Trudeau speaking with aboriginal leaders on the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women is a lot more positive than taking questions on the issue in the House of Commons.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published in The Hill Times on Monday, December 19, 2016.
OTTAWA—Question Period is the one hour a day that belongs to the opposition.
So it is understandable that opposition members should chastise the prime minister for skipping the majority of Question Periods in his first year on the job.
But it is also the reason that Justin Trudeau used his first year in office to focus on a national and international profile.
And that profile is not built during Question Period. If anything, opposition members work overtime to figure out a way to get the prime minister on his feet during QP. Success in getting a rise out of the leader pretty well guarantees that the issue will make the news, and usually in a way that puts the government in a negative light.
Last week The Huffington Post did a little digging to analyze the attendance of Trudeau and compare it to that of his predecessor, Stephen Harper. Harper’s QP attendance was better than that of Trudeau. The former prime minister did not attend 46 per cent of the sessions, while Trudeau actually missed 58 per cent.
To be fair, the Huff Post reported that two-thirds of Trudeau’s absences involved official events in other parts of the country or the world. But it noted that, in some circumstances, Trudeau scheduled events in Ottawa that coincided with QP.
Obviously, Trudeau’s communications team has figured out the obvious, that the prime minister’s message passes more effectively in fora outside Question Period just as the opposition message passes more effectively in QP.
But Trudeau is not the only one who skips the 2:15 p.m. daily grilling. On most days, the press gallery set aside for members of the media is usually empty, as reporters choose to cover the event from their bureau offices.
The only time there is a full house occurs when a key issue or a contentious vote is gripping the attention of the media and the public.
To be honest, political junkies follow the daily debates, but most Canadians would be hard pressed to communicate one subject on the agenda during QP. As we edge closer to an election, interest definitely picks up, but the first year after an election is the best year for a prime minister to use his or her time more effectively in venues other than the House of Commons.
Trudeau speaking with aboriginal leaders on the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women is a lot more positive than taking questions on the issue in the House of Commons. Likewise, connecting with provincial leaders to hammer out an agreement on climate change is a much better narrative than taking peppery climate change questions from opposition leaders.
That doesn’t mean Trudeau should take a pass on participation in the House of Commons. On the contrary, his government’s commitment to open and accountable government centred on the importance of Parliament as a cornerstone of public accountability.
Nor does it mean that the current format for QP should be replaced by the British system, which is what some have suggested. The British Parliament has a day dedicated to questions specifically for their prime minister. This simply guarantees that the leader’s absence the rest of the week is not even an issue.
That would certainly be a plus for government, but the opposition should resist any attempt to limit all available opportunities to question the chief architects of national law and policy.
The British system is often cited as a better model, but most questions at Westminster are submitted in advance, which certainly limits the element of ministerial surprise. In our country, no minister is given advance warning of what might be on the QP agenda, and surprise questions can sometimes prompt very revealing answers which get to the truth.
Unlike his predecessor, Trudeau has been very available to the media in other venues, so the importance of parsing his pronouncements at QP becomes less relevant.
The opposition needs to sharpen pens and tongues if the second year of a Trudeau government is going to be more fruitful for them.
If most people are not watching Question Period, it has little to do with the absence or presence of the prime minister. New Democratic Leader Tom Mulcair is the best House performer by a long shot. But that recognition meant nothing when it came to his election hopes.
Trudeau’s team understands why. In the early days of a new government, travelling the country and the world is more politically rewarding than a tough day at the office.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.