Keep Question period

A parallel can be drawn between the developing SNC Lavalin drama and Portage la Prairie City Council whom tonight may likely vote to eliminate Question Period as part of its bi-monthly meeting format. It’s all about being able to ask questions!

Federal Liberals and conservatives on both sides of the SNC Lavalin argument are trying to either block questions from being asked or force them to be heard by using every rule possible.

The very core of both arguments is who should be allowed to ask questions and where?

The SNC Lavalin story has Canada’s official opposition in Ottawa foaming at the mouth calling for the ruling Liberal Party to give up its witnesses. The conservative opposition is demanding questions be heard, be put on the public record and hopefully be answered. Of course, SNC Lavalin is of international interest and locally some are labelling city council wishing to eliminate Question Period a mere “tempest in a teapot”. One local pundit used an entertaining, but poorly researched analogy of Chicken Little given the tale’s two main messages. The first is to not overreact to small things, or blow them out of proportion — always good advice — and the second, not to believe everything that you’re told. In the original story is one of the savage murder of Turkey Lurkey, Goose Loose, Duck Luck, Hen Pen, and Chicken Little. Granted this all turned out well for the manipulative fox, who got to eat all of his neighbours, but the sudden death of no less than five animals is also part of the narrative. The moral is not to be a “Chicken” but to have courage.

The optics of eliminating Question Period from a local government meeting are bad at all levels. If each council and the mayoral candidates had been asked at the Portage la Prairie & District Chamber of Commerce all-candidates forum leading up to the last election if they would plan to, endorse or encourage the elimination of Question Period from council meetings, do you believe any would have said ‘yes’? And those who did encourage its elimination, would you have voted for them? It’s a moot point because while seeking election, one sure way to turn voters against you is to show them how you plan on being an agent in helping facilitate the end of one way to communicate with you!

Scrubbing public question period rather than finding a way to make it work is a knee-jerk reaction. It is also reticence against transparency. There has been no “grandstanding” and no one attacking councillors or the mayor with rudeness and other bad behaviours. It could be argued the reverse is true! Saying you cannot immediately answer a question is not a valid argument. Say thanks for the question, say you have to research it before giving an answer and move on.

Council argues Question Period hasn’t turned out to be what it had hoped it would be. Just what was it supposed to be? When you have an allotted time for questions at the end of your meeting and people do or don’t get up to ask questions is all it could ever be and is. The council and mayor argue that they are very approachable personally and via social media so there really isn’t a reason for Question Period.

Once again, in an all too common city council unanimous vote, the council moved the bylaw to kill Question Period forward to tonight’s meeting for the final two readings. Just that there was a unanimous vote begs the question of where did they meet to talk and maybe even debate the merits of killing Question Period. This was not in a public meeting even though it is definitely about public rights and freedoms.

Here is another scenario to support an open Question Period: there is an issue you need to talk to your local government about. You want to move through the proper channels so you first call city hall and they help you connect with a councillor or someone in administration that will be both knowledgeable and helpful.

Most times this all moves along at whatever pace it can, but in the direction that you can understand. Sometimes you are not happy about how your concern is being treated or even if it has progressed beyond the single municipal representative you have engaged. What do you do then? Question Period can be a final avenue for getting your concern on the public record.

There is, of course, the delegation process. You can apply to city council to be scheduled on its agenda and have your opportunity to appear to discuss your concern. Who is accepted as delegation is up to council? It gets to choose to hear you or not. Question Period does not suffer that encumbrance.

Question Period is about more than 15 minutes at the end of a Portage la Prairie City Council meeting. It is a democratic opportunity, freedom and a symbol that the general public can still be involved as they wish to and without permission. It is only 15 minutes of your time. 15 minutes! And it doesn’t matter who asks a question, be happy that they can.

Don’t belittle what the power to ask a question freely really means!

So while Chicken Little is not running about yelling ‘The sky is falling’, some with the vested interests of democratic freedom in their community are saying a cornerstone to transparent government is crumbling in Portage la Prairie.

Mickey Dumont


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