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The Speaker of the House of Commons

The historical origins of the office of the Speaker of the House of Commons go back almost 600 years. The importance of the office is highlighted in the opening of the relevant chapter in the House of Common Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, “no other office or position is more closely linked to the history of the House of Commons than that of the Speaker.” The Speaker in Canada exists as a result of its development within the United Kingdom, however the roles and functions of the Speaker today in Canada are markedly different than the United Kingdom. As well, as the result of reforms in the 1960s, the office of the Speaker has taken on more authority within the House of Commons and its proceedings. In this post, we will explore the powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons and briefly highlight how they have developed over time since 1867.

When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867 the British North America Act clearly defined the existence, election and function of the Speaker of the House of Commons. By 1867, most constitutional issues related to the office had been resolved in the UK, and thus the Canadian Speaker has never been subjected to the same degree of constitutional development as their UK counterpart (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed). However, that does not mean that the interpretation of the function of the office as defined in the constitution and the practice of enforcement of these functions has not changed over time, specifically through changes within the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

Regarding the election and partisanship of the Speaker, the House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed states:

The Speaker has almost always been elected from among the Members of the governing party, and although the Speaker eschews partisan political activity, he or she does not make a complete break. When running for re-election, incumbent Speakers are usually careful to avoid partisan statements that might prejudice their perceived impartiality in the future. Only one Speaker has chosen to sever himself from all party affiliations and to present himself as an independent candidate in general elections. Speaker Lamoureux (1966‑74) resigned from the Liberal Party and, as an independent candidate, ran and won in the general elections of 1968 and 1972. In 1968, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party refrained from nominating candidates to oppose him; the New Democratic Party had already nominated a candidate prior to his decision to run as an independent.

The roles and functions of the Speaker of the House of Commons can be broadly broken into two categories; ceremonial and administration. In their ceremonial role, the Speaker is the representative of all of the House of Commons and is their official spokesperson. This role is evident during the opening of parliament when the Speaker speaks in the Senate of Canada to the Governor-General on behalf of the entire elected assembly. In their administrative roles, the Speaker is the chair of the House committee that oversees the spending and function of parliament, its employees and services. The Speaker also chairs all sessions of parliament sometimes with the exception of Committees of the Whole.

One of the most important aspects of the Speakers’ role in the House of Commons is the enforcement of the rules including the Standing Orders. This role has changed over time within the House, with the Speaker having varying degrees of power to punish members who were ruled out of line and the ability to rule on breaches to the rules in the regular conduct of House business. We can explore how both functions have changed over time.

The Speaker of the House of Commons has not always had final say on whether a point of order was ruled out of line. Prior to changes made to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons in 1965, the House of Commons could overrule the ruling of the Speaker. Up until the turn of the 20th century, overruling the Speaker was rarely done by the House of Commons, however with the employment of a more active opposition in the House, it became common practice for members to follow-up a ruling from the Speaker with a motion seeking support/taking issue from the entire House of Commons. The most striking of these occurred during the infamous “pipeline” debate in the spring of 1956. The House of Commons overruled the Speaker on a judgement concerning the nature of debate on a pipeline project which lead to widespread dissension among Members of Parliament. In 1965 changes were made the Standing Orders and a “no-appeal” clause was entered into the section dealing with the powers of the Speaker regarding rulings in the House of Commons. MPs now have no other recourse in parliament but the Chair of the Speaker and the Speakers’ ruling remains final.

The Speaker has a range of powers at their disposal to deal with unruly Members in the House of Commons. The first of these powers remain in the fact that the Speaker chairs each sitting of the House. This means that at any time the Speaker can rise in their chair and end debate. Now, there are specific reasons for why the Chair would rise (it would not be in line with their duty to progress debate for the Speaker to hinder debate by needlessly rising in their chair). You see this happen often during the most watched portion of proceedings in the House of Commons, Oral Questions. The Speaker often cuts cheering/heckling short by rising in their chair and calling “Order, order” to get members to be silent and carry on with Oral Questions. This intervention is a common occurrence through-out each proceeding of the House. It is also used to move the House from one proceeding to another in Routine Business. For example, the House has a specific time for shifting from debate to Members’ Statements and then into Oral Question. During most days, Members’ Statements starts at 2 pm and lasts for 15 minutes. Regardless of where debate is at 2 pm, the Speaker rises in their chair and shifts the attention of the House to Members’ Statements. As each statement is read until 2:15 pm, the Chair will keep the focus of the House on the statements being read and then will rise in their chair and shift the attention of the House to Question Period. If you have ever watched a clip of Oral Questions from the start, you might have seen this portion when the Speaker rises and states, “Oral Questions, the Honourable Leader of the Opposition…” (for example).

