Christopher Radojewski | Fulcrum Staff
CHANGES TO THE House of Commons seem to be in the brainstorming stages. Sadly, the horrid brown curtains that hang behind members are not on the House’s list of things to update. But the proposed changes to the political system have been lost in the commotion of an unusually exciting political scene over the holidays, including developments in the F-35 program and the Idle No More movement.
Yet, amidst all the excitement of late came another idea, one that proposes a change to the power structure in Canadian politics. Given the nature of a Parliament that seems loud, unruly, and inefficient, former MPs Paul Szabo and Derek Lee, along with Rob Walsh, a former law clerk, have begun contemplating how to give the Speaker of the House more power.
CBC News first broke the story about the quiet discussion concerning the position. The brainstorming has begun, and ideas are starting to move between current and former MPs who have experienced the ins and the outs of the system first-hand.
Former Liberal MP Derek Lee sat in the House of Commons for 23 years and wasn’t happy about what was shaping up during, and after, his political service.
“I think there has to be a conversation. I think you have to have a Speaker with determination, fortitude, and guts,” said Lee. “[There is] a desire among members to see improvements in how the House presents its work to the public.”
He and many Canadians aren’t happy about the growing disregard for behaviour in the Legislature. A more powerful figure in the House to curtail bad manners wouldn’t be such a bad idea. They don’t plan to do this by giving the Speaker a ruler like the one-room schoolteachers of old used, or to give him a sword like the sergeant-at-arms (who never draws the thing despite the ruckus).
Lee explained that the Speaker already has the power for more heavy disciplinary action, but it has not been frequently used in the past. Instead, precedent has created a more relaxed, neutral, character-regulating debate. He pointed out that other parliaments, like Great Britain’s, ensure the Speaker is quite active in maintaining order and a political process beneficial to all involved.
This whole idea isn’t just about quieting long-winded hecklers on both sides of the House. The quality of the answers is just as important. Lee explained that modifying the role could ensure that there are answers to questions during times like Question Period.
Deflecting the inquiries of MPs who get no follow-up questions has been a growing practice in Parliament—conduct that undermines the democratic process and prevents Canadians and the Legislature from receiving important information. Addressing the arguments raised by the group is as necessary an action as changing the curtains (and believe me, they need to go).
Walsh told CBC that this is a necessary direction to guarantee parliamentary practices “are respected and not in some manner abused.” Canadians want to ensure that the level of efficiency in Ottawa matches the salaries and benefits politicians are receiving. The Speaker may just be the ideal watchdog for citizens.
How does the idea get implemented? Well, Lee believes there is need for discussion and says these ideas are very much in the preliminary stages. If changes are made, they will have to come in two forms: formal action, but also initiative on the part of a Speaker. With so much reliance on precedent in the Canadian political system, a bold Speaker will be needed to exert more disciplinary power alongside the formal changes.
To clarify, we won’t see current Speaker Andrew Scheer making any massive power grabs. That’s not what this is about. It is about making parliamentarians more accountable for their actions.
Now don’t get too excited—this isn’t going to happen overnight. In fact, it is a process that must come from within. Current MPs have a chance to change the system, but in the words of Uncle Ben from Spiderman, ”with great power comes great responsibility.” If MPs create a more powerful speaker, they must be prepared for harsher penalties and stricter discipline if they mess up. But the system will be better for it.