On electing a Speaker

In an earlier post, I explained the role of the Speaker in Westminster parliamentary systems, and briefly touched on how the Speaker is chosen. In this post, I will expand on that topic since there seems to be a degree of interest in the topic, according the blog’s search statistics.

Canada: House of Commons

The Constitution Act, 1867 requires that the Speaker be elected by the House of Commons:

44. The House of Commons on its first assembling after a General Election shall proceed with all practicable Speed to elect One of its Members to be Speaker.

Prior to 1986, this amounted to the rubber-stamp approval of a Member nominated by the Prime Minister, and was usually, but not always, a Member from his or her own party. In 1926, and in 1979, Conservative Prime Ministers named Liberal MPs as Speakers.

In 1986, the Standing Orders were changed to allow for the election of a Speaker by secret ballot.

All MPs except for Cabinet ministers and party leaders are eligible to run for the Speakership. Any MP who does not wish to put his or her name forward must issue a letter withdrawing from the ballot by the day before the vote. All MPs who do not remove their name from the ballot as of 6pm the day before the election are listed as candidates on the ballot and are allowed a five minute speech to persuade their colleagues as to why they should be elected.

The election is presided over by the Dean of the House, the MP who is the longest continuously serving MP who is not in Cabinet.

After the first round of voting, if no candidate has received more than 50% of the vote, all candidates who received less than 5% of the vote are removed from the ballot. If no candidate received less than 5% of the vote then the MP with the fewest vote drops off. This continues, with a one hour break between ballots, until one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. In the event of a tie on the final ballot, the ballot is taken again. This happened once, in 1993, when Gilbert Parent won over Jean-Robert Gauthier.

The Speakers of all of the provincial and territorial assemblies in Canada are also elected by their fellow Members, though the balloting system used may differ from one province to another. (See this post for a more detailed look at the election of the Speaker at the start of the 41st Parliament on 2 June 2011.)

The United Kingdom: House of Commons

Prior to 2001, a Speaker was elected through a series of divisions.  One candidate would be proposed as a Speaker in a motion and additional candidates would be presented as successive amendments to the original motion.  Each amendment would be voted on through a series of divisions until a candidate was finally chosen.  New procedures for the election of the Speaker were agreed by the House on 22 March 2001 (Standing Order Nos. 1A and 1B), but used for the first time only in 2009. This is because the UK has a tradition whereby if the Speaker from the previous parliament is re-elected and indicates that they are still willing to serve as Speaker, the Father of the House (the longest serving MP) calls on one Member to move the motion that the former Speaker should take the Chair as Speaker-elect.  This is the procedure that was followed after the 2001 and 2005 General Elections.

If a Speaker dies or retires, or does not return after a General Election, a new Speaker is elected by the House.  As part of the new procedures, put in to practice for the first time on 22 June 2009, an exhaustive secret ballot system is used.  Only Members of Parliament are able to vote for a new Speaker. Before voting begins, each candidate addresses the House, explaining why they believe they should be elected. At each round, Members are given a list of candidates and place an “X” next to the candidate of their choice. The votes are then counted. The candidate with the fewest votes is then eliminated, as are any candidates who received less than 5% of the votes cast.  Also, any candidate may withdraw within 10 minutes of the announcement of the ballot.  This process continues until one candidate gains more than half of the votes.

Unlike in other jurisdictions, once elected to the post, the Speaker resigns from his or her party. If he or she stands for re-election in the next General Election, they are listed on the ballot as “Speaker”, not as a member of any party, and the major parties in the House of Commons normally do not run candidates against the Speaker in order to better ensure that he or she will be re-elected.

Australia: House of Representatives

As is the case in Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act requires that a Speaker be elected:

35. The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker of the House, and as often as the office of Speaker becomes vacant the House shall again choose a member to be the Speaker.

The Speaker is elected by the House of Representatives in a secret ballot. The Clerk conducts the election. Candidates are nominated by other MPs, and then asked by the Clerk if they are willing to let their name stand. If only one MP is nominated, than they become the Speaker. If there are two or more candidates for the position of Speaker, Members vote by secret ballot. If no candidate emerges with over 50% of the vote, the nominee with the smallest number of votes is excluded from later ballots, and a fresh round of voting takes place. This process is repeated as often as necessary until one nominee receives a majority of the votes, and this nominee is elected Speaker.

The first Speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, sat as an independent after his election as Speaker, but since his death in 1909 the Speakership has been a partisan office and the nominee of the government party has always been elected. Unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons in Britain, the Speaker continues to attend party meetings, and at general elections stands as a party candidate.

There is no convention in Australia that the Speaker should not be opposed in his or her constituency, and three Speakers (Groom in 1929, Nairn in 1943 and Aston in 1972) have been defeated at general elections. Because the Speaker is always the nominee of the governing party, there is no expectation that a Speaker will continue in office following a change of government. While the Opposition sometimes nominates one of its own members for Speaker after a general election, this is understood to be a symbolic act, and party discipline is always followed in any ballot.

New Zealand: House of Representatives

Members of Parliament vote to elect the Speaker at the start of each new Parliament (after every general election). This is the first task of every new Parliament once members have been sworn in.

Interested MPs nominate themselves as candidates. If there is only one member nominated, the Clerk puts no question to the House; there can be no vote on the nomination, and the member is declared to be elected Speaker. If there are two members nominated, a personal vote is held to determine which one is to be elected. For this purpose the Ayes lobby is used for those voting for the member whose name comes first in the alphabet and the Noes lobby for those voting for the other member. In the event of a tie on the vote the Clerk calls for further nominations, which may include either or both of the members who were first nominated.

If more than two members are nominated for Speaker, members initially vote from their places in the House rather than by going into the lobbies as they do on a personal vote. The bells are rung for seven minutes and then the doors are locked. Working alphabetically, members are then asked by the Clerk individually to rise in their places and state which of the nominated members they vote for. Members may record an abstention. No proxy votes are permitted. If, at the end of this process, any candidate has obtained an absolute majority of the votes of the members voting (that is, excluding any abstentions), that member is immediately declared elected. Otherwise the member with the fewest number of votes drops out and the votes are taken again until only two candidates remain. If the two candidates with the fewest votes have the same number of votes, the entire vote is taken again. If the two candidates with the fewest votes still have the same number of votes, the Clerk determines which candidate is to drop out by drawing lots.

When, after this process, there are only two candidates remaining, the election is decided by a personal vote. Again, no proxies are permitted. In the event of a tie on the personal vote, nominations are called for again. After the election vote, the Speaker-elect visits the Governor-General to be confirmed in office. The Speaker almost always comes from the Government benches.

The Speaker of New Zealand’s House of Representatives is allowed to maintain links with their political party, but must not show political bias when chairing business in the House. From 1996 under the voting system introduced as a result of MMP the Speaker’s casting vote was abolished. The Speaker’s vote is now included with the votes held by the party. In the other jurisdiction mentioned above, the Speaker votes only in the instance of a tie (the casting vote). In New Zealand, if a vote results in tie, the motion is simply declared lost.

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