Who’s who in Parliament: the Speaker

The term Speaker is a title often given to the presiding officer (chair) of a deliberative assembly, especially a legislative body. The Speaker’s official role is to moderate debate, make rulings on procedure, announce the results of votes, and the like. The Speaker decides who may speak and has the powers to discipline members who break the procedures of the house. The Speaker often also represents the body in person, as the voice of the body in ceremonial and some other situations.

In most Westminster-style chambers, the Speaker does not have a deliberative vote, but only a tiebreaker, called the casting vote. The Speaker is also expected to remove him or herself from politics, and remain as neutral as possible. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where in the House of Representatives and in state legislatures and local government councils, the speaker is usually selected by the members of the majority party and functions as a leader of that party. Thus, though speakers are supposed to be fair, they use procedural rulings to advance the agenda of their own party. Ceremonially, the speaker represents the whole house, but politically is the legislative voice of the party in power.

Speakers in Westminster-style chambers traditionally have three main areas of responsibility: presiding officer of the legislative body, administrative duties, and ceremonial. While these roles and duties will vary in each jurisdiction, they can generally be summarised as follows.

Presiding over the conduct of business in the legislative body

The Speaker guides the legislative chamber through its deliberations by calling the items on the daily agenda, reading aloud the text of the motions before the House, recognizing Members who wish to participate in debate and putting the question to the House for decision. If a Member feels that a subject requires urgent attention, the Speaker may be asked to schedule an emergency debate. During consideration of bills, the Speaker is responsible for determining the procedural acceptability of amendments proposed by Members. During oral questions, when the Government is held to account for its policies and conduct, the Speaker ensures that it is conducted in a civil manner and that Members have a chance to participate.

The Speaker is empowered to rule motions brought before the House to be contrary to the rules and privileges of Parliament and hence “out of order”. Members may also raise a point of order or a question of privilege for the Speaker’s consideration. Upon the Government’s request, the Speaker also has the power to recall the House when it is not otherwise scheduled to sit.

The Speaker has full authority to make sure MPs follow the rules of the House during debates. This can include:

  • directing an MP to withdraw remarks if, for example, they use abusive language
  • suspending the sitting of the House due to serious disorder
  • suspending MPs who are deliberately disobedient – known as naming
  • asking MPs to be quiet so Members can be heard

Administrative duties

In Westminster-style parliamentary systems, the control and administration of the parliamentary precincts is vested in the Speaker on behalf of the House, whether Parliament is in session or not. While the specifics will vary in each jurisdiction, in general, the Speaker may be  deemed the “responsible Minister” for a number of offices of state which report to the legislative body (examples could be the Auditor General, Ombudsman, Privacy Commissioners, etc.). He or she also oversees the finances of the legislative body. Each jurisdiction has various Acts that outline the specific administrative duties and responsibilities of the Speaker.

Ceremonial duties

As representative of the legislative body, the Speaker has a number of traditional, ceremonial or diplomatic duties.  The Speaker is the spokesperson for the House in its dealings with upper chambers (as the case may be) such as the House of Lords or the Senate, the Crown and other bodies outside Parliament.

In the UK

The Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom is perhaps the most impartial. The Speaker is elected by Members of the House of Commons by secret ballot, and an absolute majority is required. Elections by secret ballot for the position of Speaker are a recent thing, with the first Speaker elected this way occurring in June 2009. Speakers must be politically impartial. Therefore, on election the new Speaker must resign from their political party and remain separate from political issues even in retirement. However, the Speaker will deal with their constituents’ problems like a normal MP.

Speakers still stand in general elections. They are generally unopposed by the major political parties, who will not field a candidate in the Speaker’s constituency – this includes the original party they were a member of. During a general election, Speakers do not campaign on any political issues but simply stand as ‘the Speaker seeking re-election’. In a new Parliament, one of the first orders of business is to re-establish the Speaker if he or she plans to continue in the role or to elect a new Speaker. If the Speaker indicates they wish to continue in the role, the question that he or she do take the Chair of this House as Speaker is moved by a Member and the question put. If the House is in agreement, the Speaker resumes his or her duties. If the motion is negatived, then an election for a new Speaker will proceed.

The advantage of the UK system is that it enhances independence by removing the Speaker from party politics and election concerns.

