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:
- 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.
- The questions must not relate to a bill currently before the House for debate.
- 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.