Frank Klees

Fighting for Parliamentary Reform

Video of Point of Order, November 24, 2010

 

Ontario House Hansard, November 24, 2010

ANSWERS TO WRITTEN QUESTIONS

Mr. Frank Klees: On a point of order, Speaker: My point of order relates to standing order 99, which deals with written questions.

Speaker, I’m well aware of the fact that you have no authority to direct the nature of the response, but I do want to register with you my concern and my belief that the way certain questions have been responded to by the Ministry of Transportation specifically, as well as the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and, just today, the Ministry of Energy is, in fact, a genuine grievance that I want to table with you, and I ask you to rule or to at the very least speak to this issue that I believe is a further erosion of the role of private members in this place.

In your comments yesterday with regard to the point of privilege that was raised, you expressed serious concern about what you referred to as “casual diminishments of the legitimate and key role of the opposition and of this House.” I believe that the way we are being dealt with—and I, specifically, with regard to the questions that I raised with the Ministry of Transportation—is in fact that; it is, in fact, a contempt of my responsibilities as a member of this Legislature when I seek to get serious and legitimate answers from the Ministry of Transportation.

 I want to refer you to O’Brien and Bosc in their reference to guidelines for written questions. On page 520, it specifically states: “Given that the purpose of a written question is to seek and receive a precise, detailed answer, it is incumbent on a member submitting a question for the Notice Paper ‘to ensure that it is formulated carefully enough to elicit the precise information sought.’” I think that that reference and the references in the standing orders presume that a member, first of all, will be specific in terms of the wording of the question so that we can expect specific information back from the ministry.

I want to provide you with my questions and the responses because I would like to know from you as to whether the type of response that I have received as a member is at all respectful, first of all, of me as a member of the Legislature, and if it’s appropriate that these are the kinds of responses that I and any other member would receive.

My first question to the ministry was as follows: “Would the Minister of Transportation provide details as to the number of medical professionals and their professional qualifications, who have the responsibility for reviewing files and rendering decisions for driver’s licence suspensions and reinstatements and specify whether they are full-time, part-time or contract employees?”

I had a very specific reason for asking that precise question. Here is the minister’s response: “Under the Highway Traffic Act, both physicians and optometrists are required to report to the registrar of motor vehicles any patient age 16 or over who may be suffering from a medical/visual condition that may impair driving ability. Ontario is the first Canadian jurisdiction to introduce mandatory reporting.” That response has absolutely nothing to do with any of the specifics that I put to the ministry in my question.

My second question was as follows: “Would the Minister of Transportation provide details as to the number of staff employed by the ministry who have responsibility for processing driver’s licence suspensions and reinstatements?” A very specific question.

Here is the response: “When a report is received by the ministry, it is screened and prioritized according to risk to road safety. When a decision is made to suspend the driving privilege, the ministry sends the individual a formal notice of suspension by regular mail and a letter which will advise what type of medical information is required to have the case considered for reinstatement.” Not even a semblance of relationship to the question that I asked.

My next question, and please bear with me because there’s an important point that I am making here. The question is this: “Would the Minister of Transportation provide a detailed summary of the number of driver’s licences that are under suspension for medical impairments including impaired vision and provide the ages of the suspended drivers?”

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Here is the response: “The driving privilege will be considered for reinstatement when the appropriate medical information is received and reviewed. If the report indicates that the medical standards are met, and there are no other outstanding suspensions on the driving record, the ministry sends the individual a letter advising the outcome of the review and, where applicable, a notice of reinstatement is mailed.”

I can go on. I have a similar response from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. I just received a letter, a response, from the Ministry of Energy. My question was very specific, and the best the ministry could do is refer me to a website. The Ministry of Children and Youth Services referred me to the freedom-of-information process, so that I, as a member of this Legislature, am forced to go through freedom of information to get specific information that is available to the ministry, who have staff to provide that kind of information.

Speaker, I am at a loss. I say to you that the treatment that I have received from these ministries as a member of this Legislature is an insult to me as a member of this House. It is, in my opinion, not only disrespectful, but it directly erodes my ability to carry out my responsibilities as a member of this House.

I ask you, Speaker, to use your authority to, at the very least—if you cannot find that in fact this is a prima facie case of privilege, which I believe it really is—agree that I have a legitimate and genuine grievance as to how I am being treated and I know other members are being treated as members of this Legislature.

I leave this with you, Speaker, and I ask for your support, not only on my behalf but on behalf of all members of this House, particularly members of the opposition, as we seek to do our job in this place.

The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): Government House leader.

Hon. Monique M. Smith: I’m happy to report to the House that all order paper questions that are due have been answered. In this case, as the member for Newmarket–Aurora has indicated, he is not pleased with the answers.

In fact, the rules that we have before us that rule this Legislature do not provide for a provision for satisfaction with answers to written questions. Under 99(d):

“The minister shall answer such written questions within 24 sessional days....

“The answers to such written questions shall be given to the member who asked the question and to the Clerk of the House....”

Those are the provisions that are in the standing orders.

This question, a question of privilege, has been raised in this House on a number of occasions. I would just refer the members to the member for Dufferin–Caledon’s question on May 18, 2010, where she raised a point of order regarding order paper questions. You, Mr. Speaker, responded:

“I’d just like to say to the member that numerous Speakers have ruled that during oral question period ministers may answer a question any way they see fit. It’s also the case that it is not the Speaker’s responsibility to ensure that the answer to a written question satisfies that question.

“This is further supported by O’Brien and Bosc on page 522....”

I would just quote for you from page 522 in O’Brien and Bosc’s House of Commons Practice and Procedure:

“There are no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions. Nonetheless, on several occasions, members have raised questions of privilege in the House regarding the accuracy of information contained in responses to written questions; in none of these cases was the matter found to be a prima facie breach of privilege. The Speaker has ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate nor to ‘assess the likelihood of an hon. member knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct.’”

In this case, the member for Newmarket–Aurora has indicated not that he is questioning the validity of the answers; it’s just that he doesn’t like the answers. And that, in fact, is even more far removed from the rules that we have in place and which you have already ruled upon in your decision of May 18, 2010. So I would argue that there is, in fact, in this case, no point of order nor a point of privilege.

Mr. Peter Kormos: If I may speak briefly in support of the matter raised. The government House leader cites the standing order, 99(d), quite accurately: “The minister shall answer such written questions....” It’s not discretionary. It doesn’t say “may” answer; it says “shall” answer. And the word is “answer.” The clear inference to be drawn is that the answer has to be responsive to the question.

What the member has told this House, by virtue of reading the questions that he put and the responses that were given, is that these are clearly not answers. One can agree with the proposition that the Speaker has no discretion or jurisdiction to rule on whether or not a member is happy with the answer, but surely there has to be an answer. The responses that were read by the member are not answers.

I would also refer all of us to standing order 1, and in particular to 1(b): “The purpose of these standing orders is to ensure that proceedings are conducted in a manner that respects the democratic rights of members … (iii) to hold the government accountable for its policies.”

Clearly, the provision providing for written questions and the fact that it provides for a significant period of time in which the ministry can prepare the answer is so that there can be more detailed answers. I think it’s clear that what the member got was boilerplate that wasn’t even close—never mind the bull’s eye; it didn’t even hit the target. So I appreciate the government House leader’s comments, but I think she makes the member’s point for him.

“The minister shall answer such written questions within 24 sessional days”: Any person reading or hearing the responses—nobody is suggesting that the ministry didn’t respond, but nobody reading or hearing the responses would ever, by any stretch of the imagination, identify them as answers. The ministry could respond, “Dogs have fur and chickens have feathers,” and the government House leader would have us believe that that somehow is an answer. Clearly, it’s not. The ministry’s response could be that the winning lotto numbers last night were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. That’s a response, but it’s clearly not an answer.

The obligation to answer is mandatory. I suggest to you, sir, that the word “answer” has to be given its everyday meaning, as well as, for that matter, its dictionary meaning, and an answer has to be to the question. It’s not a response; it’s an answer.

I suggest also that the Speaker should consider this in the context of standing order 1, effectively the preamble to our standing orders and a preamble—I know that there are mixed views on this—that I submit has to guide all of us in the interpretation of the standing orders.

Hon. Monique M. Smith: While I’m sure we’ve enjoyed yet another speech by the member from Welland on a point of order, I don’t think he contributed anything to this debate. In fact, the answer was given to the questions. The member received written answers in a timely manner. I listened to his excerpts and I think the answer, specifically to the third part, was in response to his question. We heard excerpts from his requests and excerpts from answers. The answers were given, Mr. Speaker.

Again, I would just indicate—as you have indicated to the House in the past, particularly in May 2010, just this year—that it is not within your purview to rule on whether or not a member is content with the response, but that they have in fact received a response to their questions in this case.

Mr. Frank Klees: Not to prolong this discussion, but I do want to thank my colleague from Welland, who I believe was very helpful in clarifying. To the House leader I would simply add this to the discussion: I think, out of respect for members of this House, who have legitimate, detailed questions for the ministers, for the government to insist that what I was presented with was in fact a legitimate answer simply underscores the lack of respect for members in this House.

Yes, I got a response, but as my colleague from Welland so clearly said, there is a difference between a response and an answer. None of the responses that I received were an answer to my specific question. I raise this on that basis and, further, in terms—

   

Interjection.

Mr. Frank Klees: If the House leader would allow me to speak rather than interjecting, which shows a further disrespect not only for me but for what is going on, I would appreciate it.

We’re speaking to the respect that individual members in this House should have from ministers of the crown and from everyone here. I’m simply saying that I’m desperately trying to do my job as a member of the Legislature, and the kind of responses that I’m getting from ministries here, and now from the House leader of the government, shows absolute disrespect.

Speaker, I ask you to at least do your part to support the work that we have to do here as members of this Legislature. Thank you.

The Speaker (Hon. Steve Peters): I thank the member from Newmarket–Aurora for raising the point of order, the honourable member from Welland, and the government House leader as well.

I want to take an opportunity to contemplate my thoughts on the points that have been raised, notwithstanding the fact that the Speaker has ruled in the past, and previous Speakers have ruled. I do want to provide the honourable member with a good answer, and I’m going to reserve my decision at this time.

There being no further business, this House stands recessed until 3 p.m. this afternoon.

The House recessed from 1202 to 1500.