The Speaker also has a very specific power in naming a Member of Parliament. Naming is an old mechanism dating back to the early days of the UK parliament, when the Chair would call by name a person in the assembly who was acting out of line. The act of naming is in stark contrast to parliamentary decorum which dictates that a member is referred to in the House by their riding or position. Naming a member is a lot like a parent using a child’s full name when they are in trouble. The Speaker gets the attention of the Member and of the entire House by calling the member’s name and specifically stating that they have been named. The Speaker may provide a reason, or may not, and the member must leave the chamber of the remainder of the sitting. Because the House of Commons is broken along partisan lines, it is not uncommon for the House Leader of the party for the respective member to rise on a point of order at an appropriate time following the naming incident to put forward a plan to deal with the member in question. This could be the tabling of a written apology or the proposal for a set number of days for suspension. It might also be a request for the Speaker to rule on the matter which may have disagreement among other Members on how to move forward. For most points of order, members of the House from all sides have a say to influence the judgement of the Speaker. At the end of the day, it is a very adult way of punishing and dealing with one another.

In their ceremonial role, the Speaker represents the House of Commons as a whole in an unpartisan fashion. For this reason, it is the Speaker who official receives guests of parliament such as foreign heads of state/government, president and secretaries of important international bodies (such as the UN and NATO), official parliamentary delegations from other nations and distinguished Canadians. This is also why it is the Speaker who introduces any dignitaries who are present in the House of Commons (typically just before Oral Questions begins because this is when most people are watching the House of Commons).

In addition to the broad duties outlined in this post, House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed establishes the following specific duties of the Speaker:

Opening the sitting: It is the Speaker’s responsibility to open the sittings of the House once it has been determined that a quorum is present. When opening a sitting, the Speaker takes the Chair, calls the House to order, reads prayers, directs that the doors to the public galleries be opened, and then calls the first item of business. If, as sometimes happens, the Speaker is absent at the opening of a sitting, the House is so informed by the Clerk and the Deputy Speaker (or one of the other Chair Occupants) takes the Chair.

Reading motions, putting questions, announcing results of votes: Before debate begins on a matter, the Speaker proposes the question by reading the motion on which the House is to decide. When no Member rises to be recognized in debate, the Speaker asks if the House is “ready for the question”, thus ascertaining whether or not the debate has concluded. When debate on a question is closed, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to put the question, that is, to put the matter to the House for a decision, and afterwards to announce the result to the House.

Recognizing Members to speak in the House: No Member may speak in the House until called upon or recognized by the Speaker; any Member so recognized may speak during debate, questions and comments periods, Question Period, and other proceedings of the House. Various conventions and informal arrangements exist to encourage the participation of all parties in debate; nevertheless, the decision as to who may speak is ultimately the Speaker’s.

Deciding questions of order and questions of privilege: In presiding over the deliberations of the House, the Speaker is responsible for deciding questions of order and questions of privilege, and for ensuring that the rules and practices of the House are respected. The Speaker rules on questions of order and questions of privilege as they occur and not in anticipation. A question of order may be brought to the Speaker’s attention by a Member, or the Speaker may intervene when he or she observes an irregularity. In ruling on questions of order and questions of privilege, the Speaker cites the Standing Order or other applicable authority. At times, the Speaker may be called upon to deal with situations not provided for in the Standing Orders of the House; in such cases, the rules give authority to the Speaker to consider parliamentary tradition in jurisdictions outside the House of Commons of Canada “so far as they may be applicable”.

Decisions on motions: The Standing Orders confer on the Speaker certain responsibilities in connection with motions coming before the House for consideration. The Speaker has the responsibility to act, in the event that he or she judges a motion to be “contrary to the rules and privileges of Parliament”. In such a case, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to inform the House at the earliest opportunity, before the question is put, and to refer to the applicable rule or authority. This is to be distinguished from the Speaker’s general power to rule authoritatively on matters of procedure. While the Speaker is guardian of the rules and privileges of the House, he or she is its servant as well; the Members of the House retain collective control of their actions. Thus, if the Speaker were to inform the House that a proposed motion, though correct as to its form, runs counter to established parliamentary principles, customs or privileges, the House would then be in a position to take a decision on the matter, with the benefit of the information provided and the authorities cited by the Speaker. This rule was first adopted after Confederation and has never been invoked by the Speaker, although there have been attempts to persuade the Chair to invoke it.

Other rules of the House give the Speaker the power to select which report stage amendments will be considered by the House, and to group these for purposes of debate and division. In addition, in the event that notice of more than one opposition motion is given when a Supply day has been designated, the Speaker is responsible for selecting the one which will have precedence for consideration by the House.

Conduct of Private Members’ Business: It is the overall responsibility of the Speaker to make all the necessary arrangements to ensure the orderly conduct of the hour of each sitting day devoted to Private Members’ Business. This includes ensuring that the House has 24 hours’ notice of the item to be considered in each sitting, seeing to the arrangement of exchanges when a sponsoring Member is unable to be present when his or her item is scheduled for consideration, and refusing a notice of an item of Private Members’ Business which is deemed to be substantially the same as another.

