Faint signs of democratic awakenings

I have written a number of posts on how whipped Canadian backbench MPs are when compared to their counterparts in other parliaments. In recent weeks, it would seem that some backbenchers have maybe had enough of this situation.

One MP raised a question of privilege to argue that prevented by his party whip from delivering a statement in the House during “Statements by Members”, a 15-min period each day during which backbenchers can deliver one-minute statements on matters of international, national or local concern. As per the Standing Orders, any MP can be recognized by the Speaker to speak during this time, but, in practice, the Speaker is guided by lists provided by the respective party whips. The Member, Mr. Warawa, appealed to the Speaker that in being removed from his side’s list last Thursday, his privileges as an MP were breached.

For a detailed overview of the situation, I will refer you to this guide prepared by Aaron Wherry of Macleans. Mr. Wherry’s guide includes a multitude of links to other posts he and others have written on the issue. A number of MPs spoke up in support of Mr. Warawa’s point of privilege, and the Speaker delivered his ruling on the matter last week, which you can read in full here. The Speaker did not find that there was a prima facie case of privilege but reminded backbenchers that the Speaker is guided by the lists, not bound to them, and if they want to speak, they need to “seek the floor”, which they are free to do at any time.

For people unfamiliar with the Canadian House of Commons, it is important to understand that the issue of lists of which MPs will speak is not limited to Members’ Statements. The party whips provide lists to the Speaker for Question Period, for debates on bills – in sort – for virtually every single item of business in the House. And it isn’t simply a matter of these lists largely determining which MPs will be able to speak in the House, if they are on the list, they are often also told exactly what they will say when they do get the floor. They are given scripted questions to ask during Question Period, which means that rather than question the government and hold it to account, questions from government backbenchers are used to attack and question opposition party policy, or to give the government an opportunity to promote a policy or initiative. And sometimes, the question will manage to do both:

Mr. John Carmichael (Don Valley West, CPC): Mr. Speaker, while the NDP members continue to bend and twist Canada’s rich military history to suit their far left leanings, our government is committed to commemorating Canadian veterans and their accomplishments.

In January our government proudly marked 2013 as the year of the Korean War veteran, and today the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Minister of National Defence made yet another great announcement. Would the Minister of Veterans Affairs please update this House on how we are continuing to recognize Canada’s great accomplishments during the Korean War?

Hon. Steven Blaney (Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister for La Francophonie, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the member for Don Valley West is right. They were young and reckless. Along with more than 15 countries with the United Nations 60 years ago, they fought in Korea for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law against communism. Today, the Minister of National Defence and I presented a certificate of recognition to our great Canadian Korean War veterans to show our deepest gratitude and recognition for their many sacrifices. I thank our Korean War veterans. Thank you very much.

The Speaker concluded his ruling thusly:

Even so, as Speaker I cannot exercise my discretion as to which Member to recognize during Statements by Members or at any other time of the sitting day if only one Member is rising to be recognized.
As previously mentioned, due to an over-reliance on lists, more often than should be the case, even those Members on the list do not always rise to be recognized.

Were the Chair to be faced with choices of which Member to recognize at any given time, then of course the Chair would exercise its discretion. But that has not happened thus far during Statements by Members, nor for that matter, during Question Period. Until it does, the Chair is not in a position to unilaterally announce or dictate a change in our practices. If Members want to be recognized, they will have to actively demonstrate that they wish to participate. They have to rise in their places and seek the floor.

In the meantime, I will continue to be guided by the lists that are provided to me and, when and if Members are competing for the floor, will exercise my authority to recognize Members, not in a cavalier or uninformed manner but, rather, in a balanced way that respects both the will of the House and the rights of individual Members.

While this should strike most as common sense – if a Member wants to be recognized by the Chair, he or she needs to stand in their place to indicate to the Speaker that they want to speak – what is surprising (also shocking and terribly saddening) is that some MPs apparently didn’t even know that they could do this. As Laura Ryckewaert writes in “Former House Speaker Fraser calls Scheer’s ruling ‘very important,’ but another expert expects MPs won’t do much with ruling” ($):

Mr. Scheer’s ruling isn’t groundbreaking, and he has instead highlighted a pre-existing right that was forgotten over time by MPs but Mr. Warawa and Mr. Chong said they hadn’t previously realized they had the right to stand to be recognized by the Speaker during statements or questions.

Another MP, Mr. Rathgeber, told reports that he planned to take advantage of this new-found right and added that “he thought there would be a ‘transition’ as “members will have to adjust to being able to speak without having been approved, being put on a list.””

Many might wonder how this dire state of affairs came to be. Peter Loewen explains the situation quite well in this article from the Ottawa Citizen. Mr. Loewen writes that prior to 1970, party labels did not appear on ballots, only the names of the candidates running in each constituency. The candidates were representatives of a party, but the situation wasn’t regulated and at times, there could be two candidates claiming to represent the same party. Parliament decided that reform was required and the solution adopted “was to have party leaders sign off on candidacies, officially identifying their party’s candidates.”

This solution created a new problem – the party leaders realized that this gave them enormous power over their MPs:

Since party leaders sign off on candidates, they can also refuse candidates by declining to sign their nomination papers. There is no legal mechanism for locally-selected candidates to overcome this prerogative. Sitting MPs are subject to this signature at every election. As a consequence, MPs serve not only at the pleasure of their electorate but also of their leader.

That MPs work beneath the thumbs of their leaders would be less objectionable if they had some counterweight. In other Westminster-style democracies, the counterweight is obvious: party leaders serve at the pleasure of their caucus.

In Canada, we have delegated the right to remove leaders to party members, that small class of Canadians who pay a pittance each year to carry a party’s card. From time to time, a small minority of them will trek off to a convention centre or a hockey arena to decide whether to renew their leader’s mandate.

They are accountable to no one. It should be no surprise, then, that the leaders they affirm are equally free of accountability.

The neutering of our MPs as free-thinking, independent representatives begins with their nominations and it ends with their inability to keep their leaders in check. In the meantime, the media and the punditocracy do what they can to remind MPs of their diminished role.

Since the ruling, some MPs have tried to stand and catch the Speaker’s eye to be recognized. Some have succeeded, others haven’t. A former House of Commons committee clerk, Thomas Hall, is quoted in the Ryckewaert article as saying that he doesn’t expect this to last: “If the whip wants to, he can crack down on that, he still has the power to discipline Members who disobey him.” In the same article, Professor Lori Turnbull (political science, Dalhousie University) says some MPs would consider this new-found freedom “career suicide”:

If you’re an MP and if you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I want to be on that particular committee, or I want that particular diplomatic post when I retire, or I want to say on [current Prime Minister] Harper’s good side’ or whatever it is, then you’re not going to be the guy who stands up in the House with the explicit knowledge that the Prime Minister and the party whip think you should sit down and shut up.

Still, perhaps the radical idea that MPs have the right to stand up of their own initiative and speak in the House might spark an interest in exploring other ways by which backbenchers might regain some power in the House. There is still a very long way to go before one can speak of real democratic reform, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

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