For want of an activist Speaker





Following this week’s confrontation between Thomas Mulcair and Speaker Andrew Scheer, there have been many cries for Scheer to be more activist, and none more stunning than Paul McLeod’s column in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald calling on Scheer to resign.  The problem with these many calls, however, is the premise that as Speaker, Scheer is somehow bound to descend from the heavens and apply divine judgement upon the proceedings of the Commons.  Real life, however, doesn’t quite work that way.

One important point that needs to be made right off the start is that Thomas Mulcair and the NDP have benefitted greatly from Scheer’s lax and inconsistent enforcement of the existing rules, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the kinds of questions that get asked daily that have absolutely nothing to do with the administrative responsibilities of government.  Most of these questions have to do with things like the internal operations of the Senate, what party operatives were up to with the case of Mike Duffy, or the constant egregious questions on private members’ business – whether it is a Conservative private member’s bill or the opposition trawling for support for one of their own – which is the very definition of not government business.  Scheer allows these constantly.  Sure, every now and again he’ll disallow one of them when they cross a line – and certainly some MPs have cranked up their theatricality around these kinds of out-of-bounds questions and need to be shut down as a reminder – but they certainly have benefitted overall as those clips make it onto nightly newscasts.  That Mulcair wants Scheer to selectively enforce other non-existent rules about the content of answers stretches the bounds of credulity.

The demand for selective enforcement is also at the heart of McLeod’s piece, who cites other decisions where he wanted Scheer to break the rules in special cases, such as Randall Garrison asking for an additional vote on adding trans rights to the government’s cyberbullying bill after the committee said no.  Those rules exist for good reason, and this constant demand that we should appeal to higher authorities – be it the Speaker or the Queen – when we lose at politics is childish and demeans our system of democracy.  We may not like decisions that get made in the course of the parliamentary process, but we have a chance to revisit them in the next parliament.  It’s how the system works, and we shouldn’t be demanding that Scheer bend more rules selectively when it suits us.

Everyone is also fond of citing the way that Speaker Bercow in the UK enforces a stricter discipline in the Commons in Westminster, but those same people are also guilty of taking a myopic view of that enforcement.  Our own parliament has evolved in a separate way than Westminster has, and we have very different structures and rules that help to inform how events like Question Period or Prime Minister’s Questions play out.  Process matters, and we can’t simply say, “Bercow does it – why not Scheer?” without looking at why Bercow can do it.  If we want to make changes to our own rules to mirror those in the UK, we also need to remember the cultural differences between Canada and the UK are also part of why their system operates differently.  Lamentably, we don’t have the same debating culture that they do in the UK, and that can’t be replicated with a few tweaks to the Standing Orders.

Ultimately, Scheer only has the power that MPs give him, and over successive parliaments, our MPs have not seen fit to empower the Speaker to judge the quality of responses that ministers give during QP.  This is important, because our system is dependent on MPs being the masters of their own domain, whether it’s in the Commons, or in committees.  They have the powers to make their rules, and change them if they really want to.  Where this is part of a larger problem is that it comes with the lack of civic literacy that the vast majority of our MPs suffer from.  Few of them know their actual roles and responsibilities and tend to simply take the direction that is being given to them by their party leaders, and it’s not actually the Speaker’s job to police that.  We also have relatively poor incumbency rates in Canada, so by the time most MPs realise that the rules are not working the way they should be, they either leave or are voted out.  That doesn’t help with getting needed changes made.

The solution to this is not in simply supercharging the powers that we grant the Speaker, but rather in ensuring that MPs actually take the personal responsibility to educate themselves as to their role.  Knowledgeable MPs are more empowered MPs, and that will hopefully mean that they also take the exercise of accountability – most notably QP – more seriously.  More importantly, it will hopefully mean that MPs will have enough of an understanding to make sensible changes to the rules that will ultimately benefit our system, such as doing away with speaking lists and giving that power back to the Speaker.

If Parliament has become a sideshow, as McLeod asserts, it’s not the Speaker’s fault – it’s the fault of MPs themselves, and they are the only ones who can change it.  Simply giving the Speaker a bigger hammer doesn’t change that.  It’s also the fault of the voting public who don’t engage enough in the political process to better hold their elected representatives to account in either the nomination process or at the ballot box when they demonstrate the kinds of clownish antics that we see get rewarded now.  The case of Rob Anders is a good example of what happens when constituents get fed up with the behaviour of their MP and ensure that he’s not on the ballot the next time around.  We don’t need to empower the Speaker to make that happen – we simply need to pay attention and participate in the process.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

The ethics of crowd-sourcing your re-election
Term limits and the outsider fetish
Co-opting backbenchers
Why parties matter
Democracy, not technocracy

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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