The Speaker is under attack again — maybe it’s time for a more independent approach

24 May 2024
The Speaker is under attack again — maybe it’s time for a more independent approach

The Conservative Party sent a note to supporters on Tuesday afternoon with the subject line, “Help fire the Speaker.”

“Greg Fergus, Speaker of the House of Commons, has shown complete disregard for the non-partisan requirement for his job,” the party wrote, asking supporters to register their agreement with a statement calling on Fergus to resign.

The Conservatives have been on record calling for Fergus to resign for five months now. Their newest complaint concerns the “very partisan” and “inflammatory” language included in an ad on the Liberal Party’s website for an event hosted by Fergus in his riding.

While the Speaker does not sit with their party caucus while presiding over the House, they are allowed to run under their party banner in a general election. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with Fergus hosting a reception for supporters and volunteers in his riding (for good measure, Fergus’s office says the Speaker consulted the clerk of the House of Commons before agreeing to the event).

After the Conservatives called on Speaker of the House Greg Fergus to resign over an ad that attacked the Conservative Party and its leader, Pierre Poilievre, the Liberal Party is taking responsibility, pulling the post and apologizing to the Speaker, who is said not to have been involved.

The Conservatives did have solid grounds to complain about partisan language in the ad. But Fergus’s office quickly claimed it had nothing to do with how the Liberal Party promoted the event. By Tuesday afternoon, the party had publicly apologized to Fergus for attaching some partisan boilerplate to the event listing.

If this had been the first run-in between Fergus and the Conservatives, it might not have amounted to much more than a minor kerfuffle. But for the Conservatives, this is just the latest reason to indict both Fergus and his predecessor, Anthony Rota.

The Conservatives’ problems with two Liberal Speakers

Fergus and the Official Opposition first clashed mere days after he took the chair last fall. The Conservatives loudly objected when the Speaker attempted to deliver a statement on decorum immediately before question period.

Two months later, the Conservatives called for Fergus to resign after he appeared in his Speaker’s robes during a video that was played at a convention for the Ontario Liberal Party.

Fergus’s speakership survived the video affair, but the Conservatives revived their attacks last month when Fergus ejected Pierre Poilievre from the House. The Conservative leader had refused to withdraw, without qualification, his use of the term “wacko” to describe the prime minister, so Fergus ordered him to leave.

Less than two hours later, the party sent out an email with the subject line, “BREAKING NEWS: They kicked Pierre out.”

“The Liberal Speaker just THREW Pierre Poilievre out of the House of Commons,” the party told its supporters.

Leader of the Conservative Party Pierre Poilievre rises during question period on Wednesday, April 17, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The party reminded its supporters of that incident when it wrote to them on Tuesday.

“This is the same Greg Fergus who kicked Pierre Poilievre out of the House of Commons because he said Trudeau’s hard drug policy was ‘wacko,'” the party wrote. “His Liberal bias is unacceptable.”

Fergus only occupies the Speaker’s chair now because his predecessor, Liberal MP Anthony Rota, was compelled to resign last September after inviting a Nazi-affiliated war veteran to witness Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address to Parliament.

While trying to tie that scandal to Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government, Conservatives described Rota as the “Liberal Speaker” — a tag that earned them a rebuke from Deputy Speaker Chris D’Entremont, a Conservative MP.

“We do not belong to any party when we are in this position,” D’Entremont told the House.

But that was not the first time the Conservatives had attacked Rota in that manner.

When Conservative MP Raquel Dancho was ejected from the House after she refused to apologize for unparliamentary language, her party turn it into a fundraising appeal. (CPAC)

In December 2022, Rota expelled Conservative Raquel Dancho from the House after she refused to apologize for unparliamentary language (she had accused the Liberals of lying, a suggestion that is forbidden in the House). A day later, the Conservatives sent a fundraising appeal in her name to supporters.

“The Liberal Speaker kicked me out of the House of Commons yesterday for telling the truth,” Dancho wrote.

She claimed that “they” — the Liberals — had tried to “silence” her.

Time for a change?

This has been a particularly tumultuous period for the speakership and much of the strife can be traced to sloppiness and carelessness within and around the Speaker’s office. But the other half of the story is an Official Opposition that apparently sees partisan advantage in fighting the Speaker.

If Fergus were to step down tomorrow, is there any Liberal the Conservatives would accept as Speaker? Or would any Liberal who attempts to enforce the rules of the House against a Conservative risk becoming the subject of a fundraising email?

All of this has played out against the backdrop of an unruly House — by at least one count, even more unruly than usual. And given the events of the past year and a half, it’s worth considering whether changes are needed to reinforce both the independence of the Speaker and the institution of Parliament.

In the United Kingdom, the Speaker of the House of Commons does not merely remove themselves from their party caucus — they cease all partisan activity. After being elected by MPs to the post, the U.K. Speaker runs as an independent candidate in subsequent general elections and does not campaign on political issues. The major parties typically agree not to run candidates against a Speaker.

Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, attends the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament in London on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Hannah McKay/AP)

When a Speaker in the U.K. leaves the post, they do not return to partisan politics. Typically they’re offered an appointment as a “crossbencher” to the House of Lords — the equivalent of an independent member in the U.K. Parliament’s appointed upper house.

In Canada, only one Speaker has ever tried to emulate the U.K. approach. After becoming Speaker in 1966, Lucien Lamoureux ran as an Independent in the general elections of 1968 and 1972. But the other parties were unwilling to play along — the NDP fielded a candidate against Lamoureux both times and the Progressive Conservatives ran a candidate in 1972. (Lamoureux won both times and continued to serve as Speaker until 1974.)

To adopt the U.K.’s conventions would require cross-party agreement. At the moment, it’s not obvious that all four parties could agree on where to go for lunch, let alone on an important new parliamentary tradition.

Liberal Party apologizes to Speaker after controversy erupts over partisan event posting

Poilievre subdued in question period the day after getting kicked out for ‘wacko’ comment

Speaker kicks Poilievre out of the Commons after he calls PM a ‘wacko’ in tense question period exchange

It also would be a mistake to assume such changes would fix all that ails the Speaker’s office and the House of Commons.

But it could bestow greater independence on the office and signal the importance of the job, further distancing the Speaker from partisan rancour. Ideally, it might strengthen the Speaker’s hand as they attempt to impose order on the House and reinforce the office against partisan attacks.

At the very least, being fully independent might prevent future Speakers from stumbling into two of the controversies Fergus has found himself in — the video and the event listing.

Either way, MPs might look back on the last 18 months and conclude that the institution of Parliament is at some considerable risk if the House’s non-partisan referee continues to be the regular subject of fundraising appeals.

Source: cbc

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