Q48. How does Question Period work?

QP is the most direct and pithy exchange between government and opposition

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A48. Question Period (QP) is usually considered the highlight of the legislative day. It gets more attention than it deserves.

Question Period usually starts exactly one hour after the daily sitting begins. It used to be a floating time—QP would start after other routine business was finished, and there was no way to know when that would be—but since 2013 the start of QP has been fixed.

QP gets a lot of attention because it is the most direct, pithy exchange between government and opposition.

The questions can be directed to the premier or any minister. There are only a few restrictions on what can be asked:

  1. The questions must relate to the premier’s or minister’s government responsibilities. A question could not, for example, be about a minister’s family or personal matters.
  2. The questions must not relate to a bill currently before the House for debate.
  3. The questions must be relatively brief. The Speaker is the sole judge of when a question is too long.

There is no obligation on the premier or minister to answer the question, and in fact they often don’t. (There’s a very common joke among MLAs: “There’s a reason it’s not called Answer Period.”) The premier or minister who is asked the question can also ask a different minister to answer the question. This is known as “referring the question” or more informally as “tossing the question”.

The first set of questions always goes to the Opposition, and the Opposition almost always starts with a question from the Leader of the Opposition (Jamie Baillie) to the premier (Stephen McNeil). The first question will always be on whatever the opposition considers the hottest topic of the day.

The second set of questions always goes to the other opposition party (currently the NDP). The NDP leader (Gary Burrill) will usually lead off. Again, the NDP will focus on whatever they consider to be the hottest topic of the day.

The order of questioning then rotates among the opposition parties, in rough proportion to the number of seats they hold. Starting in 2013, government MLAs started getting one turn per Question Period too.

Question Period is more of a theatrical, partisan show than a sincere attempt to ask good questions or offer good answers. It gets a lot of attention because of the directness of the exchange, and the speed at which things move along. Both sides are typically being very partisan, though, so you may notice bad behaviour by MLAs on all sides and a distinct lack of substance.

Ministers typically spend a great deal of time preparing for Question Period. They and their staff try to anticipate all possible questions, and they rehearse possible answers. All of this preparation time is surprising considering how few questions the typical minister is asked. Some ministers might be asked no questions for long stretches. I’ve often thought that the ministers’ briefing books are far more interesting than what actually gets asked, because the ministers’ staff know the weak points of their policies and operations, and all the behind-the-scenes flubs, better than the opposition.

The opposition also spends a great deal of time preparing for Question Period. They and their staff try to find questions that will attract the attention of reporters, and perhaps get them in the news that day. If it’s not a newsworthy question, at least they’ll try to ask something that they can take back to an interest group or to someone in their constituency. The main problem for the opposition is that they often don’t have good information or analysis on which to base their questions. The opposition is working with very thin research resources.

There’s one other little quirk of Question Period I should mention. QP is the only time in the daily sitting that MLAs are not permitted to use their phones, laptops, or any other technological aid. The idea is to ensure that the exchange is honest and forthright—opposition MLAs shouldn’t be fed questions, and ministers shouldn’t be fed answers, by staff or any other outsider. Sometimes, if you’re sitting in the public gallery, you’ll see an MLA taking an illicit peek at a screen. It’s a definite no-no. If they’re caught, their screen will be confiscated by the Speaker and they could even be expelled from the House for the remainder of the day.

Q44. Why do MLAs behave badly in the House of Assembly?

Some MLAs act badly due to partisanship and boredom

A44. One of the first things that visitors to the legislature notice is the bad behaviour of the MLAs. This bad behaviour can be explained, if not excused.

The bad behaviour takes the following forms:

  1. Interrupting the MLA who is speaking. (This practice is known as “heckling”.)
  2. A general chorus of noise from one side that drowns out the MLA who is speaking.
  3. Very evidently not paying attention to the MLA who is speaking. This behaviour can include going in and out of the chamber, walking around inside the chamber, talking to another MLA, focusing on an electronic screen, and reading a newspaper or magazine.
  4. Insulting another MLA or another party.
  5. Making statements that are false or at least highly questionable.
  6. Refusing to answer a question asked by another MLA.

These behaviours would not be tolerated in any other workplace. In almost any other gathering of grown-ups, these behaviours would be considered shockingly rude. But in the legislative chamber, they are routine.

I spent a long time around the legislature. I’m not sure I can fully explain the bad behaviour exhibited there, but I have some ideas about the contributing factors.

The most important reason, in my view, is that all important decisions are made elsewhere. The party caucuses decide what they’re going to do, and then they almost always vote together. An MLA knows how they’re going to vote when they walk in the door at the beginning of the day. That doesn’t mean votes are held quickly. The opposition often has an interest in creating delay. The result is that MLAs are often very bored, and boredom causes bad behaviour.

Another reason for the bad behaviour is the partisanship that pervades the House. Partisanship is the excessive attachment to one’s political party. There is a strong tendency among MLAs to think of one’s own party as always right, and the other parties as always wrong. They must always praise their own leader and their own party; they must always condemn other leaders and other parties. It’s an unhealthy dynamic.

