On April 23, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer released a ruling on a point of privilege raised by Conservative MP Mark Warawa that opens the door for more free speech by members of Parliament.
Warawa argued that his own party’s chief whip had violated his freedom of speech by preventing him from speaking on an unapproved topic during the time allotted for members’ statements.
Members’ statements are governed by Standing Order 31, which states: “A member (of Parliament) may be recognized … 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.”
According to the compendium of procedure of the House of Commons, statements by members take place for one hour daily and are allotted for “members who are not (cabinet) ministers … to address the House for up to one minute on virtually any matter of local, provincial, national or international concern.”
Evan Sotiropoulos, in a 2009 Canadian Parliamentary Review article, noted that members’ statements were historically used for non-partisan purposes, like acknowledging important events in the member’s riding. He also notes that the Speaker has the power to “sanction those parliamentarians violating Standing Order 31.”
Wellington-Halton Hills Conservative MP Michael Chong, a former cabinet minister, also states that party whips were originally intended to play a co-ordinating and scheduling function, and that after television was introduced to the House of Commons in 1977, the Speaker began requesting lists from the party whips to make things more efficient. Whips capitalized on this and abused the process, changing their roles from the “scheduler” to the “commander.”
The House compendium of procedure notes that during members’ statements, the Speaker will consult speaking lists provided by the whips and will make attempts to recognize both government and opposition members on an equal basis. Both the current chief government whip (Conservative) and the Opposition House leader (NDP) noted that it has become practice for party whips to determine which members will speak and that Standing Order 31 did not empower the Speaker to intervene in this matter.
However, the Speaker disagreed and quoted the House of Commons procedure and practice, noting that “the duty of the Speaker is to ensure that the right of members to free speech is protected and exercised to the fullest possible extent.”
The Speaker noted that “the fullest possible extent” indicates that there are limits to freedom of speech for members. Many members could not make Standing Order 31 statements due to a lack of time. For this reason, Warawa argued that he should have an equal right to speak.
Relying on a variety of sources of parliamentary procedure, the Speaker ultimately ruled that the lists provided by the whips act more like guidelines than binding rules. The Speaker has the ultimate decision in recognizing the speaking order and can deviate from the party lists.
Scheer noted in the ruling that he has deviated occasionally from lists to preserve order and decorum: “The right to seek the floor at any time is the right of each individual member of Parliament and is not dependent on any other member of Parliament.”
Yet, the Speaker did not go so far as to rule in favour of Warawa’s question of privilege, since no evidence was presented that the Langley, B.C. MP was prevented from speaking.
While this is certainly a huge step forward for representative democracy, the Speaker’s ruling cannot adequately prevent the covert exercises of party discipline that may prevent MPs from speaking their mind. For example, there will never be a way for Parliament to regulate what goes on inside the parties’ closed caucus meetings.
Stephen Woodworth, the Kitchener-Centre Conservative MP who brought forth a failed motion to re-examine the issue of when life legally begins, noted that Standing Order 31 does not give the Speaker the right to deny a member the right to make a statement simply because he disagrees with the content, and so this same power should not be granted to the whip.
Scheer’s ruling encourages MPs to compete for the floor and stand up for questions. He notes that MPs merely assume that they will be acknowledged if they are put on the list, which is not proper parliamentary practice. As such, he noted that he would continue to use lists, but if members compete for the floor, the Speaker would exercise his authority to recognize them in a way that respects “both the will of the House and the rights of individual members.”
The Liberals recently put forward a motion to amend Standing Order 31 to have the Speaker recognize members in alphabetical order, as opposed to using the whips’ lists. The motion was defeated 96-149, with all voting Liberals and NDP supporting the motion, and all voting Conservatives opposed. Regardless, the Speaker has upheld his ruling, recognizing both government and opposition members not on the whips’ lists during members’ statements and Question Period.
Constituents from all ridings can rest a little easier now, knowing that their MP is more able to act as a representative and not as a “trained seal,” as many MPs have complained.
The Speaker’s ruling comes nowhere near addressing the issue of centralization in the hands of the party leadership, but it is a small and important step forward.