In a blog post this week, Conservative-turned-Independent MP Brent Rathgeber lamented the declining state of decorum not only in our federal parliament, but also in the Alberta legislature, where he previously held a seat. Rathgeber laid the blame in large part on the Speaker of each chamber, and said that as long as Speakers are drawn from the members, elected by the masses, they cannot truly be neutral in enforcing the rules. His solution? That the Speaker instead be made an Officer of Parliament, who can be truly independent from the parties.
Without putting too fine of a point on it, and with the greatest of respect to Rathgeber, this is possibly the worst idea in the history of parliamentary reform ideas.
Rathgeber has become something of a darling of the parliament watching set for his rediscovery of the principles of Responsible Government that our governments have been slowly abandoning, and of the role of an MP in the greater system. This is giving his voice a lot of weight among that same set, which is precisely why this particular suggestion needs to be put into its place.
For starters, the Speaker is the ultimate officer of the chamber. He or she is responsible for protecting the rights and privileges of the members in part because the Speaker is one of them. They face the same voters as the members, even though they play a different role, and there is an equality that cannot exist with an outsider sitting in the chair. In turn, it is incumbent upon the Speaker, as presiding officer, to take the role seriously and to act as impartially as possible. One should be very hesitant to throw out centuries of tradition and political evolution because we are currently in an era where we have a weak Speaker in the chair.
The larger problem with the suggestion, however, is that it takes on the pattern of demanding new Officers of Parliament for everything. For most of Canada’s history, we had a mere two – the Auditor General, first created in 1878 in response to the irregular accounting practices of the Macdonald government, and the Chief Electoral Officer, created in 1920 after the Union government manipulated the franchise in the 1917 election. These were joined by the Commissioner of Official Languages in 1969, the Privacy and Information Commissioners in the 1980s, ethics commissioners for both chambers of Parliament, and the Lobbying Commissioner and Public Service Integrity Commissioner. The straw that is breaking the camel’s back is the attempt to turn the Parliamentary Budget Officer into a full-fledged Officer of Parliament.
The proliferation of the various Officers is becoming a serious problem in our system of government because it is absolutely undermining the job of the opposition when it comes to holding the government to account. These Officers, who are accountable to nobody, are now doing the job that MPs from both sides of the aisle should be doing. And MPs are more than happy to let them, because it lends “non-partisan” credentials to any criticism of the government – not to mention that it means that those same MPs have someone to do their homework for them.
Most egregious with this Officer inflation is the PBO, who is taking on the job of scrutinizing the estimates for MPs. Remember that an MP’s job, government or opposition side, is to hold the government (meaning cabinet) to account by controlling the purse strings. They used to scrutinize the amount of money that the government wanted to spend by way of the Estimates, and then they would scrutinize the Public Accounts at the end of the year to see that the money was spent where it was supposed to be. No longer.
Now, MPs get the PBO to scrutinize the Estimates, while waiting for the Auditor General to ensure that the money was spent properly. And it’s no wonder that budgets became political documents without any actual numbers in them, or that the Estimates have become inscrutable – because most MPs don’t care. If they did, they would demand changes to make the figures legible. But what does it matter if you’re not the one who has to study them?
All of this comes back to the point of the desire to make the Speaker an Officer of Parliament. The excuse that only an Officer of Parliament could be independent enough to enforce the rules of decorum is a decidedly dubious one, and it points to a worrying trend toward a belief that we would be better off in a technocratic system of government rather than one where parties debate ideas and hold one another to account. There are no guarantees that putting a bureaucrat into the role would have any actual effect on decorum in an age where performance for the television cameras is a driving concern. Most alarmingly, turning the Speaker into an Officer of Parliament would be one more unaccountable figure that is given blind trust on the basis of “non-partisanship.” It stems from a core presumption that there are no bad Officers, which is a big problem, lest anyone forget the trouble that arose with Christiane Ouimet.
We should instead demand that MPs, including the Speaker, actually do their jobs, and hold them to account if they don’t. And MPs have the very same responsibility to hold the Speaker to account for his or her performance, whether it is challenging egregious rulings or ensuring that an inadequate Speaker is not returned to the Chair in next parliament. It’s also our job as voters to ensure that our MPs are doing their jobs and that includes holding people to account. Simply demanding that we would be better off with an unaccountable bureaucrat to do the very core function of accountability in a democracy for us instead of doing it ourselves serves no one in the end.
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