The House’s 45-minute Question Period has been compared to a sideshow of late, but a lot of work goes into the daily theatre: on a typical day all 38 members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Cabinet, along with Parliamentary secretaries, spend more than an hour prepping for the battle, Conservative sources say. And they’ve been doing this since they won power in 2006. “It’s a matter of being prepared for anything that comes at you, because if you make a mistake it’s going to be news,” said Keith Beardsley, president of Cenco Public Affairs and formerly a deputy chief of staff for issues management in the Prime Minister’s Office. “A lot of people don’t realize how much time Question Period prep takes.” While QP prep is unique to each individual minister, Conservative sources, including former Cabinet and PMO staffers, told The Hill Times that ministers typically spend between an hour and an hour-and-a-half each day prepping for Question Period. This includes both individual prep with staff as well as sitting in on a meeting of the entire Cabinet every day in Centre Block an hour before QP. Parliamentary secretaries can spend even longer prepping for the daily exercise, and certain staffers spend the majority of their day keeping track of issues, drafting responses and updating their ministers’ Question Period book, said sources. “Unless you have a ministry with lots of legislation and stuff, probably prepping for QP is the biggest thing you’ll do that day,” said a former PMO staffer who worked on Question Period. Chad Rogers, a partner at Crestview Strategies and former Conservative campaign staffer, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary-Southwest, Alta.) has “extremely high expectations” when it comes to a minister’s Question Period performance. “There’s a whole lot of lonely ministers that don’t get questions very frequently. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a QP book that a lot of people have contributed to, and it doesn’t mean they haven’t done a whole lot of preparation in the event a question was asked,” said Mr. Rogers. Beginning at around 1 p.m. from Mondays to Thursdays and 10 a.m. on Fridays when the House is sitting, Cabinet ministers, Parliamentary secretaries, and their staff can be seen filing up to the third floor corridor of Centre Block, with staffers lining up along the mezzanine that looks out onto the foyer outside the House Chamber while their bosses take part in the daily Cabinet prep session in the Cabinet room. “Everybody is expected to turn up at QP prep because the Prime Minister also makes an effort to show up,” said a former Cabinet staffer. The meeting typically lasts 45 minutes to an hour. “When they go into the Cabinet room with the Prime Minister it would be the person who has my job now who would be firing questions at the minister with the Prime Minister listening to the answers, so you want to make sure you get it right. And sometimes the Prime Minister will intervene and say, ‘I want to change the answer a little bit,’ and in some cases other ministers will jump in,” he said. Alykhan Velshi is the PMO issues management director, but one Conservative source said it is likely deputy chief of staff Jenni Byrne doing the prep work today. All ministers are expected to be in the room as each one does a practice run, said Mr. Beardsley. Not only are response lines deliberated on during this session, other ministers are also able to weigh in. Decisions about who—whether it be another minister or Parliamentary secretary—will be tasked with answering questions on a given topic are also made. This practice of holding a full Cabinet QP prep meeting was introduced under Mr. Harper in 2006, said Mr. Beardsley. Under previous Liberal governments, mock QP prep sessions were held with the prime minister or PMO staff the hour before QP, but only a handful of ministers facing the day’s hottest issues attended. “When David Emerson came over, he was always amazed that we did this, and he enjoyed it because he said we weren’t out there on our own, we knew there were co-ordinated responses,” said Mr. Beardsley. Aside from this full Cabinet prep meeting, Mr. Rogers said work to prepare the government for Question Period takes place on an “ongoing basis” every day because it’s all about issues management, and new issues pop up every day. A big part of QP prep is putting together the QP binders that compile information and talking points for ministers to refer to, said Mr. Rogers. No one wants to walk into a room with the prime minister or his staff unprepared, and Conservative sources all said the average minister typically spends time prepping with staff before the pre-QP meeting. “The PMO and the PM and Cabinet colleagues are all going to hear the answer that you give, so you want to be ready for that,” said the former PMO staffer. A minister’s individual prep varies, said the former PMO staffer, but it’s typically some combination of reviewing the contents of the minister’s pre-prepared QP binder, and having staff pitch mock questions. This individual prep can span anywhere from five minutes to an hour, said sources. For Parliamentary secretaries, even more work goes into QP prep, said a former Cabinet staffer. “They prep even harder. Those are the ones who are spending hours because they don’t get the briefings that ministers do,” said the former Cabinet staffer, adding that staffers spend even more time prepping. At 7 a.m. every day the House is sitting, issues management staff—one from each minister’s office as well as PMO issues management staff—hold a brief conference call reviewing news headlines and the issues of the day, said the former PMO staffer. Once the day’s anticipated issues are identified, ministerial staffers get to work consulting with departments to request information with which to draft lines, said the former staffer. Each minister’s office is organized differently, but typically staff working under the titles of either issues management or Parliamentary affairs (or a combination of both) do this work. Parliamentary secretaries (PS) have an assistant who works out of the minister’s office and is responsible for keeping the PS up to date on issues, including in the context of QP. That includes the PS to the Prime Minister, who always has an assistant that works out of the PMO. The PMO treats any question a minister could get asked as a question the Prime Minister also could get asked, so PMO issues management staff “consult with the wider ministry to ensure that they have their own boss prepped,” said the former staffer. Bureaucrats are also involved in QP prep. Some of the larger departments have departmental staff specifically assigned to serve as Question Period co-ordinators, said the former PMO staffer, but to some degree a departmental staffer in every ministry works with the minister’s office to help