If you put boredom and partisanship together, the conditions for bad behaviour are created.

Not all MLAs act badly, and certainly there is no MLA who acts badly all the time. But unfortunately, bad behaviour is treated by senior MLAs as normal and acceptable, and is even to some extent celebrated within a party caucus. As a result, the well-behaving MLAs tend to sit quietly. They may grimace inwardly at the bad behaviour, but they make no attempt to stop it. If they do, they will be told it’s all part of the normal give-and-take of the legislature.

The bad behaviour will continue until the legislature is a forum for meaningful debate, in which MLAs prepare their arguments carefully, listen attentively to other MLAs’ arguments, and then make up their minds accordingly on how to vote. That is not likely to happen any time soon.

Q35. How can I contact my MLA when he or she is in the chamber?

Best way is to send them a note via a page

A35. There are several ways to contact your MLA, even when they’re sitting at their desk at Province House.

The one complete no-no is for an MLA to answer their phone while sitting in the chamber.

If you’re at Province House, here are your options:

  1. Send your MLA a handwritten note. You can hand the note to one of the pages (the young people wearing snappy black uniforms). There’s usually a page standing in the public gallery (third floor) for this exact purpose. There’s also usually a page standing near the entrance to the chamber (second floor) who’s watching for people with notes. You can send the note on any piece of paper, or you can use the green notepads that you may see lying around.
  2. If you know your MLA’s phone number, send them a text. Most MLAs look at their phone frequently. The only time they’re not allowed to use their phones is during Question Period.
  3. If you know your MLA’s e-mail, send them an e-mail. Depending on how they handle e-mail, they may get it on their phone. Again, they’re not allowed to use their phones during Question Period.
  4. Wait until your MLA leaves the chamber, then you can approach them in a public area.

If you’re not at Province House, you can call Province House and ask to speak to your MLA. Remember that this only works if the House is actually sitting. If it isn’t, your MLA won’t be there. A message will be given to your MLA. They may leave the chamber to speak to you, or they may call you back later, or they may ignore you. It’s up to them.

Remember: Just because the House is sitting doesn’t necessarily mean your MLA will be in their seat.

When the House isn’t sitting, your MLA is most likely to be found at their constituency office. I’ve written a post with tips on how to communicate effectively with your MLA.

Q23. What is Hansard?

Hansard is the transcript from the House of Assembly

A23. Hansard is the transcript of what is said in the House of Assembly.

The transcript is called Hansard because Thomas Curson Hansard (1776–1833), a London printer and publisher, was the first official printer for Parliament in the United Kingdom. The transcript there was called Hansard, and the name spread to parliaments in the UK’s colonies, including Nova Scotia.

Hansard is a verbatim record (i.e. every single word) of what is said in the House. There are only two exceptions: Committee of the Whole House on a bill, and the detailed budget debate.

Hansard is usually available within 24 hours of a House sitting. Hansard is posted on the legislature’s website back to 1997. Hansard for sessions before 1997 is available only in hard copy. It is available at the Legislative Library in Province House.

Hansard on the legislature’s website is a searchable database, but the search function isn’t very user-friendly. A non-profit organization called Open House NS has set up a website that tries to make it easier to search Hansard.

Q27. Who is allowed in the legislative chamber?

Entry is tightly controlled; only a handful of non-MLAs are allowed in

A27. Apart from the 51 MLAs, very few people are allowed to enter the legislative chamber in Province House when the legislature is in session.

Of course any member of the public is permitted to watch proceedings from the public gallery, but I’m talking about who is allowed “on the floor”.

Entry is tightly controlled in order to maintain the integrity of legislative proceedings.

In addition to the 51 MLAs, only the following people are permitted to enter the chamber:

  1. The clerks of the House. They are the lawyers who sit at the table directly in front of the Speaker. Sometimes there is one, but usually there are two.
  2. The Sergeant at Arms. He is in charge of security at Province House. A chair is reserved for him near the main door of the chamber. He rarely attends because he usually has other things to do around Province House.
  3. The pages. These are the young people—almost always university students—dressed in black uniforms who act as messengers and assist in helping the House run smoothly. The uniforms look sharp, but they are made of polyester and are hot and uncomfortable.
  4. The House operations staff. They look after all the details that help the House run smoothly. They are, for example, in charge of the pages. Occasionally you will see one of them enter the chamber. For example, if something ceremonial needs to be done and the Sergeant at Arms is not available, the operations staff will often step in.
  5. During the debate on departmental budgets, which takes place in the spring sitting, the minister who is being questioned is permitted to bring two staff members into the chamber to assist him or her. Those staff members are not permitted to participate directly in the debate. They whisper advice to the minister.

Apart from the people listed above, anyone entering the chamber is called a “stranger” and would be immediately ejected by the Sergeant at Arms, if necessary by force.

