Keeping our House in order: How the Speaker of the Commons is Chosen

Image found on francopresse

Image from Francopresse

Alexa Grieg

The night of October 19th, 2015 was a big one for Canadians. Many outstanding (and longstanding) questions were answered.

Did voter turnout finally increase?

A whopping 69.1 per cent of eligible voters exercised their democratic right to vote, the highest turnout in a Canadian federal election since 1993.

Did we elect a new government?

With a total sweep of the East Coast and big seat gains in Québec and the seat-rich GTA, the Liberal Party’s caucus in the House of Commons grew from 36 to a staggering 184 Members of Parliament. With a change in administration and a new Prime Minister and yet-to-be-determined Cabinet waiting in the wings, the result on October 19th promised an Ottawa awash of new faces.

Yes, Canadians called it a night with the closure of knowing that our collective democratic decision had answered the questions on our minds.

But for a select few among us, a small but mighty contingent of parliamentary procedure junkies, the drama and intrigue of October 19th left us with one burning question as our heads hit the pillow post-“sunny ways”: Who will be the next Speaker of the House of Commons?

In addition to his or her ceremonial and ambassadorial responsibilities, which include speaking for the House of Commons in its dealings with the Senate, the Crown, and other bodies outside of Parliament, the Speaker has the important job of presiding over the Commons. He or she ensures that parliamentary rules, conventions, and traditions, both written and unwritten, are dutifully respected at all times. It is the Speaker’s responsibility to interpret these rules impartially, to maintain order in the House of Commons, and to defend the privileges of its Members, including their right to freedom of speech. The speaker’s  key role in preserving the trust of the House of Commons is found in his or her duties as “neutral arbiter”; accordingly, the Speaker never participates in debates, and only votes in the case of a tie.

The person who wears the Speaker’s robes (traditional black silk with a white tab collar) matters in the House of Commons because his or her decisions impact both the conduct of House proceedings, the level of decorum and debate in the House, and the degree to which the voice of all MPs, in the majority and the minority, have their voices heard. This balance—the balance between the order of business and the rights and privileges of individual MPs—cuts to the heart of the fundamental institutions and principles of our democracy. As our representatives, MPs stand for Canadians’ interests from far and wide, and the Speaker must protect their ability to voice these interests. These are, in fact, the premises on which our democracy is built.

Electing the Speaker is the first item of business before the House of Commons when a new Parliament is formed (but really — it is in section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1867). Since the 1980s, Members have elected the new Speaker by secret ballot; for the first time, however, this Speaker’s election will take place via a preferential ballot system instead of the “exhaustive” ballot system; the latter involved multiple rounds of voting that often resulted in Speakership elections taking up the entire day,

The election for Speaker is presided over by the Dean of the House: the longest-serving Member of Parliament who is not a Minister of the Crown, a Party Leader, House Leader, or a Party Whip. The current Dean of the House is Louis Plamondon from the Bloc Québecois, who has been serving in the House of Commons, uninterrupted, since 1984 (a staggering 31 years of service — and counting!). The list of potential candidates for the Speaker includes all Members except Ministers, Party Leaders, and all Members who have withdrawn their names from consideration.

Once selected, the winner of the election is escorted or “dragged” to the Speaker’s chair by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Official Opposition. By tradition, the newly-elected Speaker feigns reluctance to taking his or her new seat, a relic dating back to when the Speaker at Westminster risked their life by accepting the role; in the early days of British Parliament, Speakers usually delivered news, bad or good, from the Commons to the Monarch, and bad news from the Commons often meant the messenger paid the ultimate price (case in point: 9 British Speakers were beheaded between 1394 and 1535). Previous Speaker Andrew Scheer was dragged to his new seat by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Opposition Leader Jack Layton back in 2011.

The whole thing is all very exciting, not only because the process results in a new face at the centre of parliamentary procedure, but also because it is the first collective decision that the group of newly-elected MPs make as a group. Much like the first day of school, the day is buzzing with excitement: smiles and warm welcomes for new MPs and re-elected friends from across party lines seeing one another again after a long campaign and post-election period.

Being the Speaker is no easy task, as any referee will attest. Some of Speaker Scheer’s most controversial rulings dealt with topics such as the “relevancy” of answers in Question Period, a Question of Privilege from a backbench MP regarding the right of Party Whip to prevent him from delivering a statement on a controversial topic, and the admissibility of omnibus legislation.

In anticipation of the Speaker’s election this Thursday, as with any contested political battle, there has been much speculation and posturing in the lead-up. Pundits have weighed in on the race, and on which MPs who have publicly thrown their hat in the ring both here and here. One MP has already announced and withdrawn his candidacy. The speculation is rampant in Ottawa’s political circles and the anticipation is building.

The opening of Parliament will be streaming live on CPAC.ca this Thursday, December 3rd. Are you on the edge of your seat? Will you tune into this momentous occasion? The drama of parliamentary democracy—in all of its real-time, unpredictable glory—awaits.

Alexa Greig is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences with a Specialization in Political Science from the University of Ottawa. She has several years of experience working on Parliament Hill, including one year with the longstanding Parliamentary Internship Programme. A proud Hamiltonian, Alexa’s interests include urban policy, listening to podcasts, and all things #cdnpoli.

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