Yukon opposition parties say they would like to see improvements to question period in the legislature, following debate by MPs in Parliament over the same issue.
House Leader Brad Cathers said he won’t comment on changing the rules without knowing specifically what is being proposed. But he said the government is open to having a conversation.
“If either of the other caucuses are interested in proposing changes to the standing orders, I’d encourage them to bring forward their proposal, and we could talk about it.”
Cathers said the government could ask the chair of the Standing Committee on Rules Elections and Privileges (SCREP) to convene a meeting.
“We have not been considering any changes that would increase the Speaker’s power to restrict the freedom members have on both questions and answers. But if either of the other caucuses was pushing to propose it, we would take a look at that.”
In the Yukon, the current guidelines to question period include: “A reply to a question should be as brief as possible, relevant to the question asked, and should not provoke debate.”
A minister is not obliged to answer a question. “A minister may decline to answer a question without stating the reason for his or her refusal. Insistence on an answer is out of order,” the guidelines say.
NDP Leader Liz Hanson said she’s been making calls for democratic reform for years.
“We’ve introduced legislation to this effect, but we always get voted down. What we’re seeing is more and more cynicism and people are really turned off by what they see in the legislative assembly,” she said.
She said the questions that are asked by the NDP during question period are based on the concerns of the community.
“When the government trash talks the member who’s asking it, ridicules them, or avoids the question entirely, essentially what they’re doing is paying a disrespect to the citizens of the territory.”
Yukon Speaker David Laxton has scolded MLAs in the past for their behaviour, and at one point last year became visibly agitated after MLAs accused each other of “mudslinging,” “fear mongering” and lying.
Questions over a proposed federal trade agreement led to the premier accusing the NDP of being anti-Chinese. Cathers once pointed out that losing the court case over the Peel would be “not all flowers, sunshine, roses, theories, fairies and Marxism.”
Liberal Leader Sandy Silver said he would also like to see changes.
“We’ve defaulted to say ‘There’s a reason why they call it question period and not answer period.’ I’ve never held that to being a rule. That’s an interpretation and it needs to change.”
Silver, who is a member of SCREP along with Cathers and others, said the committee needs to meet.
The committee has only held one meeting since the start of the 33rd legislative assembly in 2011. That meeting took place on February 27, 2013.
Silver said he doesn’t blame the current Speaker for the problem, saying it is something that has developed over time.
“It would be nice to see the Speaker keeping us on task of having the debate, the ideological debate.”
Silver said the idea is to “have all parties come together and have a debate on why they believe their direction works. The more that the Speaker can keep us on that debate, the more that we’re actually earning our salaries.”
The issue of answers during question period came up this week in the House of Commons. An NDP MP proposed changes that would have given the Speaker the authority to cut off irrelevant answers to questions.
The proposal was voted down.
The Yukon’s legislature clerk, Floyd McCormick, said the issue of relevance is a difficult one for Speakers.
Part of the struggle has to do with freedom of speech. It’s also difficult to intervene in a way that might actually solve the problem since you have to wait to hear the answer before ruling on it.
“At some point you have to rely on the members and ministers themselves to ‘do the right thing,’ either because they are inclined to do so themselves, or because they are under pressure from other MLAs or the public,” he said.
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