Inside Politics

In landmark ruling, House Speaker stands up for minority rights

In a ruling that has been described as both a "mild scolding" and a "ringing message" to the government, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer has served notice that when it comes to balancing the clockworks of the Chamber against the rights of the often rancorous and unruly 300-odd charges committed to his care, this speaker will not, as he puts it, "make decisions based on who is in control of the House."

That, of course, was exactly what Van Loan had asked him to do on the eve of the mini-marathon vote on the omnibudget bill, when he recommended that Scheer discard the bulk of the 1,162 opposition-backed amendments, and bundle the remainder by theme, in order to minimize the total number of standing votes required, on the grounds that this is, after all, a majority-held House.

"I am not a betting man," Van Loan confessed in his intervention, "but I am willing to bet anyone in the House that I do not foresee any of them passing."

Judging from how he ultimately chose to proceed with report stage votes, it was already clear that Scheer had declined to take the government house leader's advice, but it wasn't until yesterday's ruling that he revealed the reasoning behind his decision to reject the argument put forward by Van Loan that majority rule should supersede minority rights:

The Chair is and will continue to be guided by procedural imperatives in all of its decisions, not by somehow substituting the Speaker's prediction of the likely outcome of a vote for the expressed will of the House itself. [...]

In advocating a much stricter approach to the report stage on Bill C-45, the Government House Leader seemed to argue that the existence of a Government majority meant that the outcome of proceedings on the Bill was known in advance, that somehow this justified taking a new approach to decision-making by the House and that anything short of that would constitute a waste of the House's time. This line of reasoning, taken to its logical end, might lead to conclusions that trespass on important foundational principles of our institution, regardless of its composition.

Scheer also put paid to an even more eyebrow-raising democratic efficiency proposed by Van Loan during the same submission; namely, that the Chair should turn his back on both precedent and written procedure, and strip independent members like Green Party Leader Elizabeth May of the right to to bring forward substantive amendments during report stage in the House, as, unlike MPs aligned with parties, there is no mechanism that allows Independents to do so at committee.

This longstanding convention, according to Van Loan, permits those quiet loners of the Chamber to "hold the House hostage" by capriciously exercising their parliamentary privileges -- or, as he characterized it, engage in "harassment of the balance of the House."

Instead, he magnanimously offered up the concept of a single "test vote" that could be granted to Independent MPs, which would determine whether any of their amendments would meet with the favour of the House. If it failed, the results would apply to all subsequent motions standing in their name, which would be summarily dismissed.

"Nice try, but not on my watch," pretty much sums up the speaker's response.

If the parties were to work together to come up with a way to let Independent MPs take part in the committee process -- which, he pointed out, would be "neither inconceivable nor unprecedented," the process for dealing with report stage amendments would likely adjust itself accordingly.

Until that day arrives, however, he'll stick to the existing rules, which means ensuring that Independent MPs get the same chance as every other member to come forward with ideas on how to improve government legislation -- and, just as importantly, that the House as a whole be given the chance to consider those ideas, and vote yea or nay accordingly.

That, he might have, but didn't, add, is pretty much what parliamentary democracy is supposed to be all about, after all.

It's a warning that Van Loan and his government would be wise to heed in future, lest it put itself at risk of triggering another smackdown by the Mace.

Read the full decision here: 

Comments are closed.