Cleaning Up The Gong Show

Justin Trudeau’s new ideas on how to make government better do have some merit, if they are ever implemented. I say that as someone who is a bit jaded and cynical from having been involved in federal politics from as far back as 1984. There are always great ideas, especially when you are an opposition party. It is only when you form a government that you realize how practical or impractical your ideas were and that goes for all political parties, not just the Liberals

Let us take a look at one area I know a little bit about, namely Trudeau’s promise to improve the Gong Show that is Question Period. Having been involved in Question Period (QP) from 1984-89 and again 1997-2008, I agree with him, there is no doubt that it needs cleaning up.

Gone are the days when opposition MPs would call a minister’s office to give them a heads up on a question so that the minister could have an answer ready for them. This was not unusual in the Mulroney years and as a Chief of Staff, I often took calls from opposition MPs or their staff. This often led to a good rapport between critics, ministers and their staffs and a more civil atmosphere.

Trudeau is suggesting that we have a Prime Minister’s Question Period, similar to the UK model. This is not a new idea, but one he has copied from the excellent work done by Conservative MP Michael Chong. Nether the less it is a good idea.

The PM would still be accountable; even if he is not in the House three days a week (it is rare that any PM is there more often). Generally the PM answers three questions from each of the opposition leaders (less than nine minutes). Harper as a courtesy answers additional questions from the Leader of the Official Opposition if they continue into the second round. Imagine the Opposition having a solid hour (I would extend QP by an extra 15 minutes) to ask their questions and the PM being unable to deflect them to another minister!

This would also take away the practice of every questioner (no matter how far down the line up) asking the PM a question even if he is not in the House. This practice was instituted strictly for the 10 second media clip plus it gave backbenchers something to put in their local media or householders.

The other bonus to this system is that on the days that the PM is not being questioned, there is a lot more time to question individual ministers. If a minister is targeted, it is a lot less likely that they can stick to a tight script provided by PMO. Imagine the opposition parties having an hour to attack Fantino when he was the Veteran Affairs minister!

Trudeau is also proposing to adjust the time allocated to ask and answer a question. I agree that it is far too tight right now. People might want to look back at the old Hansards from the 1980s. Questions were longer as were the answers. It began to tighten up when the Liberal rat pack began using long winded pre-ambles to score media points. Certainly increasing the time to 40 or 45 seconds from 35 seconds will help. Beyond that and you will see the question degenerate into a simple attack piece for media consumption.

While he is at it, perhaps Justin should do away with the list of questioners that is given to the Speaker before QP starts. This list which designates the order in which MPs will ask a question is part of the problem today. It allows parties to line up their questioners in an unbroken series of attacks and decide which MP will ask the most pointed questions for media consumption. For instance Jason Kenney was our clean-up questioner and was often clipped on the nightly news, even if Harper was not.

Reverting back to the earlier practice of the Speaker recognizing the first MP to stand up breaks up the coordinated attacks we see now. Plus backbenchers would be able to ask what they want, not necessarily what the Leader's Office wants IE give more power to individual MPs. It would also do away with those ridiculous soft ball questions the government side asks their ministers. I can remember in the 1980s some of our toughest questions came from MPs on our own side who were allowed to ask our ministers whatever they wanted. The extra bonus was that it also helped to keep ministers on their toes and in touch with caucus members who had issues with the ministers department.

There you have it. Just a little advice from someone who has been there and it won’t cost the taxpayer a cent.


Going Left 

At first glance it looks like Justin Trudeau’s recent policy announcement of a list of items that he would implement if he becomes Prime Minister was based on the wisdom of a former adviser and campaign strategist for Pierre Trudeau.  Keith Davey would always argue that “It is when the Liberal Party shifts to the right that we lose elections” and that “the Liberal Party wins elections when it is most liberal.”

