We Have Put the Speaker in an Unenviable and Untenable Position

There is a paradox to being Speaker of the House of Commons or a provincial legislative assembly in Canada.

Speakers of the House of Commons and provincial assemblies are elected from the membership of the assembly and therefore were elected in a constituency under a political banner, often that of the majority party in the House.  They are politically partisan immediately before their election as Speaker.  However once elevated to the position of Speaker take on the mantle of impartiality as well as the responsibility to ensure that the rights and privileges of all members and parties in the House are protected.  Not only are Speakers expected to ensure fairness in debate, but they are also responsible for allowing the House to hold the government to account and to protect the independence of the House from interference from all outsiders, including the government.   While government Ministers sit as members in the House, in their capacity as minister, they act outside of the House.   The tensions between the House and the government are able to be resolved based on the neutrality of the Speaker.  Neither favouring the government nor the opposition allows the Speaker the necessary independence to be a servant of the House.

At the same time, Speakers are required to seek re-election to the House at the next election.  And in Canada, they do so under the political banner of one of the political parties, in a fully contested partisan election.   Like all Members who will seek re-election, during a Parliament the Speaker as member and future candidate must be able to attend to the needs of their constituents with issues they might have with the government; must engage with their political constituency association, fund-raise for themselves (an by extension their party); be able to communicate with constituents on parliamentary matters;  and, engage with constituency stakeholders  who may be seeking assistance with government programs and ministers.  They must also seek and win the party’s nomination, and support and defend their party’s platform and record at the election.   Except for during the election period, these activities will take place while the person holds the position of politically neutral Speaker.

Over the last decade, there have been various times when there has been a collision, or near miss, at the intersection of these “requirements”.   One Speaker did not see the role of Speaker as a position to aspire to as the pinnacle of a parliamentary career, rather he saw it as a stepping stone to a post as minister, and leader of their political party.   Another Speaker acknowledged a constituent, on behalf of the House, for their community service, who unbeknownst to him was a former Nazi, and as a consequence was forced to resign.   A Speaker faced a vote of confidence for video well-wishes for a former party leader (at another level of government), while wearing his robes.  The same Speaker had a summer picnic in his constituency that was advertised on his political party’s website.  The invitation included criticisms of the opposition leader and his policies. The party later apologized, but this did not satisfy the opposition which brought a second question of confidence in the House.  In Saskatchewan, on the last day of a Legislature before a fall election, the Speaker lambasted the government house leader for continued pressure and criticism based on decisions made by the Speaker that allegedly favoured the opposition and allowed for criticism of the government.  The Premier responded to the criticism by stating that it was sour grapes because the Speaker had lost his nomination.  The Speaker had been a member of the party and held the seat for more than twenty years and had lost the nomination to a government backed candidate.

Except in the Saskatchewan case, none of the incidents occurred during a parliamentary proceeding, nor was there a direct connection to a proceeding.   Mose of the issues are about optics, politics and perception.   Almost all of the incidents noted were are related to the continued requirement that the Speaker remain invisibly tethered to their constituency and party and the need to win a subsequent election.

To date the resolution of these issues has been ad hoc.   Often the issue arises by way of a political debate with the opposition arguing that a line has been crossed, and the Speaker or those supporting the Speaker arguing that the line was not known, or that there was a misunderstanding of the situation at the time.  With the growth of social media, tribal (gotcha) politics, and as elections near, the momentary scoring of political points often trumps consideration of deeper issues.   Any potential misstep of the Speaker can be exaggerated if it can be tied to the government.  Whether the line has been crossed seems to be more of a political than a parliamentary calculus.

Placing the Speaker in a straight-jacket of absolute neutrality both inside and outside of the House hobbles the Speaker as a Member and weakens their chances at the next election.   The inability to participate in the necessary and expected activities of a constituency member, including policy discussions over policies they will need to defend in the next election, fundraising for their re-election, and nomination activities potentially hobbles their ability to be Speaker since they may leave the impression of partiality.  Limiting the Speaker from these same activities, particularly at the constituency level, which are the bread and butter of members of Parliament seeking re-election, puts the Speaker at an electoral disadvantage in their bid for re-election.  In addition, the more vocal and partisan a Speaker (as candidate) is during their re-election campaign, the more difficult it may be for them to be seen as being able to be neutral as Speaker in the following Parliament.

To date, the approach to any issue has been reactive and focused on the particular circumstances and concern raised.  For example, following the incident relating to the recognition of the former Nazi, the House of Commons put in place guidelines for vetting and recognition of guests.  In Saskatchewan, the Speaker waited until the last sitting day of a Legislature to expose attempts by the government to bully Speakers.  And there have been debates on these matters as questions of privilege and confidence in the Speaker, with the votes on the parliamentary question being considered the end of the matter.  But little attempt has been made to address the underlying problem the paradox presents.   It is time to have a serious pro-active examination of the roles and expectations of the Speaker in the House of Commons and provincial legislative assemblies, and their relationship to partisan electoral politics.

In some countries, when selected as Speaker, the member resigns from their political party.  They then run in the next election as an independent candidate unopposed (at least by the major parties).  Whether  this is seen as a “reward” for service, or with the expectation of favoured preference in the subsequent election as Speaker, it at least allows for a greater sense of neutrality in the Parliament they where elected Speaker  since they do not need to keep one eye on the House and the other on their re-election.  In other countries, there is the possibility of choosing a Speaker who in not a member of the Assembly, therefore they do not necessarily have the same political baggage.   Or it may be that after proper reflection, a set of rules and guidelines can be established to set out the roles of the Speaker within the House, and the expectation of Members, caucuses, and government officials so that the neutrality of the Speaker is not compromised.  Consideration may also need to be given to a cooling-off period between Speakership and future roles in government or leadership roles in the House.   At the same time, guidelines and expectations of a Speaker can be set out to guide them when engaging with their constituent association, their constituents through communications on parliamentary matters (householders at the federal level), constituent advocacy, nomination meetings, fundraising, and partisan activities during the election period.

Leaving matters to convention and common sense in a world of hyper partisanship, “relative truth”, social media and sound bites is not an option.   Clearer guidelines and understanding from all parties, preferably not in response to a current “crisis” of confidence, is required.  The role of Speaker is one that is important and integral to the functioning of all parties within Parliament and the institution of Parliament itself.  Protecting the Speakership from becoming mired in politics is imperative.  It is time to have a serious discussion about the kind of Speakership Canadians want and nee, in the twenty-first century.



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