Memo to MPs: Don't expect House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to start policing the quality and content of the back-and-forth in question period — and if you publicly question his impartiality, you could find yourself on the wrong side of a breach-of-privilege complaint.
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That was the message handed down by the normally affable Scheer just before question period got underway Wednesday.
In a brief statement, Scheer reminded MPs that, as Speaker, he "is the servant, neither of any part of the House nor of any majority in the House, but of the entire institution," as stated in the parliamentary bible, House of Commons Procedure and Practice.
'I urge all Members to be judicious in the expressions they choose to use' - Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer
As such, he continued, the Speaker "may exercise only those powers conferred upon him or her by the House, within the limits established by the House itself" — which, based on "long-standing practice," means staying firmly off the field during question period.
Scheer stressed that it is not up to him to decide "whether the content of a response is in fact an answer," as his predecessor, Peter Milliken, put it in 2010.
"As we have heard many times," he continued, still quoting Milliken, "that is why it is called question period not answer period."
Contrary to the suggestion made by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair on Tuesday, Scheer informed the House that "any suggestion that the rules of repetition and relevance apply to question period is wrong and ignores the long list of Speakers' ruling to the contrary."
Allegations could be 'punished'
He also noted that commenting on "the character or actions of the Speaker" — like, for instance, "an allegation of bias" — "could be taken by the House as breaches of privilege and punished accordingly."
Scheer ended with an appeal to MPs on all sides of the House.
"The kind of unsavoury language or expression that we heard yesterday do little to assist the Chair in managing question period proceedings," he noted.
"I urge all Members to be judicious in the expressions they choose to use."
If he was hoping his comments would wipe the slate clean from Tuesday's fracas, however, Scheer was likely disappointed.
Although Conservative and Liberal MPs responded to his statement with a standing ovation, the New Democratic Party caucus remained seated.
Speaking with reporters outside the House, however, Mulcair seemed to take his own small victory from Scheer's ruling.
"It was refreshing, at least, to hear him say that the language used yesterday was unparliamentary," Mulcair said.
"He went so far as to call it 'unsavoury.' It appears that he didn't hear it when it was being said yesterday, and I'll have to take his word for that."
Mulcair added he was "glad" the Speaker made the statement, even if it was, in his view, a day late.
"The words that were used, a nine-year-old would have known that those were big swear words being used in the House, and it's a shame that it took till today to recognize that," he said.
"It's done. I'm going to move on."
Full text of Scheer's statement:
Before we proceed to Question Period, the Chair wishes to make a brief statement.
The office of Speaker is an ancient one, and there are many procedural authorities in this country and abroad, that describe the Speaker's role.
Our own tome, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, encapsulates my role as follows at page 307:
“The Speaker is the servant, neither of any part of the House nor of any majority in the House, but of the entire institution and serves the best interests of the House as distilled over many generations in its practices.
Despite the considerable authority of the office, the Speaker may exercise only those powers conferred upon him or her by the House, within the limits established by the House itself.”
With respect to Question Period proceedings, contrary to what some Members and others may believe, this means adhering to practices that have evolved over a broad span of time, and that have consistently been upheld by successive Speakers.
By way of example, on October 28, 2010 (Debates, p. 5505), Speaker Milliken said:
“As all of the hon. Members know, the Speaker has no authority over the content of answers given by a minister or parliamentary secretary in response to a question asked during question period.”
The issue came up again on December 1, 2010 (Debates, p. 6677) and on that occasion Speaker Milliken stated:
“The minister, in his response, may not have answered the question, but it is not the role of the Chair to decide whether a response is an answer or not to the question.
Indeed, the Chair has no authority to rule an answer out of order unless the answer contains unparliamentary remarks or a personal attack on some other member.
It is not for the Chair to decide whether the content of a response is in fact an answer.
As we have heard many times, that is why it is called question period not answer period.”
In my own ruling regarding Question Period proceedings, delivered on January 28, 2014 (Debates, p. 2204) I stated very clearly:
“There has been much discussion recently about the nature of answers during question period, with calls for the Speaker to somehow intervene, citing practices in other countries.
Each parliament has its own traditions.
Successive Speakers in our House have maintained our tradition of not intervening in respect of answers to questions, and I do not intend to change that.
For me to deviate from this long-standing practice would require an invitation from the House.”
To date, the House has not seen fit to alter our practices or give direction to the Chair in that regard.
That being said, I have no doubt that Canadians expect Members to elevate the tone and substance of question period exchanges.
As your Speaker, I hope the House can rise to that challenge.
To be absolutely clear on another point, any suggestion that the rules of repetition and relevance apply to question period is wrong and ignores the long list of Speakers' ruling to the contrary.
Another of our time-honoured traditions is that of respect for the office of Speaker.
O'Brien and Bosc, at page 313 states that:
“Reflections on the character or actions of the Speaker – an allegation of bias, for example – could be taken by the House as breaches of privilege and punished accordingly.”
I wish to conclude with an appeal to Members on all sides.
Needless to say, the kind of unsavoury language or expression that we heard yesterday do little to assist the Chair in managing Question Period proceedings and I urge all Members to be judicious in the expressions they choose to use.
I also ask all Members to heed my request of last January 28 (Debates, p. 2204), when I asked Members:
“to consider how the House can improve things so that observers can at least agree that question period presents an exchange of views and provides at least some information.
The onus is on all Members to raise the quality of both questions and answers.”