The rules are more relaxed during a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). That is the only legislative committee that meets in the legislative chamber. (Other committees meet in the Committee Room across the street.)

During a PAC meeting, there are nine MLAs in the chamber.  They may be assisted by caucus staff. In addition, the Auditor General attends with any staff he wishes to bring. Finally, there are the witnesses being questioned that day by the PAC members.

The rules are also more relaxed during the ceremonial opening and closing of a session of the House. Even then, no-one is permitted onto the floor except by invitation.

Q24. What is the seating plan in the legislature?

There is a lot of hidden meaning in where people sit

A24. The House of Assembly meets in Province House, a beautiful old building in downtown Halifax.  The legislative chamber is at the north end of the second floor. The legislative chamber is a horseshoe shape, and is two storeys tall.

Members of the public may observe the House of Assembly from the public gallery, which is accessed from the third floor.

In the chamber itself, there are 51 seats for the 51 MLAs. There is a lot of significance to where exactly the MLAs sit. A PDF of the seating plan is available on the legislature’s website.

The most prominent feature of the chamber is the raised platform where the Speaker sits, along the middle of the north wall. The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House. In other words, the Speaker is the referee.

Other than the Speaker, MLAs sit at desks arranged in rows. I sat at one of those desks for twelve years and I can tell you that they’re narrow and not very comfortable.

Government MLAs always sit on the Speaker’s right.

Cabinet ministers sit in the front row of the government side. There isn’t enough room for all the Cabinet ministers in the front row, so a few have to sit in the second row. MLAs on the government side who are not ministers are called “backbenchers”. Nova Scotia currently has a Liberal government. There are 27 Liberal MLAs, including the Speaker.

The premier sits roughly in the middle of the front row. He is on the aisle that runs down the middle of the government side. The closer a minister sits to the premier, the more prestigious it is.

Opposition MLAs always sit on the Speaker’s left. The largest opposition party is sometimes called the Official Opposition. The Official Opposition is currently the Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus, which has 17 MLAs.

The smaller opposition party sits furthest away from the Speaker. That’s currently where the New Democratic Party (NDP) MLAs sit. If you look closely you will see an aisle between the PC seats and the NDP seats.

Nova Scotia currently does not have any independent MLAs. If there is one (or more), they will sit on whichever side of the House has more room. Their desks are always slightly separated from the desks of MLAs who are members of a caucus.

Occasionally, the government caucus may have too many members to squeeze into one side. That happened, for example, after the 1993 election and the 2013 election. When that happens, some government MLAs will sit on the opposition side of the House. Of course they’re still members of the government caucus.

Directly in front of the Speaker’s dais is a large wooden table. That is where the clerks sit. They are lawyers. They provide legal and procedural advice to the Speaker. They also keep all of the House of Assembly’s records.

There is one other seat in the chamber. Near the main door, there is a green chair sitting by itself, in front of the NDP caucus. That is the chair of the Sergeant at Arms. He is the chief security officer for Province House. That chair is usually empty, because the Sergeant at Arms has lots to do elsewhere in the building. He is only needed in the chamber for ceremonial purposes, or if MLAs got really rowdy and somebody has to physically remove them. (Although it’s theoretically possible, that never happens. The bad behaviour has always—so far—stopped short of requiring physical restraint.)

 

Q2. What or who is “the Speaker”?

The Speaker is the MLA chosen to act as the legislature’s referee

A2. The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House.

The Speaker is always an MLA.  The Speaker is elected by the other members.  If there is a majority government, the reality is that the government members will always elect one of their own members to be the Speaker.  The last time the Speaker came from the opposition was 1999 (Ron Russell, Progressive Conservative, Hants West).

The current Speaker is Kevin Murphy (Liberal, Eastern Shore).

The Speaker sits in a chair on a raised platform at one end of the legislative chamber. On the Speaker’s right is the government, and on the Speaker’s left is the opposition.

The Speaker’s role is to be a “servant of the House”, not the servant of the government. In other words, he is supposed to do what is best for the House as a whole. It is like playing a hockey game where the teams pick one of the players to be the referee.

The Speaker does not vote unless there is a tie.

Ironically, the “Speaker” is the MLA who speaks the least in the House. The Speaker never participates in debate. If the Speaker wants to participate in debate, he or she must leave the chair. In my twelve years in the legislature, I saw that happen only twice.

In the United Kingdom, the MP who becomes the Speaker leaves the party caucus (which in the UK is very loose anyway) and runs in the next election as The Speaker, not on behalf of any party.

In Nova Scotia, the Speaker remains as a member of his caucus (and so far in Nova Scotia it has always been a “he”, which is kind of startling, in a bad way). There is a convention that the Speaker does not attend caucus meetings while the House is sitting. There is also a convention that the Speaker tones down the partisanship in public statements. In all other respects, the Speaker is a party member and runs under the party banner in the next election. Conventional wisdom is that being Speaker increases an MLA’s chances of being re-elected.