On the decline of Statements by Members

From the Canadian House of Commons Standing Orders:

31.  A Member may be recognized, under the provisions of Standing Order 30(5), to make a statement for not more than one minute. The Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order.

The Standing Orders of the Canadian House of Commons allow Members who are not ministers to address the House for up to one minute on virtually any matter of local, provincial, national or international concern. These Statements by Members take place in the 15 minutes before the daily Question Period, at 2:00 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and at 11:00 a.m. on Friday.

As Standing Order 31 states, the Speaker will order a Member to resume his or her seat if they make improper use of this Standing Order. The guidelines are fairly clear:

  • Members may speak on any matter of concern and not necessarily on urgent matters.
  • Personal attacks are not permitted.
  • The Speaker may interrupt an individual statement and ask the Member to resume his or her seat when:
    • offensive language has been used;
    • a Senator or the actions of the Senate have been criticized;
    • a ruling of a court of law has been denounced; or
    • the character of a judge has been attacked.
  • Speakers have also cautioned Members not to:
    • use this period to make defamatory comments about non-Members;
    • use the verbatim remarks of a private citizen as a statement; or
    • make statements of a commercial nature.

Most Members follow the guidelines and use their minute to raise an issue that is of interest or concern to their constituents, to bring attention to the accomplishments of a local sports team or individual, etc. However, increasingly, these Members’ Statements have become far more partisan and personal attacks against other Members or other parties’ policies are daily occurrences.

Evan Sotiropoulos provided a detailed study of Statements by Members during the 38th and 39th Parliaments in the Canadian Parliamentary Review. As Sotiropoulos notes:

The 38th Parliament and the 39th Parliament present fertile ground for comparative research. Both were minority governments with the same Speaker (Peter Milliken) following the same Standing Orders. Stated otherwise, a number of key independent variables used to explain the dependent variable, that is to say, the level of unparliamentary/partisan language in the daily Statements by Members – were constant. The crucial difference was that the 38th Parliament was a Liberal-led government, whereas the 39th Parliament was Conservative-led. Therefore, the idea that the official Opposition, regardless of party affiliation, would use its time in a more partisan manner could be analyzed against two similar, yet distinct Parliaments.

What Sotiropoulos found, however, was that the Conservative Party, whether in opposition or in government, was more likely to use Members’ Statements to make partisan attacks than were the Liberals:

The Conservative Party, both in opposition and in government, regularly was more partisan in its use of Members’ Statements than its main adversary, the Liberal Party.

According to this research in the 38th Parliament, a Conservative MP was three times more likely than his Liberal counterpart to stand up during Members’ Statements and deliver a political/partisan statement. In the 39th Parliament, the opposition Liberals became more unparliamentary/partisan in their Members’ Statements – confirming, to some extent, the initial theory that the official Opposition would use its time in a more partisan manner. Although Liberal MPs contributed to the increase of partisanship during the 39th Parliament (doubling their partisan statements from 13.5% to 24.9%) Conservative MPs were still twice as likely to deliver a political punch.

Similarly, a more recent analysis of Statements by Members from 1994 to 2012 by Eric Grenier produced similar findings:

An analysis of almost 1,000 speeches made during the Statements by Members period between 1994 and 2012 over the first three normal sitting days after the summer indicates that the number of partisan statements have almost doubled since the Conservatives were first elected. (…)

About 24 per cent of Statements by Members on the sampled days since 2006 were of a partisan nature, compared to 14 per cent in the period between 1994 and 2005 when the Liberals were in power. Four of the five years where more than 1 in 5 statements were partisan took place under the Conservatives. The lone exception is 1995, when the debate over the then-upcoming Quebec referendum was especially nasty.

In response to Grenier’s piece, a former senior adviser to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Keith Beardsley wrote a very telling blog post explaining how the Conservatives started using Members’ Statements more strategically. Beardsley explains:

While in opposition from 2003 to 2006, we found that quite often our very last MP’s statement (the one just before Question Period started) was quoted in the media the next day.  Simply put the media had arrived in the House for Question Period and they were paying attention to comments from the MPs.  SO 31s delivered earlier in the sequence were largely ignored by the press.

Opposition parties are always looking for ways to get into the media and this became one way to do it. The added bonus was that the then Liberal Prime Minister had no way to respond to what was said. By putting a slight edge to the attack in the SO 31, you could unsettle the PM and distract him just before the Leader of the Opposition stood to ask the first of a series of 3 to 5 questions. Over time we began to use the last of our SO 31s as the equivalent to a question in Question Period especially when it was delivered by one of our attack dogs. The SO 31 allowed one minute of time to stand, while a question only allowed 34 seconds. That one minute statement also allowed more time to drive home our message than any question could. The added advantage for us was the Prime Minister had no way to reply but had to sit and take it.

There have been repeated calls – from MPs and from political observers – for something to be done about this misuse of Statements by Members. MPs have called on the Speaker to clamp down on these ultra-partisan attacks. Former Speaker Milliken attempted to do so – cutting off any MP who started in attacking another MP, but MPs simply changed their tactics by making virulent attacks on an unidentified politician, and identifying the individual in question (usually the Leader of the Opposition) only at the very end of their statement. By then it was too late for the Speaker to do anything about it.

Many political columnists have called for Members’ Statements to be done away with; however, as Mr. Beardsley points out in his blog piece, backbench MPs have few opportunities to speak about matters of concern to them and their constituents. The UK House of Commons has addressed this with the introduction of Backbench Business debates which allow backbenchers to bring forward issues of interest to them for debate in the main Chamber or in Westminster Hall. It has to be said that these debates are much more interesting and even useful than are Members’ Statements. Others have suggested moving them to a different part of the day. Members’ Statements currently garner attention because they precede Question Period, which is really the only part of sitting day to which the media and the general public pay any attention. If Statements by Members were moved to later in the day, the unfortunate reality is that no one would be around to hear them and there would be little motivation for MPs to use them to carry out attacks on their opponents.

Of course, if MPs are as distressed by the tone of these Statements as they claim to be, they could simply choose to stop misusing them.

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