OTTAWA - Speaker Andrew Scheer says he’s powerless to ensure questions get answered in the House of Commons but called on all MPs to improve their performance, suggesting their daily debates were falling short of Canadians’ expectations.
Scheer delayed Wednesday’s question period to deliver a rebuke to the New Democrats for calling into question his neutrality the day before.
But he also served up a scolding, albeit diplomatically worded, to all MPs for allowing substance to take a back seat in the 45-minute sessions when opposition politicians square off against their government rivals.
The cautions come a day after Scheer, a Conservative MP, put Thomas Mulcair in the penalty box after the NDP leader called into question his neutrality.
Mulcair had lashed out in frustration after repeatedly asking the government about Canada’s military mission in Iraq, only to get answers from Conservative MP Paul Calandra about Israel.
After appealing without success to Scheer for help in getting Calandra to give a relevant response, Mulcair couldn’t contain his frustration, saying: “Mr. Speaker, that does not speak very favourably about your neutrality in this House.”
That prompted Scheer to refuse to let Mulcair ask any further questions Tuesday. Speaking Wednesday, Scheer defended his neutrality, saying he was a “servant” of the Commons. He cautioned that future allegations of bias against the Speaker could be could “punished accordingly.”
Scheer also insisted that tradition and protocol prevents the Speaker from using his or her authority to assess the quality of the answers, adding, “I do not intend to change that.”
He quoted his predecessor Peter Milliken, who said in 2010 that it was not the job of Speaker to “decide whether a response is an answer or not to the question.”
Scheer said MPs could invite the Speaker to take on a more activist role but suggested that so far, the politicians have shown little appetite for that.
“To date, the House has not seen fit to alter our practices or give direction to the chair in that regard,” Scheer said.
But he left little doubt that the daily performance in the Commons was falling short of what Canadians expect from their politicians.
“I have no doubt that Canadians expect members to elevate the tone and substance of question period exchanges. As your Speaker, I hope the House can rise to that challenge,” Scheer said.
He echoed his appeal to MPs, first made in January, to ensure that question period “provides at least some information.
“The onus is on all members to raise the quality of both questions and answers,” Scheer said.
Mulcair led off question period Wednesday asking the same lineup of questions that had met with frustration on Tuesday. But he had more luck getting answers, as Conservative MP James Bezan, parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defence, provided some details about the ongoing mission in Iraq.