In Search of Civility
In search of civility The Ottawa Citizen September 21, 2010With John Baird and David McGuinty preparing to square off as house leaders in a minority Parliament, the question of how that Parliament works -- or doesn't -- seems certain to dominate the political agenda this fall.The good news is that there is a multi-partisan movement in favour of improving the tone of debate on the Hill, and that movement is picking up speed. At a recent conference organized by the Public Policy Forum and the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, current and former politicians from all the major parties proved they can have a civil conversation about matters of substance -- in this case, about reforming question period and the committee system.Even in the governing party, there are people pushing for change. Conservative Monte Solberg, who recently left politics and can speak freely, was adamant at the Ottawa conference that many of the problems with committees could be solved if the parliamentary secretaries had no roles there. The secretaries enforce the party line, preventing government MPs from using their own minds.But committees, as partisan and flawed as they have become, are not the most visible sign of dysfunction on the Hill.Question period is supposed to be raucous. It's supposed to be passionate. But it's also supposed to be a time for the government actually to provide the Opposition -- and by proxy, the Canadian people -- with information. Instead, it's a time for what former Liberal minister Anne McLellan characterized as members asking non-questions and ministers providing non-answers. She recalled with affection the early days of the Reform party, when Preston Manning -- a gentleman to the core -- asked substantive questions and expected real answers. That didn't last long, unfortunately.Michael Chong, a Conservative MP, believes there is something about the structure of question period that disfigures the behaviour of politicians, even those who arrive with the best of intentions to act civilly.