co-ordinate QP briefing notes by providing research and information on a given topic. “The minister’s office would then liaise with the prime minister’s office and they’d work on lines until they agree with them,” said the source. As part of this, the former PMO staffer said issues management staffers try to get into the mind of the opposition and come up with mock QP questions to use during the full Cabinet prep meeting based on the issues of the day. “We used to tabulate . Opposition asked this many questions and how many did we anticipate by preparing questions for those,” said the former PMO staffer. But it’s a fluid process and throughout the course of a day, previously approved lines can change, even right up to the last minute, said the staffer. “It’s annoying as a staffer but we’ve seen the PMO issues crowd approve a set of lines, so you think these have PMO approval, they go into the binder, the question gets read at prep, the minister reads the lines thinking they have been approved everywhere, and then the PM or somebody says, ‘Those lines are shit.’… I remember there were stories of a minister coming out of QP throwing the page at the staffer saying, ‘You told me these were PMO approved,’” said the former staffer who worked in the PMO. The prep session frequently leads to last-minute changes. “That’s why lobbies have printers. You see staffers madly getting the papers ready and all the fonts perfect and then the new page goes into the binder,” said the former PMO staffer. For all this preparatory work, some might wonder at the results as ministers are frequently criticized for simply reading responses off a piece of paper during Question Period. But that piece of paper is the result of a lot of preparatory work. “It is an opposition-controlled forum, so you have no idea what the question will be so you better be prepared,” said Mr. Rogers. “Look at Westminster, our mother system. They’re given notice of every question that’s asked in advance so the ministers can be prepared for it. There’s no such thing in ours. It’s a surprise every day when the clock hits 2:15 p.m.,” he said. There’s been much debate over the state of Question Period recently, spurred on by Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Conservative MP Paul Calandra’s responses to questions from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) on Sept. 23 on the government’s deployment of soldiers to Iraq. Mr. Calandra responded with a quote related to Israel he attributed to an NDP fundraiser, leading Mr. Mulcair to appeal to the Speaker to “enforce the rules on relevance.” In a subsequent Speaker’s ruling on Sept. 24, Mr. Scheer quoted former Speakers in saying that it’s known as “Question Period and not answer period” and said it’s not up to him to decide “whether the content of the response is in fact an answer.” On Sept. 26, Mr. Calandra stood in the House to tearfully apologize for his QP non-answers. He said his response was a result of his “passion” and “anger” and did not come from the “kids in short pants” in the PMO. He also said he’s likely to give more non-answers in the future. Since then, media have reported Conservative sources indicating that Mr. Calandra was given his offending Sept. 23 QP lines from PMO director of issues management Alykhan Velshi. During both of Mr. Calandra’s responses he can be seen reading the reference to a quote from an alleged NDP fundraiser off a piece of paper from his QP binder. Conservative sources speaking with The Hill Times all agreed that Mr. Calandra’s Sept. 23 QP performance would have been “fully sanctioned” by the PMO. For starters, as a Parliamentary secretary, Mr. Calandra would have sat in on the full mock QP prep sessions, and as PS to the Prime Minister, his assistant works directly alongside PMO staff. “Those lines and that pushback would have been fully sanctioned by every power that exists for QP prep,” said the former PMO staffer. “When I worked there, and I don’t think things have changed process-wise, there’s limited freelancing in QP…. They would have said, ‘If we’re asked questions on this, here’s our pushback.’ They would have probably done all that research, they would have worked with his Parliamentary secretary’s assistant and it would have been part of the plan,” said the former staffer. On Sept. 30, an NDP motion to amend House rules to give House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) the power to cut off ministers and Parliamentary secretaries during QP if the response is irrelevant was defeated when all but three Conservative MPs voted down the proposal. Conservative MPs Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), James Rajotte (Edmonton-Leduc, Alta.) and Brian Storseth (Westlock-St. Paul, Alta.), who has announced he won’t run for re-election in 2015, voted in favour of the motion. Conservative MP Susan Truppe (London North Centre, Ont.) also accidentally voted in favour of the motion—having risen when her seatmate Mr. Chong rose to vote—but later corrected her vote. Ultimately, the motion was defeated 144 to 132. firstname.lastname@example.org The Hill Times On Oct. 3, The Hill Times spotted Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander (Ajax-Pickering, Ont.), Parliamentary secretary for Employment and Social Development Scott Armstrong (Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, N.S.), Parliamentary secretary for Fisheries and Oceans Randy Kamp (Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission, B.C.), Minister of State for Finance Kevin Sorenson (Crowfoot, Alta.), Parliamentary Secretary for Official Languages Jacques Gourde (Lotbinière-Chutes-de-la-Chaudiere, Que.), Parliamentary Secretary for Justice Bob Dechert (Mississauga-Erindale, Ont.), Parliamentary Secretary for Veterans Affairs Parm Gill (Brampton-Springdale, Ont.), Parliamentary Secretary for Aboriginal Affairs Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, B.C.), Parliamentary Secretary to the PM Paul Calandra (Oak Ridges-Markham, Ont.), Labour and Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), Parliamentary Secretary for Natural Resources Kelly Block (Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Sask.), Minister of State for Science and Technology Ed Holder (London West, Ont.), Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Lois Brown (Newmarket-Aurora, Ont.), House Leader Peter Van Loan (York-Simcoe, Ont.), Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture Pierre Lemieux (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, Ont.), Parliamentary Secretary for Industry Mike Lake (Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont, Alta.), Parliamentary Secretary for Trade Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), and Minister of State for Multiculturalism Tim Uppal (Edmonton-Sherwood Park, Alta.) heading to the Cabinet corridor for question period preparation.