On September 22, 2023 during a special sitting of the House of Commons at which the President of Ukraine was to address the House, the Speaker acknowledged the presence in the gallery of a constituent of his. Unknown to the Speaker, or apparently to any other Member, the constituent had been a member of the German SS during the second world war. Within hours the constituent’s past was ascertained and divulged by Jewish leaders and others who pointed out the involvement of the constituent’s SS unit in atrocities against Jews and civilians during the war.
Immediately there were demands for an apology from the Speaker and the beginnings of suggestions that the Speaker resign.
By September 25, when the House next met, the significance of the situation and profound error was evident. The real pain and shock of members of the Jewish community, human rights advocates and many ordinary Canadians had manifested itself though social media platforms and in public statements. That the events and occurred on the eve of Yom Kippur, one of the holist periods in the Jewish calendar, made the situation even more painful. Complicating matters politically was the use to which Russia and others would be able to exploit the incident to “demonstrate” pro-Nazi sympathies in the west and in Ukraine.
On September 25, the Speaker made a heartfelt apology for both inviting the constituent to attend and sit in the gallery of the House, and for praising him in the manner that he did. During the apology the Speaker made it clear that the decision to invite the constituent and to acknowledge his presence was the Speaker’s personal decision and that the invitation had been made by him directly.
Despite insinuations by the Official Opposition, including a former Speaker, that the invitation was at the request of the government, or at least that the government knew and was complicit, it is rightly asserted by the Speaker that he would have acted on his own initiative. Any other suggestion is to question the impartiality and political neutrality of the Speaker and the role of the Speaker. Even suggesting that the Speaker had or ought to have advised the government itself suggests the politicization of the position of Speaker. That the Speaker acted independently of the government in this case is not only evident from the statement of the Speaker and statements from the Prime Minster, but from the personal and emotionally charged pain of the Government House Leader, who is a descendant of a holocaust survivor most of whose family were victims of the Nazi regime. Any contact with the government by the Speaker would have been with the House Leader’s office, and any suggestion of co-operation or knowledge of the government in these circumstances is difficult to believe. The attempt by the Official Opposition to make any such connection, without evidence, is itself a threat to the office of Speaker, and should be condemned for its political overreach.
That the Speaker acted alone is evident. As such, any consequences or corrective action is a matter for the House, to which the Speaker is accountable, to consider, not the government. It is appropriate that any consequences for the actions or failings of the Speaker are the responsibility of the House. An independent and politically neutral Speaker is necessary both for the House to function and for public trust in the institution. He was elected, by secret ballot, by all Members of the House, both government and opposition. As such the relationship of all members equally. His actions and his words are made by the House and is for all members. It is obvious that in this case his words and actions, albeit unbeknownst to the Speaker at the time, were hurtful of some members personally and clearly not reflective of the views of the House and its members. It is therefore up to Speaker and the House to resolve the issue. Whether the House accepts the apology of the Speaker and whether the House has continued confidence in the Speaker to act as their public face and representative is for the House and the Speaker to work out. There have been many calls for the Speaker to consider resigning in light of these events. There may also be consideration by some Members to present a motion of non-confidence in the Speaker which would compel the Speaker to resign.
The resignation of the Speaker, voluntarily or forcibly, during a period when the House is sitting is almost unheard of in Canadian history. With limited exceptions, most resignations have occurred when the Parliament was prorogued (between sessions) with the House being able to select a new Speaker at the beginning of the next session of Parliament, or during a long adjournment when the House could plan for an election of a Speaker at the next sitting. How to proceed in the present situation is somewhat uncharted.
Constitutionally there must always be a Speaker of the House of Commons. The House cannot sit or hold proceedings without a Speaker. While there is a Deputy Speaker of the House, he or she can only act when the Speaker is temporarily absent. Temporary absence is different from a vacancy, and therefore the Deputy Speaker could not act if the Speaker resigns. The House would have to immediately cease its business until a new Speaker is elected. In order to avoid such an abrupt break it is for the Speaker to provide notice that he “intends” to resign (Standing Orders s.2(2)), with some time fixed in the future to allow for the processes to be put in place to elect a successor. The Speaker has indicated that he will be resigning at the end of the day September 27, 2023. Until the House elects a new Speaker, the House cannot conduct any business. Unless the House proceeds to elect a Speaker on Thursday morning, the House cannot sit to hold normal proceedings.
