On Tuesday afternoon, when nobody was really paying attention, something unusual happened in the House of Assembly: a politician answered a question.
Specifically, two different cabinet ministers - Fisheries Minister Darin King and Labrador and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Nick McGrath - answered a couple of Order Paper questions.
This is not entirely unprecedented, as I first though, but it's pretty damn rare.
Suffice it to say, this was enough for me to geek out and abscond to the House of Assembly legislative library to bury myself in old order paper questions.
(On a side note, the legislative library is FREAKIN' AWESOME. If you've never been, and you're excited by old books and records of parliamentary proceedings, I highly recommend a visit. I might be spending my summer vacation there this year.)
This won't be, by any means, an exhaustive history of order paper questions in Newfoundland, but I did turn up a few really nifty tidbits, and some fun stuff to watch for in the future.
Let's start with the basics.
The Order Paper is sort of like the agenda for the House of Assembly. It contains the names of all of the bills that are to be debated, along with notice of private members motions, and a bunch of other routine procedural stuff. Here, by way of an example, is an Order Paper from this week.
In any event, there's a provision in the House of Assembly standing orders that any questions which are too long, technical or otherwise cumbersome to be asked in question period can instead be submitted in a written form.
In Newfoundland and Labrador though, unlike some other places, the government is under no obligation to answer Order Paper questions. (In Ottawa, the government has to answer questions, and I think they have to do it relatively promptly, which creates all sorts of other fun games and mischief. Parliamentary maiven Kady O'Malley, one of the best people in Canada for this sort of stuff, has written some neat pieces about it on the CBC Inside Politics Blog.)
So basically, the opposition parties can ask written questions that are published on the Order Paper for everyone to see, but there's nothing forcing the government to pay any attention or answer the questions.
Still, it can be a fun venue for the opposition to needle the government, and ask pointed questions (and then subsequently issue news releases about how the secretive, awful government refuses to answer questions. I believe the Liberals issued such a news release earlier this spring.)
Thus far this year, the Liberals have asked 24 Order Paper questions. The most recent one came from Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds, who wrote, "To ask the Honourable the Minister of Environment and Conservation to lay on the Table of the House any correspondence or other representation that has been made to the Federal Government in relation to the clean-up of the 2,396 sites in Newfoundland and Labrador which have been identified in the Federal Government data base of potentially contaminated sites."
Now, 24 Order Paper questions may sound like a lot, but it's actually pretty minor-league in comparison to what Danny Williams did when he was opposition leader.
Back in the fall of 2001, Williams and his PC caucus managed to rack up 112 Order Paper questions. (Then-MHA Jack Harris kept the New Democrats in the game, asking two questions, bringing the total number of Order Paper questions for the year to 114.)
If you go back through the order paper archive (another shout-out here to the FREAKIN' AWESOME people at the legislative library) you can see the questions, and the legislative games that the PCs were playing.
The questions were for virtually every government department, and on virtually every topic.
MHA Ross Wiseman (who's now Speaker, by the way) asked on Nov. 21, 2001 "The number of outstanding lawsuits and dollar amounts in statements of claim filed against the province's health care corporations." (Come to think of it, I'd be a little bit interested in knowing the answer to that question today, but never mind that for now.)
MHA John Ottenheimer asked on Nov. 26, 2001 for "A copy of the province's current energy plan, if such a document exists."
MHA Roger Fitzgerald (who also went on to be Speaker, right up until he retired just before last year's election) was responsible for my personal favourite question, which was also asked on Nov. 26. Fitzgerald wanted "A list of all pieces of artwork procured by the province that are missing or destroyed, indicating in each case the name of the work, the name of the artist, the purchase price of the work and the latest appraised value of the work."
As the fall sitting of the House continued, the PCs' Order Paper hijinks picked up steam.
Each and every member of the caucus started asking the exact same question to different ministers.
For example, in Order Paper question No. 92, Williams asked then-premier Roger Grimes for:
"a) Copies of all transcripts of television or radio news stories, news programs or phone-in open line segments commissioned by the premier or any of the Premier's Office or any person acting on their behalf and paid for from the public treasury since January 1999;
b) in each case, the reason the transcript was ordered and the purposes to which it was put; and
c) a breakdown by individual item of the cost of these transcriptions, indicating in each case the month and year in which the cost to the treasury was applied."
Then, in Order Paper question No. 93, PC MHA Ed Byrne asked the same question word-for-word of the Minister of Industry, Trade and Rural Development (swapping out the "premier's office" bit for "minister's office" of course.)
Order Paper question No. 94 was asked by PC MHA Tom Hedderson to the Minister of Education - you guessed it - "copies of all transcripts of television..." word-for-word. (In some schools, I think they frown on copying off your desk-mates, but never mind about that.)
So suffice to to say, there's a lot of fun to be had when it comes to questions on the Order Paper. Unfortunately, at least in this province, the history when it comes to answers isn't similarly rich.
The fine folks at the legislative library brought me out a series of folders with answers to order paper questions through the years. The folders were pretty thin.
Near as I can tell of the 114 Order Paper questions asked by the PCs in 2001, the Liberals didn't bother to answer many of them, but they did take on a few.
For example, Wiseman got an answer on the "accumulated operating deficit" for each of the Institutional and Community Health Boards. (Turns out the total accumulated deficits among the boards was around $97 million, with most of that coming from the Western Health Care Corp. and the Health Care Corp. of St. John's.)
Also, Hedderson got a breakdown of the costs for producing and airing the "Read and Succeed" television ads. (Turns out it cost around $396,194 total, and according to then-Education Minister Judy Foote, the "song, jingle and product launch" cost $26,220.)
Alright, so that was a nice trip down memory lane, but what does all of this have to do with what's happening today?
Prepare to be astounded: On Tuesday, they answered three - THREE! - questions.
If you check out Hansard from May 22, and scroll down to the "Answers to Questions for which Notice has been Given" you can read it yourself in all its gory detail.
Fisheries Minister Darin King started off by answering what was not, strictly speaking, an Order Paper question. Last week Fisheries critic Jim Bennett was asking some questions about sea urchins, and King helpfully offered up some info about the state of buyer-processor licences for sea urchins in the province. (I'm not going to go into the specifics of it, because even by my twisted standards, it's painfully boring. Check that Hansard link above if you're curious.)
After King wrapped up, it was Labrador and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Nick McGrath who was up, responding to a request from Liberal House Leader Yvonne Jones to "lay on the Table of the House any correspondence, analyses or reports which Government has presented to the Federal Government in relation to the closure of the Sub-Centre for Search and Rescue Services in St. John's."
I'm not sure whether he actually tabled all of the relevant correspondence, but he did go into a lengthy explanation of what the government has been doing in talking to the feds about the sub-centre issue.
Once McGrath finished up, it went back to King to answer another question from Bennett about the fisheries loan board.
Again, I won't go into the specifics because this is pretty esoteric stuff, but King provided a lengthy response about where the government is with regards to setting up a fisheries loan board.
Well, that's about it. If there are any new Order Paper shenanigans, I promise to keep you posted.
I'll just end of with a couple fun facts from an Order Paper answer from 1995. I couldn't find the question that it was answering, but in 1995, the Minister for Transportation told the House that the province had 336,958 licensed drivers, using 6,500 km of paved highways and 2,400 km of unpaved roads (including the Trans-Labrador Highway.)
Back in 1995, the government also maintained 850 bridges in the province.
For some reason, I find this information really neat. That's all.