Inside Politics

Members Statements MetaWatch: Can This Standing Order Be Saved?

If it's the Thanksgiving break week, it must be time for the mid-sitting assessment of House decorum, which, in recent years (read: since anyone alive can remember) tends to run the gamut from terrible to horrible to For The Sake of the Children, Turn It Off Now.

This year brings an exciting new development in institutional ennui: not only are House watchers wringing their hands in frustration over the sorry state of Question Period -- which is, after all, a dependably perennial lament -- but also, and with increasing frequency, the rancour and rank partisanship that has come to characterize the 15 minutes that precede it: namely, Members' Statements, or SO31s -- a reference to the Standing Order under which the minute-long speeches are delivered. 

Once a cosy refuge for backbench MPs looking to earn brownie points back in the riding by highlighting local heroes and community events, the QP pre-show has become just that -- particularly, it's only fair to note, on the government side, where one Conservative MP after another risesin his or her place to recite the latest PMO-issued talking points, which, for the last few weeks, have been focused, like a laser, on the NDP's alleged carbon tax.

In response, New Democrat MPs have taken to delivering what can only be described as members' metastatements, which NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen describes as a "gentle and sometimes humorous shaming exercise" to remind Conservative MPs that they "don't have to do whatever the PMO wants [them] to do," but which come across as hectoring, sanctimonious tirades that are every bit as tiresome as the attacks that provoked them.

As last week limped to a close, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May managed to extract a promise from House Speaker Andrew Scheer that he would, at the very least, review a specific members statement that she claimed had attacked her personally.

But as Government House Leader Peter Van Loan pointed out in his response to her point of order, the standing orders are entirely silent on exactly what constitutes appropriate -- or, for that matter, inappropriate -- content; as long as the language is parliamentary, the words would seem to be irrelevant, at least from as far as the chair is concerned.

All of which could lead any parliamentophile to wonder whether there's any hope of salvaging Standing Orders 31 from the machinery of party politics.

As it turns out, there may be, but it would require a concerted burst of extreme nonpartisan cooperation to come to pass.

First, though, a little trip down procedural memory lane -- back to 1993, to be precise, when the House Management Committee tabled a report recommending that the speaker "exercise greater discretion and independence" in choosing the daily SO31 playlist.

Instead of having the parties control the agenda by submitting lists of approved SO 31-ready members, each caucus would be permitted to designate just one MP to speak on its behalf, with the remaining slots allocated by the speaker.

That, the report argued, would put him "in a better position to discipline individual members who don't abide by the rules" -- presumably, by refusing to recognize them in future.  

Although the report warned MPs that abusing the privilege would ultimately "reflect[s] poorly on the House itself," the committee wasn't prepared to write off members' statements entirely.

In fact, they actually wanted to expand the time available by opening the floor to SO 31-style statements during voting bells.

"Time is always scarce in the House of Commons," the report notes, with "a certain amount of parliamentary time ... being 'wasted,' including the 15 or 30 minute waiting period before a vote, during which "the business of the House comes to a halt."

That underused time, it suggests, "could be used profitably to enable Members to make statements similar to those under Standing Order 31" during which MPs would be free to "address topical issues, and [raise] concerns of interest to particular parts of the country or particular groups." (Or, presumably, accuse the party across the aisle of plotting to bring in a carbon tax, even.)

Sadly, the committee's findings were never concurred in, but instead left to languish in neverlandian limbo. But the notion of turning the pre-vote intermission into an open mic session could be resurrected by its present-day counterpart, Procedure and House Affairs, which, somewhat serendipitously, is conducting a full review of the standing orders.

After all, those 30 minute blocks of unused airtime still pop up at least twice a week, and often far more frequently in the weeks leading up to the Christmas and summer breaks, when the government begins to impose time allocation on every bit of legislative business that it hopes to wrap up before the curtain falls on the sitting.

In fact, the committee could go one step further, and propose that the newly created pre-vote statements replace the 15 minutes currently allocated to members' statements, which could be added onto the 45 minutes already designated for Question Period, thus giving the House a full hour to hold ministers responsible for their actions and/or inaction. 

(Given this government's fondness for affixing bumper sticker-ready monikers to House matters, perhaps they might be persuaded to support such an initiative if it were henceforth to be known as Accountability Action! Hour.) 

Members would still get to keep the House up to date on the latest news from their respective ridings -- or, if they choose, to deliver monotone readings of the boilerplate attack lines cranked out by their respective caucus communications offices -- before an audience every bit as attentive as that commanded by the current time slot commands. They just wouldn't get to do it leading into QP, which could very well discourage all sides from turning it into a partisan shouting match.

Combine that with the proposed increase in discretionary power for the speaker, and members' statements might just return to their original purpose; namely, giving backbench MPs a moment to bask in the parliamentary spotlight, rather than simply serve as a talking point delivery system for their party.

The pertinent section of the report, courtesy of the indispensable Library of Parliament:   House Management Report
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