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A Short History of Question Period

Question period today is an often lively exchange between private members and cabinet ministers. It is so lively, in fact, that in both Britain and Canada it is highly publicized and usually overshadows other, equally important workings of Parliament. But just as visitors have not always been welcome in the Chamber, questions that might put ministers on the spot were not always part of parliamentary procedure.

On February 9, 1721, Earl Cowper of the House of Lords asked the Earl of Sunderland the first recorded oral question, about an investment scheme that had gone awry. At that time, members could speak in the House only when moving or debating a motion and Mr. Cowper's question was an unwelcome departure from form. Oral questions raised a stir in the British Parliament for the next hundred years. In 1783 Speaker Cornwall cautioned that question time should not lapse into "conversation," lest the House become disorderly. Instead, he felt that members should recognize oral questions as "a deviation from the general rule...to be adopted with great care, sobriety, and prudence, because otherwise it might put the House out of temper." In 1805, one Lord Eldon declared Oral questions to be "inconsistent with order and regularity."

But oral questions had their defenders, too. In 1808 at Westminster, Speaker Abbot called them "a most convenient usage" for getting the House's business done. Most members seem to have agreed with him. By 1832 the right of British Members of Parliament to question ministers in the House was firmly entrenched, and in 1869 the first reference to questions appeared on the Order Paper. By 1900 both oral and written questions were accepted as part of the House's business. In fact, members that year asked more questions in one day than had been asked in the entire session of 1830.

Question period is the modern way of "petitioning" a parliament. As question periods have gained in importance in Commonwealth parliaments, petitions have declined.



Reproduced from the Teacher's Guide to the Alberta Legislature, 1993 with the kind permission of the Legislative Assembly Office.
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