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Canada and the US utilize different political systems. The former uses the Westminster model for parliamentary government, which includes an elected House of Commons and (mostly) unelected Senate. The latter uses a presidential system and constitutional federal republic, which includes elected assemblies in the House of Representatives and Senate.

The two countries do have a few political similarities. Both elect a Speaker of the House, for instance. The role tends to be of a more independent nature in Canada, and more ideologically partisan in the US. Nevertheless, this individual is supposed to manage the day-to-day proceedings of the Canadian Parliament and US Congress, respectively.

In a strange quirk of history, the House Speaker role in both countries has simultaneously experienced an unusually high amount of political turmoil.

Anthony Rota, a Liberal MP who had served as Canada’s Speaker of the House for nearly four years, invited 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka to be honoured during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Sept. 22 visit. Rota described Hunka, one of his constituents in North Bay, as a “Ukrainian Canadian war veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians” as well as “a Ukrainian hero, a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.”

The war veteran received a standing ovation in Parliament, and plenty of smiles on both sides of the House. That is, until people started to connect the dots and realized that a huge mistake had been made. Hunka had served in the First Ukrainian Division during the Second World War, which was also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division and SS 14th Waffen Division. This division was a voluntary unit commanded by Nazi Germany that’s been accused of murdering Jewish and Polish civilians.

An actual Nazi had been honoured in the House of Commons. Rota was humiliated and issued an apology within days. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals were embarrassed by the actions of the Speaker and a caucus colleague. The opposition parties, who were also on their feet that day, pointed blame squarely at Rota, Trudeau and the Liberals and the clear lack of a proper vetting process.

Rota resigned as House Speaker on Sept. 26. While the Hunka invitation was unintentional, it was a massive error in judgment that couldn’t be swept under the rug. There was no other alternative but to step down.

This led to Bloc Quebecois MP Louis Plamondon taking over the role on an interim basis. Plamondon, who was elected as a Progressive Conservative in 1984, became the first-ever Speaker from the BQ, a separatist party. While uneventful, it was a strange moment in Canadian politics and the shortest-ever tenure of a House Speaker.

This led to the Oct. 3 vote for a new Speaker. Greg Fergus, a Liberal MP and the acknowledged front-runner, defeated three fellow Liberals (Sean Casey, Alexandra Mendès and Peter Schiefke), Conservative MP Chris d’Entremont, NDP MP Carol Hughes and Green Party leader Elizabeth May in a secret ballot vote. Stéphane Lauzon, a Liberal MP who had also put his name forward, withdrew before the voting started.

Liberal MPs seemed pleased with this decision. Fergus became Canada’s first Black House Speaker, and they felt the political turmoil involving this role would end.

Then again, maybe it won’t.

Fergus’s skills as a politician are highly suspect. He got into some hot water during a Jan. 25, 2021 appearance on CTV’s Power Play. After pointing out that more COVID-19 vaccine approvals were needed to meet a Sept. 2021 target, he confidently mentioned two vaccines, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, that hadn’t been approved in Canada at that point. CTV got in touch with then-Liberal Procurement Minister Anita Anand, who confirmed her government’s position hadn’t changed. Fergus issued an apology.

Fergus was also found guilty of an ethics violation this February. He broke the Conflict of Interest Act as Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary after writing a letter of support to the CRTC for a television channel that had applied for mandatory carriage. Parliamentary rules forbid ministers and parliamentary secretaries from writing letters of support. This is something that only MPs can do.

A mediocre politician with an ethics violation is Canada’s new House Speaker. The bar has been lowered yet again.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy, who was elected US House Speaker on Jan. 7 after 15 agonizing ballots, the fifth longest in American history, became the first person in this role to be removed.

The right-leaning Freedom Caucus within the GOP was furious with McCarthy’s decision to make a deal with House Democrats to pass a funding resolution that would prevent a government shutdown. “We’re going to be adults in the room. And we’re going to keep government open,” McCarthy said. “If somebody wants to remove me because I want to be the adult in the room, go ahead and try.”

This was more than enough motivation for Matt Gaetz. The controversial Republican House Representative filed a motion to vacate on Oct. 2. While it initially seemed unlikely to succeed, the slim four-seat Republican majority that’s basically propped up the Freedom Caucus withered away. Eight Republicans, including Gaetz, voted for the no-confidence motion and were joined by the entire Democratic caucus.

The final vote was 216-210 to remove McCarthy. The Speaker’s seat was declared vacant. Republican Patrick McHenry was appointed Speaker pro tempore, and McCarthy unsurprisingly confirmed he wouldn’t run again.

While McCarthy’s leadership was far from flawless, it had been more than adequate. He really didn’t deserve this fate. Gaetz and his political allies have therefore unnecessarily thrown the House into turmoil – and hurt their own political brand in the process. With a looming government shutdown in roughly 40 days, the Republicans need to somehow get behind a new candidate for Speaker – and fast.

