While the general consensus has been that Question Period the past few months, under the rigorous prosecutorial style of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, has been the best it’s been in years and the return of some good political theatre, what has been missing is some quality refereeing of the daily matches by Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.
Scheer, the youngest Speaker elected in Canadian history, largely won over MPs with his geeky knowledge of Parliamentary procedure when he was elected to the chair some two-and-a-half years ago. It had perhaps been hoped that his youthful enthusiasm for the task would counter his relative lack of experience, which was limited to serving as the Deputy Speaker in the previous parliament.
While I will not characterise Scheer’s judgements as favouring one side or another – accusing the Speaker of partisanship is usually the last refuge of the desperate – I will note that what he has tended to lack is gravitas, and accompanying that particular lack has been an inconsistent application of the rules. Rare are the times that Scheer puts his foot down about abuse of process in the House, and most especially when it comes to keeping the proceedings of Question Period within their prescribed bounds.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter during Question Period is familiar with my admonishments about questions that aren’t government business. It’s an important consideration that should be observed if House rules are to mean anything, much less the practice of ministerial responsibility – the rubric by which Question Period operates. Ministers answer on behalf of their departments. It’s one of the fundamental concepts of our particular system of government, but you wouldn’t know it based on the kinds of questions that have dominated in the past number of months.
Given the scope of the Senate-PMO scandal, and the allegations made about the various players, there has been a tendency by many on the opposition benches to overreach. Questions about decisions made within the party have become commonplace, as have questions about the operation of the Senate, neither of which are within the administrative responsibility of the government. Many have tried to argue that because the Senate is funded by taxpayers, and that because the Prime Minister appoints their membership, that he therefore becomes responsible for answering questions about them in Question Period.
The reality is that the Senate is not a government department, doesn’t answer to a minister for its operations, and therefore a minister cannot answer on their behalf. And while Stephen Harper may be able to answer questions as to why he advised the Governor General to appoint certain Senators, he can’t then answer for their behaviour once they are in their position because of the separation of powers. It’s the same reason why he can’t answer for the conduct of judges or Supreme Court Justices once they are appointed. The NDP in recent weeks have tried to be clever about this and ask who in the PMO has instructed Senators to behave in certain ways, be it voting or conducting committee business, but the problem again becomes that there is no actual reporting mechanism between the Senate and the PMO. In fact, it was one of the things that Nigel Wright complained about in the emails that formed part of the RCMP’s Information To Obtain document. The Senate is institutionally independent, which is why it should be off-limits during Question Period.
The problem has become that Scheer has been too lenient in allowing not only those questions to largely be asked unchallenged, but then gives the government an opportunity to respond to them. Worse yet, it’s not even the government that has been responding of late, but Paul Calandra, a parliamentary secretary who is not a member of the executive and therefore not representing the government. He has no authority by which to respond on behalf of any minister, a practice that Scheer again has not stamped down in order to protect our system of ministerial responsibility.
Where Scheer’s laissez-faire attitude continues to get worse is that when he does call out those questions that are out of order – and it did happen a few times in the last sitting – is that the rulings are delivered without any force behind them. Whereas Speaker Milliken before him might have given a bit of a wink and a nod or a bit of gentle humour to ensure that there were no hard feelings, Scheer’s style seems to largely involve a bashful smile, a slightly embarrassed tone, and a sense that he’s not prepared to put any force behind his words. And when you’ve compromised your gravitas in such a way, it’s hard not to see how MPs won’t walk all over the rules.
Witness the one exchange where Scheer called out Thomas Mulcair’s line of questions as being beyond the scope of government, to which Mulcair snapped back to the Speaker that he was trying to get to the bottom of a scandal. That Scheer didn’t immediately take Mulcair to task and demand that the rules be respected lest Mulcair be either ejected from the Chamber or find himself unable to be recognised for a period of time afterward was another sign that he hasn’t been willing to be firm with MPs when it comes to the rules of the House.
In his year-end interview with CTV, Scheer spoke about meeting with his fellow Speakers from across the Commonwealth and coming to the conclusion that as long as both sides are angry with him from time to time, he should be okay. What it also seems to demonstrate is his blind spot around the need to enforce the rules consistently. The fundamental core of democracy is the fact that it is conducted by a series of rules that everybody agrees to. If the Speaker is unwilling to enforce those rules in order to keep from being criticized consistently by all sides, then perhaps we have a bigger problem with the way things are run in Canadian politics.
Other articles by Dale Smith
Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale