In 1956 there was a very lively debate in Parliament about the Liberal Government’s plans to have a pipeline built to carry gas from Western Canada to customers in Eastern Canada. Opposition parties were determined to delay approval of the pipeline legislation until it would be too late to get construction underway that year. The government response was to impose closure – the termination of debate – at every stage of the bill to ensure its passage on time. This action was quite controversial, contributed to the impression that the Liberals had grown arrogant after two decades of power, and allegedly contributed to the surprise election victory of Conservative John Diefenbaker the follower year. A half century later, pipelines continue to generate lively debate. In contrast, government use of closure to terminate debate no longer seems to spark outrage. Indeed, it has become almost commonplace in recent years.
There is continuing media speculation as to whether, and when, Prime Minister Harper might call an early election. The discussions focus on strategies and timing considerations. There seems to be an assumption or acceptance that if the Prime Minister wants to call an early election he can do so. Missing from these discussions is any reference to the legislation, introduced by the Harper Government in 2007, that established a fixed four year term for federal elections. October 19, 2015 is the next date in this mandated election schedule.
Only one year after that legislation was passed however, when the Prime Minister was two years into his term of office, he decided that Parliament had become dysfunctional. He asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament so that an election could be held. His request was granted. Moreover, the validity of the dissolution of Parliament was upheld by the Federal Court of Canada in a November 27, 2008 ruling. A key consideration was a clause in the fixed term legislation that states “nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General’s discretion.”
The memory I am about to share is of an event that must have taken place in the early 1970s, because Lucien Lamoureux was the Speaker of the House of Commons as I watched Question Period from the public gallery that day. An opposition member was recognized by the Speaker and got up to ask his question. He launched into an enthusiastic speech and got as far as “and I dare say,” when Lamoureux rose from his chair – a move prompting silence from the MP. In an almost gentle voice, Lamoureux said “The Honourable Member is not allowed to daresay.” In other words, the Speaker was telling the MP that he had been recognized to ask a question, not to give a speech.
Some 40 years later, we have a Question Period that has become increasingly ineffective in fulfilling its historic role of holding a government to account for its performance in office. It is hard to imagine that there was a time when governments were rather anxious before the daily Question Period. No one knew in advance who would ask questions, about what, to whom. Political staff tried to anticipate possible questions and to prepare Ministers as best they could. There were occasions, admittedly quite infrequent, when a government was caught off guard by a question and had to scramble or was actually knocked back on its heels.
C. Richard Tindal, Ph.D is a retired Professor of Government. He taught for 30 years at St. Lawrence College, Kingston and was an occasional Visiting Professor at Queen's University. He has also written and consulted extensively about government.