How and when the election of a new Speaker is elected is a matter for the House to decide. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons provide that members “when they are ready, shall proceed to the election of a Speaker.” Unless the House adjourns, the Speaker must remain in place until the new Speaker is elected. It must be made clear when the Speaker is in fact resigning. If the House chooses, it can continue to sit until the new Speaker is elected, with the present Speaker presiding. If the Speaker chose to be temporarily absent until the election of the new Speaker, the Deputy Speaker could manage the sittings of the House, but he or she would not “be” Speaker as such. IF the Speaker has resigned Deputy Speakers cannot act. At the same time, it is clear from the precedents and rules that the election of a Speaker takes precedence over all business of the House. While this supports the position that the House cannot conduct any business without a Speaker, so election of a Speaker must come first, in the case of a resignation, it is also indicative of the priority of the election, and that it should take place as soon as possible.
The process for election of a Speaker is set out in the Standing Orders of the House. Where there has been an intention to resign, and if the Speaker remains a member of the House, the Speaker will preside over the election. If the Speaker is no longer a member, the member of the House with the longest seniority who is not a member of cabinet or the Leader of the Opposition will take the chair to conduct the election. Theoretically all other members are eligible to be Speaker and normally the process is to allow for a period of time for members to have themselves removed from the “ballot”. At the election sitting, the chair can allow those who still wish to be considered to speak for five minutes, after which a secret ballot is taken. Until 2021, a series of ballots would be taken (with the member with the fewest votes being dropped in subsequent ballots) until a majority was reached. In 2021, a single ranked ballot process was used. This is the process most likely to be used in any subsequent election. Once the election process is begun, it takes precedence and will continue without any interruption or adjournment until a new Speaker is chosen. Once elected the new Speaker immediately takes the chair and becomes Speaker.
It is important, for the sake of the House, and public confidence in the House, that the matter of confidence in the Speaker be resolved as quickly and in as orderly a fashion as possible. As I write this the Speaker of the House had met with the various House Leaders, and he has indicated that he will resign at the end of the day on September 27. One hopes that that a calm and neutral process will be established for the election of a new Speaker. All parties should recognize that this a House matter, not a government or political one; so that the dignity of the House is not impaired. This is a challenging time for the House that requires members to act as parliamentarians not politicians.
The Speaker must be careful in how his resignation is handled. Unless he provides an intention to resign to match the date of the election it will be difficult to manage a smooth transition to a new Speaker. Proper notice of intention will all the House for an orderly transfer of the constitutional office of Speaker of the House of Commons to take place.
In addition to the possible election of a new Speaker, consideration of how this error in judgement occurred needs to be addressed. Once again this must be done by the House itself. The House of Commons is independent of the government and therefore, unless there is a specific request for information made from the office of the Speaker, for use by the Speaker, there is no requirement for the Speaker to advise the government, or anyone outside of the House, of any intention of the Speaker to act or speak. The term Speaker is indicative of this responsibility. The Speaker speaks for the House. He is the only person who can. And with this comes a great responsibility. It is the responsibility of the Speaker, as a servant of the House, to ensure that his actions and words reflect the position of the House, or would, by implication, reflect well on the House. The Speaker’s office is resourced by the House, and one of the primary roles of the House Administration is to provide independent support and advice. It is up to the Speaker and the House to ensure that those resources are used, and that a process is put in place to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
It is possible to learn from this experience. While the Speaker may need to resign and a new Speaker be elected, all parliamentarians and especially future Speakers have a responsibility to put in place processes that ensure that when the Speaker speaks, he or she speaks on behalf of the House and the Canadian public that the House embodies. And that speech needs to be fully informed and considered.