Private bills: When private bills are to be brought before Parliament, persons wishing to act as parliamentary agents (i.e., employed in promoting or opposing a private bill) must be granted authority to do so by the Speaker. The Speaker also has the power to issue a temporary or absolute prohibition on an individual acting as a parliamentary agent, in cases where he or she has failed to act in accordance with parliamentary rules and practice.

Tabling of documents: Statutory provisions, as well as rules of the House, require the Speaker to receive and table certain reports and documents in the House. When the Speaker tables a document, he or she may do so during the sitting; alternatively, the document may be deposited with the Clerk of the House. In either case, the tabling is noted in the Journals and the item tabled is deemed permanently referred to the appropriate standing committee. The specific documents tabled by the Speaker are as follows:

  • As Chair of the Board of Internal Economy (the body responsible for all financial and administrative matters affecting the House of Commons) the Speaker is responsible for tabling reports of the Board’s proceedings. The reports consist of minutes of the Board’s meetings, which are tabled as they are approved by the Board. The Speaker is also responsible for tabling the annual reports of the Board’s decisions respecting the budgets of parliamentary committees. In addition, the Parliament of Canada Act requires the Speaker to table any by‑laws made by the Board within 30 days of their making; typically, these are deposited with the Clerk.
  • The Speaker is required after consultation with the House Leaders to table annually, before September 30, a calendar of sitting and non‑sitting weeks for the following year.
  • Statutory requirements exist whereby designated officers of Parliament and the Canadian Human Rights Commission transmit their annual reports and any special or investigatory reports to the Speaker, who then tables them in the House.
  • In the decennial process to readjust electoral boundaries, reports of the provincial and territorial electoral boundaries commissions are transmitted by the Chief Electoral Officer to the Speaker, who tables them when the House is sitting.
  • When election results are contested or appealed under the Canada Elections Act, reports of court decisions are made to the Speaker, who then informs the House.

Emergency debates: When a Member has made a request to move the adjournment of the House in order to debate a matter requiring urgent consideration (an emergency debate), the Speaker is responsible for deciding whether or not the request will be granted. When the Speaker has granted an application for an emergency debate, the rules provide for it to take place the same day, but the Speaker may also exercise a discretionary power to defer the debate to a specific time on the next sitting day. An emergency debate ends at the times specified in the Standing Orders, but again, the Speaker has discretion to declare the motion carried and to adjourn the House to the next sitting day if, in his or her opinion, debate has concluded before those times. Once it is underway, an emergency debate takes precedence over all other business; in the event of conflict or incompatibility with regard to other rules or other business of the House, the Speaker has complete discretion in reconciling the difficulty.

Recall of the House: When the House stands adjourned during a session, the Speaker has the power to recall the House to meet prior to the date on which it is scheduled to reconvene. The request to recall the House is always initiated by a Minister (usually the Government House Leader), and the Speaker has no authority to consider such a request from any other Member. In these circumstances (or while Parliament stands prorogued, or prior to the first session of a new Parliament), upon receipt of a written request from the government, the Speaker will cause to be published a Special Order Paper which informs the House of any measure the government wishes the House to consider immediately. A notice for recall of the House is not usually withdrawn; but on one occasion, after receiving a request from all the recognized parties in the House, the Speaker issued a formal statement cancelling an earlier notice for recall.

Parliamentary publications: The official publications of the House of Commons are published under the authority of the Speaker. These include, among others, the Journals, the Debates, the Order Paper and Notice Paper, the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, bills and the minutes and reports of House of Commons committees.

Chairs of legislative committees: The Speaker also has responsibilities with regard to Chairs of legislative committees. It is the Speaker’s duty at the start of each session, and thereafter as necessary, to select Members to form a Panel of Chairs. The Speaker exercises a certain amount of discretion in the choice of Members; the rules specify only that a proportionate number of Members be appointed from the government and opposition parties and that the other Presiding Officers of the House be on the Panel ex officio. Whenever the House decides to proceed with the appointment of a legislative committee, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to select from the Panel of Chairs a Member to chair that committee.

Take-note debates: The Speaker may, further to the adoption of a motion proposed by a Minister of the Crown, preside over a take-note debate conducted in a Committee of the Whole.

The function of the Speaker is the most important in the House of Commons and all of parliament. The paramount role of the Speaker in each parliament and each session is captured well in the words spoken by the Speaker to each monarch since the early days of parliament:

May it please Your Excellency,

The House of Commons has elected me their Speaker, though I am but little able to fulfil the important duties thus assigned to me. If, in the performance of those duties, I should at any time fall into error, I pray that the fault may be imputed to me, and not to the Commons, whose servant I am, and who, through me, the better to enable them to discharge their duty to their Queen and Country, humbly claim all their undoubted rights and privileges, especially that they may have freedom of speech in their debates, access to Your Excellency’s person at all seasonable times, and that their proceedings may receive from Your Excellency the most favourable construction.

Photo credit: House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer who was speak from 2011 – 2015. Canadian Press via Huffington Post.

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