Certainly Justin’s policy announcement has attempted to move his party into the left wing space occupied by the NDP. Whether or not this move will stop the Liberal’s downward slide in the polls is hard to say at this point. With Mulcair and the NDP continuing to rise in the polls, one could be forgiven if they saw Trudeau’s announcement as anything but a desperate move to remain relevant as the “Anyone But Harper” vote seems to be coalescing around Mulcair.

As with any set of policy announcements, there are good and bad ideas, most of which will likely never see the light of day once the campaign officially kicks off. Campaigns are usually defined by leadership issues and one or two key policy items that the public will focus on. Most of Trudeau’s policy announcements will end up being buried in some Red Book that few people will bother reading and like previous Red Books will never be implemented even if the Liberals are elected with a majority which is highly unlikely.

There are lots of nice feel good items in Trudeau’s release; they will appeal to lots of different people right across the political spectrum. For example:

  • reforming parliamentary committees
  • reforming Question Period
  • more open government
  • gender parity in cabinet
  • more free votes for MPs
  • changes to the first past the post voting system
  • amendments to the Liberal supported Bill C-51
  • restoring home mail delivery

The list goes on and on.

Perhaps Trudeau should also have listened to these other words of Keith Davey, when he suggested that during an election you shouldn’t be “foolishly attempting to be all things to all people.”

The next week or so will tell us if Trudeau’s feel good release will give him the bump in the polls that he so desperately needs. Clearly the campaign has begun; it’s going to be a fun ride.


Power and Influence magazine Summer edition

The latest edition of Power and Influence magazine is out. My column on auditing MPs expenses is on Page 12. You can download a free copy of the magazine at


The Week That Was May 29th

It has been an interesting week in Canadian politics. All three parties released new campaign style ads… I seem to recall Justin Trudeau telling us that he doesn’t believe in negative ads and that he will always be positive. Is this a broken promise before the election even starts?

As for the ads, I like the NDP one. It is softer and well done and “Angry Tom” isn’t there. We get to see another side of him. Sort of like the sweater wearing Stephen Harper we only get to see at election time.

The Conservative ad is interesting. The first time I didn’t like it, but it grows on you. Each person in the ad makes a statement that appeals to a different group. For instance if you are a senior, that one comment on pension splitting really hits home and gets you thinking about that issue.

I don’t know what the Liberals were thinking with their ad. The viewer’s focus has wandered off after the first couple of panels. There is so much they could have done but didn’t. While watching it keep in mind Justin says they won’t go negative.

CPP is another hot topic all of a sudden. Geez there must be an election coming. The Conservatives want voluntary contributions. Really? Nice idea, buy where is the money to come from. In these tough economic times most young people and young families are living pay cheque to pay cheque. There is no extra money to put into a plan (that they might need 30-40 years from now) when they are struggling to survive today.

The other two parties want to make it mandatory contributions. If the $1000 a year number is accurate that means a young family could lose what little extra they have on a pay cheque. And let’s not forget the small businesses that will have extra costs as well.

The Auditor General, who is supposed to be the watch dog of the public purse, got caught doing the exact same thing that the former Auditor General Fraser said was wrong… IE playing with contract amounts to keep them just below the amount needed to go to tender. When in Opposition we used to try to catch the Liberals doing this and they could always duck and weave and come up with reasons for it happening. Now it’s the turn of the Auditor General to duck and weave. It neither case is it right.

Last but not least, there is a suggestion that political staff will be banned from working on political campaigns and that they will no longer get paid by the taxpayers through accumulated leave or vacation pay etc. On our side we had to take leave without pay and we were paid by the campaign. It is outrageous to think that our tax money could be used to allow someone to leave their job and campaign.

How can you tell an election is coming? Everyone is in campaign mode and they have been for months. Like the Americans, our fixed election dates pretty much guarantee campaigning takes over the agenda in the year before the election.  

As this political week comes to an end, fire up the BBQ and ignore politics for a couple of days. You won’t miss much and they will still be at it on Monday. Have a great weekend.


The CTV True North Panel May 28th

 A link can be found here  The panel looks at the CCP debate and possibility of a cut to the GST.