that Opposition MLAs get to ask questions in Assemblies across Canada. I was not aware that most Assemblies allot Opposition MLAs the entirety of Question Period. While this appears to make sense to me, I wonder if this difference makes Question Period any more relevant to the general public in other provinces? Would the debate in our Assembly be more relevant to ordinary Albertans if Opposition MLAs were able to ask 18 questions instead of 7? Is Question Period theatre without an audience?
In a better world, Question Period would matter, but the issue raised by the Opposition MLAs today points to the larger problems facing our traditional governing structures and the increasing disconnect between citizens and their democratic institutions.