Question period: 3 ways to encourage Speaker to clean it up

Boosting the Speaker's powers to police the House of Commons question period won't do much if he or she is reluctant to use that new clout. Kady O'Malley offers some suggestions on how to encourage a more interventionalist approach.

Tories set to block motion to empower Speaker, but what if there were other ways to crack the whip?

House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer has appealed to government and opposition MPs alike to change the nasty, partisan and uninformative tone of question period. But what if he had more power to do that himself? (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Barring a caucus-wide change of heart or backbench rebellion, the Conservatives will use their majority today to put the boots to an NDP motion to give Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer explicit authority to intervene during question period and compel the government to provide answers that are relevant and non-repetitious.

The NDP move was triggered by the tragicomic saga of Paul Calandra, the Conservative MP whose now famous non-answers to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair last week sparked an existential debate over the current state of Canadian parliamentary democracy.

Under the motion put forward by New Democrat House leader Peter Julian Monday, Scheer would have been able to make Calandra answer the question — or at least do a decent impression of someone answering the question, rather than ignoring it entirely in favour of attacking the NDP position on Israel.

Even if the NDP motion were to pass, however, the application of new rules would depend on a Speaker eager to lay down the law, something Canadian Speakers have, historically, been reluctant to do.

Here, then, are three suggestions on how to encourage a more activist role, while simultaneously making it more likely that future holders of the position will be ready to crack the whip.

1. Require Speakers to resign from caucus and party

In one sense, this would simply make mandatory what has, for the last two decades, been standard practice — at least as far as weekly caucus meetings and other such purely political duties go.

But this would go farther: those who hope to become Speaker would do so knowing that, should they win the confidence of their Commons colleagues, they would be obliged to take a pass on any number of outside events, from party conventions to local federal funding announcements.

They would, for all intents and purposes, truly become servants of the House. And while such a move would almost certainly result in fewer names on the ballot, it would ensure those who remained were fully aware of the sacrifice required.

When an election begins, it would be up to the Speaker's former party to determine whether to allow rejoining the team for the campaign; otherwise, the Speaker would have to run as an Independent, although almost certainly with a higher profile than is the case for most non-cabinet candidates.

In most cases, however, it's likely the party would happily allow a once-and-future Speaker to carry its colours, even if he or she intended to run again as Commons referee. It would be up to the individual to decide just how partisan to be on the campaign trail.

2. Authorize monetary penalties

This isn't a new proposal, but one still worthy of consideration, as it would add another arrow to the Speaker's disciplinary quiver.

It wouldn't replace the name-and-shame protocol currently in place, albeit so rarely employed it is largely theoretical. But it could be enforced in a manner that would prolong the hoped-for embarrassment, thus serving as an even more powerful motivator.

Even if the fines were purely symbolic — $25 for an over-the-top heckle, say, with a sliding scale for repeat offenders — it could still require an MP to come forward to the Bar of the House and hand over cash, cheque or money order. The spectacle of such penance — and the prospect of one's constituents tuning into the inevitable YouTube clip — might be something MPs would seek to avoid.

It could also reduce the Speaker's reluctance to take action against off-mic antics, by providing an alternative punishment for misbehaviour that doesn't meet the threshold required to kick an MP out of the chamber.

3. Elect Speakers per session, not per Parliament

Under the current system, the only way to forcibly remove a Speaker mid-Parliament is through a vote of the House of Commons — a move so extreme only a handful of examples can be dredged up from the procedural archives.

Once elected, it is effectively impossible to hold a Speaker accountable to the House. Their rulings cannot be appealed, nor their actions or reactions publicly criticized without risking a contempt charge. 

Holding a new election at the start of each new session, and not just at the opening of a new Parliament, would virtually guarantee MPs would have at least one opportunity to render a collective verdict on the Speaker's performance midway through a parliamentary term.

(The rule could even include a proviso that an election be held not more than three years from the start of a new Parliament, on the off chance a particular government doesn't get around to proroguing the House.)

That would ensure a Speaker remains keenly aware of the need to maintain the confidence of MPs should he or she want to keep the job.

Election would be by secret ballot, to encourage MPs to vote their conscience and not along party lines, without fear of repercussion after a Speaker's regime is renewed — or terminated.

It would let the House, as a whole, decide whether to reaffirm that confidence or withdraw it within the life of a Parliament, rather than waiting until after the next election.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.