Election of a Speaker by Secret Ballot: A Milestone for the House of Commons

Article excerpt

It has been twenty years since the House of Commons first elected its Speaker by secret ballot. This event was a milestone in the evolution of the House of Commons, a process that has been emulated by several other legislatures and one that continues to evolve.

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The Constitution Act, 1867 requires the House of commons to elect a Speaker from among its Members at the beginning of every Parliament. Until 1985, Speakers were elected by way of a motion, usually initiated by the Prime Minister, and their selection tended to reflect political affiliations.

The secret ballot innovation had its genesis in the 1980s, when successive reform committees recommended the procedure on the principle that, "the Speaker belongs to the House, not to the Government or the Opposition." In June 1985, the election by secret ballot was finally enshrined in the Standing Orders. The Standing Orders were further amended in 1987 to streamline the process by providing for the elimination from each successive ballot of candidates receiving five percent or less of the total votes cast.

The election of Speaker John Fraser by secret ballot on September 30, 1986 was a protracted affair requiring eleven ballots. On that occasion, Speaker Fraser declared: "This has been a historic vote. For the first time, Members of the House of Commons have elected their Speaker by secret ballot. The process may have changed, but one thing remains the same--the Speaker remains the servant of the House and receives his authority from the Honourable Members."

Speaker Fraser's successor, Speaker Gilbert Parent, was elected in 1994 after six ballots and in 1997 after four ballots. The current Speaker of the House, the Hon. Peter Milliken, was elected in 2001 after five ballots; acclaimed in 2004 when all other eligible Members declined to run against him; and re-elected after a single ballot in 2006, notwithstanding his affiliation with a party now in opposition.

While cabinet ministers and party leaders are disqualified from candidacy, all other Members are automatically considered candidates for the position of Speaker unless they inform the Clerk of the House in writing, by 6:00 p.m. on the day prior to the election that they do not wish to stand for the office. This has, on occasion, led to the names of unwilling candidates appearing on the first ballot, though such candidates are given the opportunity to withdraw before the second ballot if they garner five percent of the votes cast. In 2004, the House decided to allow all such candidates to withdraw before the first ballot, leading to the acclamation of Speaker Milliken.

There is no formal election campaigning; however, since 2001, candidates may, immediately prior to the first ballot, make introductory speeches of no more than five minutes. This change was recommended by the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of Procedures of the House of Commons to allow all Members, but particularly newly-elected Members, to hear from the candidates in an open forum. The speeches tend to highlight a candidate's strengths as well as any specific goals he or she may wish to pursue. Following the speeches, the House suspends its proceedings for one hour before the election is held. …