Agenda-setting in Parliamentary Questioning: the Government-Opposition Dynamic in a Comparative Perspective

18 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 22 Sep 2009

See all articles by Stefaan Walgrave

Stefaan Walgrave

University of Antwerp

Rens Vliegenthart

University of Amsterdam

Date Written: 2009


Parliaments are one of the key institutions in contemporary democracies. Parliaments pass legislation and control the executive. Scholarly work on parliaments has mainly concentrated on two topics: the changing role of parliament and its institutional power vis-à-vis the government (for example, Döring 1995; Heller 2001) and the different roles and behavior of MPs (see for example: Müller and Saalfeld 1997). Much less attention has been devoted to the substantive issues parliament deals with. In this paper, we focus on the content of MPs’ actions in parliament: why are MPs devoting attention to certain issues while ignoring others? From an agenda-setting perspective, the resources of MPs and their parliamentary parties are inevitably scarce - they have limited time, energy, effort and institutional opportunity to devote attention to issues. In principle, the number of issues MPs can deal with is infinite, as the real world and society produce an endless array of worries, concerns, problems that MPs are bombarded with and might devote attention to (Jones and Baumgartner 2005). Due to the bottleneck of attention, only a limited number of issues will get attention in parliament while others remain far outside the scope of parliamentary attention.

MPs do many things. The most obvious function of parliaments is to pass legislation. In many countries, though, the government is largely dominating the legislative process. Government initiates most laws and makes sure these get untainted approval of the government parties’ troops in parliament (Ström, Müller and Bergman 2003). Consequently, the role of parliament has gradually shifted and the parliamentary control function, scrutinizing government’s actions, has become the most important aspect of parliamentary life (Green-Pedersen 2006). One of the main instances of parliamentary control is MPs asking questions/interpellations to specific ministers or to the government as a whole. Most of the time once a week, MPs get the occasion to challenge government and pose it any question they see fit. In some countries, only the opposition parties ask questions, in other countries also government party MPs rely on Question Time to keep ‘their’ government under surveillance. We focus on Question Time in this paper and examine why MPs ask questions about some issues rather than about other issues.

The core idea we explore in this paper is that government MPs and opposition MPs behave differently. They devote attention to other issues because of other reasons. The government-opposition dialectic is the engine of parliamentary democracy. This crucial conflict between government parties and opposition parties also deeply affects the dynamics of parliamentary agenda-setting. Government parties and opposition parties ‘read’ the political and societal environment differently and this leads to a dissimilar issue attention pattern. We contend that the government-opposition game and the partisan strategies entwined with it affect to what extent and how political actors adopt issues. Party features, issue characteristics, issue ownership, the government agenda, etc. are all related to the government or opposition role parties play and all may impact what issues are considered relevant for parliamentary action and what issues are discarded.

The study draws on data about oral questions and interpellations in Belgian parliament in 1993-2000 [in a next version of the paper more countries will be added]. Apart from this dependent variable, we draw on a whole range of longitudinal data covering the same period as independent variables. All these other political agendas are analyzed using an identical issue codebook and they are examined for issue saliency: party manifestos, ministerial council minutes, the government agreement, and mass media coverage.

We start with briefly sketching the state of the field of Question Time and agenda-setting in parliament and put forward three distinct types of hypotheses. Then, we present our dataset consisting of a whole range of political agendas in Belgium during the 1993-2000 period. Next, we proceed to analyze the data drawing upon advanced multilevel time-series models taking into account independent variables on different nested levels. Finally, we summarize our results, put them in perspective, and sketch avenues for further research.

Suggested Citation

Walgrave, Stefaan and Vliegenthart, Rens, Agenda-setting in Parliamentary Questioning: the Government-Opposition Dynamic in a Comparative Perspective (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Stefaan Walgrave (Contact Author)

University of Antwerp ( email )

Rens Vliegenthart

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Spui 21
Amsterdam, 1018 WB

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