Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Impartiality of the Speakership: A Round Table

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Impartiality of the Speakership: A Round Table

Article excerpt

Confidence in the impartiality of the Speaker is an indispensable condition to the successful operation of the Speakership. Many conventions exist that have as their object to ensure the impartiality of the Speaker; however, these conventions operate differently in various jurisdictions. This topic was the subject of discussion at the Canadian Presiding Officers Conference held in Ottawa in January 2004.

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Speakers Michel Bissonnet (Quebec), George Hickes (Manitoba), Peter Milliken (House of Commons), Bev Harrison (New Brunswick), Kenneth Kowalski (Alberta), and Murray Scott (Nova Scotia)

Speaker Michel Bissonnet (Quebec): There are two indispensable conditions for being a good Speaker: independence in dealing with the executive and impartiality in dealing with all elected members.

What does impartiality in Parliament mean? To begin with, Speakers must defend the rights and privileges of all members without exception. They must protect the rights of the minority by basing their decisions on the fundamental principles of the parliamentary system. Speakers must listen to all members. In our respective legislatures, we are always dealing with political situations. In my opinion, Speakers must be increasingly open to listening to all members and making decisions on the merits of the case, regardless of members' titles. They need to apply the rules firmly with everyone. They need to base their decisions on the rules, jurisprudence and conventions. They must be respectful of the roles of leaders and whips and know how to deal with them.

Presiding officers must also abstain from influencing debates or taking part in discussions in the legislature, and they should remind members regularly that they are there to serve all members and the institution. There are various means and tools provided by the institution itself to help presiding officers maintain their impartiality.

For about 15 years now, Speakers have been elected through a secret ballot. It started with the House of Commons and then Ontario. In Quebec, we have had two such secret ballots. The third secret ballot election was planned for June 2003. However, since the National Assembly Standing Orders had not been amended, consent had to be sought for a secret ballot. On June 3, there was no consent. So I was elected by secret ballot within my own party.

In other words, not all members of the National Assembly were able to vote. Because consent was not granted, the vote was held within my party. The Premier then nominated me on the basis of the result of the vote held within my party. The precise result is unknown, just as is the case with such votes in other legislative assemblies.

There is also the ceremonial aspect, tradition and decorum involved in the Speaker's role. In each legislature, we have the Speaker's parade. The presiding officer is given exceptional prestige. When the Sergeant at Arms announces "Mr. Speaker", everyone in the chamber rises. The Speaker's mace represents authority. So the way Speakers enter the chamber and conduct themselves therein visually emphasizes their impartiality. In the majority of Canadian legislatures, the Speakers wear robes. In Quebec, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker have not worn robes for the past 35 or 40 years.

Speakers have the support of a neutral staff, who are the table officers. I worked for 17 years in the office of the clerk at the City of Montreal. I know how the system works with clerks, who are the most valuable assistants for a Speaker. Behind an effective Speaker lies good cooperation with the table officers.

The Secretary General of the National Assembly and his team provide extraordinary support to any Speaker. That always enhances the impartiality of the presiding officer's work.

How can a Speaker remain an active elected member and maintain his or her impartiality? In London, the situation is clear. …

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