It’s time to reform the role of Speaker of the House of Commons

Posted on November 24, 2015 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
November 23, 2015.   Craig Scott

In a three-part series, former NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott proposes how and why Canada’s democracy can be strengthened.

If electoral reform is to truly take root in Canada, there is a pressing need for House of Commons reform to make our central democratic institution a significantly fairer, more rigorous and more dignified forum.

Where to start? There are literally dozens of necessary and doable reforms concerning everything from how committees work to how legislation is presented to the House by governments, to the authority of agents of Parliament, to improvement of Question Period. Many specific House reforms, however, could end up as virtual dead letters without first, or simultaneously, addressing a lynchpin reform — namely, the role and powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The institution of the Speaker has atrophied over time. Most close observers would agree that successive Speakers have gradually abandoned their authority to ensure that the House is a vibrant democratic hub, doing so by embracing an almost caricatured understanding of the metaphor of the Speaker as the “servant” of the House.

Exacerbated by cultural problems the Speaker cannot directly solve (namely, MPs who are unduly quiescent to control by their party’s House leadership), the Speaker has more and more become a mere weathervane for the prevailing power constellations in the House. And in majority government situations in which the Speaker is of the same party as the government, and thus where she relies on that party’s assistance to be re-elected, this too often leads to the Speaker professing impotence unless “the House” (code for the governing majority) gives her express instructions to do something necessary to protect the integrity of the institution and its processes.

It is time for reforms to help a new Speaker become much more of a neutral referee, even adjudicator, in House proceedings and — more generally speaking — a true guardian of the health of our parliamentary democracy. And MPs should elect the next few Speakers with a view to whether they have the character and capacities to help lead the way.

This, then, is the general need and the general goal. What follows are just some examples of specific changes the House should consider as part of a democratic renewal of our parliamentary democracy.

– Rules and legislation should structure greater independence for the Speaker from political-party pressures. In my view, this should include a system that sees the Speaker automatically giving up her riding seat upon being elected as Speaker (thus creating a by-election so the riding has a new MP) and resigning from her party to become an Independent. She would then be styled (something like) the Member of Parliament for Parliament Hill. Should the Speaker later stand for re-election by the House as Speaker and not succeed, she would automatically become a deputy Speaker of some form as well as MP for a second “virtual” riding, for example, the MP for Centre Block.

– Facilitated by the existence of mandatory election dates, House elections of Speakers should gradually be shifted to the mid-point between elections, so as to ensure continuity of the Speaker when new Parliaments are formed after elections.

– The Speaker should be empowered to determine if a bill (including a budget bill) is an illicit omnibus bill and to determine the remedy — whether sending back to the government to try again, or herself splitting the bill so that different legislative tracks can be followed for distinct legislative agendas.

– The Speaker should have final authority over time allocation and closure in the event that agreement is not reached by the parties’ House Leaders on how much time to debate a given bill or motion. A system that the Speaker could use might be modelled on labour relations law where arbitrators choose the last best offer — which helps produce a dynamic whereby the negotiating parties try to present reasonable positions for fear of having their adversary’s position selected.

– The Speaker should exercise greater authority in Question Period (QP) to call on Ministers to answer questions — with, at a minimum, a minister who declines to answer being first required to rise to indicate that her parliamentary secretary or another minister is better suited to answer the question before the Speaker moves to that other member.

– Generating more dignified proceedings should be made a proactive general duty of the Speaker. This includes not just the tone and relevance of questions and answers in QP, but such matters as the use of Standing Order 31 Statements prior to QP for personal attacks or juvenile tirades.

– The Speaker should chair an all-party special committee for continuous review of how to enhance the transparency, accessibility and honesty of presentation of legislation by government, including especially budgets and estimates. This committee could also study the multiple methods by which the government can unduly interfere in the work of committees, and propose rules to minimize such interference — as well as a sanction of raising a breach of parliamentary privilege before the Speaker if illicit attempts are made by the executive to compromise committees.

– If and as MPs themselves demonstrate greater independence — for example by convincing their parties to dedicate portions of Question Period to allowing any MP to stand to ask a question (call this an “Open Questions” sub-QP) — the Speaker should assertively facilitate such developments.

– Symbolism should not be forgotten. For example, currently the Speaker of the Senate is above the Speaker of the House of Commons for protocol purposes in what is known as the Order of Precedence. This should be rectified.

These are but some of the Speaker-enhancing reforms that can be contemplated. My hope is these suggestions will help start a conversation on reform to the institution of Speaker as the lynchpin of democracy within the House of Commons.

National Post

Craig Scott is professor of law (on leave) from Osgoode Hall Law School. He was formerly MP for Toronto-Danforth and NDP official opposition critic for democratic reform.

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