Who would have ever believed the House Speaker’s role in Canada and the US would have travelled on the same messy path, albeit for separate reasons? For all of our political differences, one similarity has stood out. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

The U.S., like most western democracies, has to elect a new Speaker of the House (or equivalent legislative body) after an election has been held. The vast majority have been straightforward affairs and mostly along party lines. Of the previous 128 votes, there have only been 15 that lasted more than one ballot.

The 118th Congress was an exception to the rule. It took 15 ballots to elect Republican Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker. That’s the fifth longest in U.S. political history. 

This wasn’t even close to the longest House Speaker vote. That dubious honour remains in the firm grip of the 34th Congress. It held an astonishing 133 ballots between Dec. 3, 1855 to Feb. 2, 1856 before Republican Nathaniel P. Banks was mercifully elected. 

Was it close to the second-longest vote? No. The 31st Congress conducted a total of 63 ballots between Dec. 3-22, 1849 before they elected Democrat Howell Cobb.   

Nevertheless, the 118th Congress vote for House Speaker between Jan. 3-7 was the first multiple ballot election since the 68th Congress in 1923. (Republican Frederick H. Gillett won that contest on the ninth ballot.) It was also the first double digit Speaker election since 1859-60, when Republican William Pennington won on the 44th ballot before the 36th Congress could officially begin.

What caused the 2023 Speaker vote to extend for several days?

The Republicans have a slim 222-212 lead over the Democrats in the House of Representatives. (There’s one seat to be filled in a special election, but it’s in a heavily Democratic district.) They needed to get at least 218 votes to elect a new Speaker under its party banner.

Hang on. The Democrats also had a narrow lead in the 117th Congress. How did Nancy Pelosi get elected Speaker in one ballot, whereas McCarthy needed 15 ballots to accomplish the same task?

Let’s do a side-by-side comparison.

In 2021, Pelosi beat McCarthy 216-209. Two Democrats voted for different candidates, who were (unsurprisingly) both Democrats. Only 427 of the 435 House Representatives voted, meaning the threshold was lowered to 214. Pelosi, the incumbent Speaker, won on the first ballot with a narrow majority of 50.59 percent. She avoided a second ballot by only two votes.

In 2023, House Democrats were more united than House Republicans when voting for a new Speaker. The Democrats consistently voted for its House Caucus leader, Hakeem Jeffries, during the 15 ballots. McCarthy lost the support of 21 Republicans in the first ballot on Jan. 3, who didn’t cast a single vote for Jeffries. He spent the next 14 ballots trying to persuade these holdouts to vote for him. Alternatively, they could vote present – which meant they didn’t have to name a candidate for Speaker, but could help strategically lower McCarthy’s threshold to win the vote. 

McCarthy finally took the lead on the 12th ballot after some negotiations and private discussions. He finally beat Jeffries 216-212 with 6 Republicans voting present on the 15th ballot on Jan. 7. This enabled McCarthy to win by one vote with a threshold of 215. He gave up plenty of concessions to regain this position, but the sigh of relief on his face said it all.

The Republican holdouts were members of the Freedom Caucus. This group takes strong stances on conservative issues like reducing taxes, eliminating government waste, supporting traditional family values, focusing on foreign policy matters and so forth. That’s a good thing, since it represents the political and moral compass of the party and movement. On the flip side, some Freedom Caucus members, including Representatives Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, have been lightning rods for controversy and taken positions that caused the Republicans to receive bad press and unwanted attention.    

Every political party has its factions, both good and bad. The Democrats have had to deal with its fair share of radical progressives and hard left ideologues, including members of the Squad like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. No-one is immune from this.

Which brings us to the final point. Why did some political commentators have a hissy fit over the length of this year’s Speaker vote? Lesley Stahl, for instance, had a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes (in its Overtime program) entitled An embarrassment in the House. “The historic chaos in the House of Representatives this past week,” the description began, “embarrassed not only a party, but an entire nation.”

Did it, really? 

Congress participated in a time-honoured democratic procedure to elect a new House Speaker. Democracy, as we know, can be messy sometimes – and this was one of those instances. While it would have been far less dramatic if McCarthy had won right away, not every Speaker vote in U.S. history has followed this pattern. The vast majority of House Representatives voted for the two main candidates, while a small group of Republicans went in a different direction for several ballots. It was not only their right, but it was remarkably similar to the other 14 instances where the Speaker vote went beyond a first ballot victory. House Representatives also have their own set of opinions, views and values. Party loyalty is important, but so is preserving freedom of choice and thought.

 That’s not embarrassing, ladies and gentlemen. That’s a true exercise in democracy.

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.