In Canada

In the Canadian parliament, which is also based on the Westminster system, the Speaker of the House operates under similar rules. He or she is elected by the Members of the House in a secret ballot, does not participate in debates and casts only a deciding vote if there is a tie. While the Speaker is required to perform his or her office impartially, he or she does not resign from his or her party membership upon taking office, as is done in the United Kingdom.

In the  1968 general election, Speaker Lucien Lamoureux decided to follow the custom of the Speaker of the British House of Commons and ran as an independent. Both the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party agreed not to run candidates against him. The New Democratic Party, however, declined to withdraw their candidate. Lamoureux was re-elected and continued to serve as Speaker. However, in the 1972 election, the opposition parties did not come to an agreement and ran candidates against him. Lamoureux was again returned but future Speakers would not repeat his attempt to run as an independent.

In Australia

The Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament of Australia is held by a Member of the house who is elected to Parliament in the usual way. At the beginning of each term of office of the Parliament the first item of business is the election of the Speaker. Once elected, the Speaker is expected to detach him or herself from government activity, and to run the the House impartially. Like other members, the Speaker will usually be a member of a political party but after his or her appointment, the Speaker does not take part in the debates of the Parliament or vote. If the votes for or against a motion are tied, the Speaker, however, holds a casting vote. Because the Speaker does not vote in ordinary divisions of the House means that the political party to which she or he belongs, loses a vote on the floor in daily sittings.

Traditionally, the party which forms Government supplies the Speaker, but the problems associated with this arrangement were illustrated in the formation of the first Parliament after the 2010 Federal election. Neither the Coalition nor the Labor Party had a majority, but Labor gained sufficient numbers to form Government after receiving the support of the Greens and two independent members in the lower house. This minority government has two more votes in the lower House than the opposition.

Before government was formed, both major parties had agreed that the Speaker would be “paired”, that is, that because the vote of the speaker cannot be cast on behalf of his or her party, one member from the opposing party would refrain from voting. However, after Labor formed government, the Liberal party argued that this pairing arrangement would be unconstitutional. After some delay, Labor member Harry Jenkins was voted Speaker of the House, and Liberal member Peter Slipper the deputy Speaker. Commentators have pointed out that in a close vote on the floor of the house, the Speaker would be able to force a pairing arrangement by temporarily excusing himself from the Chair, forcing the deputy Speaker to step in and so lose his vote.

In New Zealand

The Speaker in New Zealand does not sever all links with a political party, as does the Speaker of the UK House of Commons. Nor is the Speaker guaranteed any continuity of office over more than one Parliament. There is no tradition of re-electing the member who served as Speaker in the preceding Parliament even if the Government changes following a general election as there is, for instance, in the United Kingdom. With two exceptions, throughout the course of the twentieth century all Speakers came from the governing, or a governing, party. The member who is elected Speaker does not thereby become a non-party member of Parliament. However, the Speaker does not play a politically partisan role and exercises restraint in the speeches or comments he or she makes outside the House.

Whether the Speaker attends weekly party caucus meetings held while the House is sitting is a matter for the Speaker to decide. Practice has differed between Speakers of different parties and between Speakers of the same party. Speakers from the National party have generally not attended caucus. On the other hand, Labour Speakers until recent years did attend caucus. However, since 1984 most Labour Speakers have not attended caucus during sitting weeks.

The Speaker’s vote is included in any party vote cast and the Speaker votes in a personal vote, though without going into the lobbies personally – the Speaker’s vote is communicated to the teller from the Speaker’s chair. As its presiding officer, the Speaker never participates in debate in the House. When the Speaker has charge of a local or private bill, another member moves the stages of the bill on the Speaker’s behalf. The Speaker may speak and vote in a committee of the whole House. Nowadays the right to speak in committee is usually exercised only when changes to the Standing Orders are under consideration or the Speaker is answering questions on the estimates of an office for which the Speaker is responsible. The Speaker may, and indeed often does, serve on select committees, such as the Officers of Parliament Committee and the Standing Orders Committee, but it would not be in keeping with the position for the Speaker to serve on a committee considering a party-politically contentious matter. Where the Speaker does chair a committee written questions relating to matters for which the Speaker has responsibility in that capacity, may be lodged.

(Sources: Office and Role of Speaker (UK), The Election of a Speaker (UK), The Speaker – House of Commons Canada, The Roles of the Speaker of the House of Representative and the President of the Senate (AUS), Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand: Chapter 4)

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