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Murray Mandryk: Speaker has power to improve Commons

Andrew Scheer is not the worst House of Commons Speaker ever. Really, he’s just an elected partisan thrust into an impossible role in our parliamentary democratic system, which often seems as if it were designed to fail.

Andrew Scheer is not the worst House of Commons Speaker ever. Really, he’s just an elected partisan thrust into an impossible role in our parliamentary democratic system, which often seems as if it were designed to fail.

However, like every other politician, Scheer doesn’t really seem to have the will to fix the problem either.

Born in Ottawa, Scheer studied history and politics at the University of Ottawa, working in the correspondence office of the leader of the Opposition at the time. It was at the U of O that he met Jill Ryan, whom he followed to Regina.

Scheer worked as a constituency secretary for Saskatchewan Conservative MP Larry Spencer — perhaps best remembered as the fundamentalist who vowed to support efforts to outlaw homosexuality.

The reborn Conservative party created new opportunities for the young and politically ambitious Scheer, who secured a federal Conservative nomination in 2004 in the Regina-Qu’Appelle riding held by long-serving NDP MP Lorne Nystrom.

New boundaries that saw the riding take in the surrounding rural area allowed Scheer to squeak out an 861-vote win in 2004. He more than tripled that margin in 2006, running on then-Opposition leader Stephen Harper’s promise that Saskatchewan would get a larger equalization payment from Ottawa.

But broken promises didn’t hurt Scheer’s re-election or his political career. He became deputy speaker in 2008 and was elected speaker in 2011 — the youngest Commons speaker in Canadian history at age 32.

The problem here isn’t that Scheer is really any more or less capable than past speakers. The problem is that he’s just another politician — a career politician — who still must run on his party’s platform. Then, after that, he depends on the good graces of a majority in the assembly (read: appease the governing majority) to be elected to this lofty post.

Sure, some speakers might have made greater efforts to leave aside their biases than Scheer. But it obviously would take a tremendously brave individual — one with a lot less career ambition than Scheer — to displease his own government. Many people think the reason former Saskatchewan legislative assembly Speaker Don Toth was beaten by current Speaker Dan D’Autremont in 2011 was because Toth was not seen as being hard enough on the NDP Opposition. One might assume Harper’s Conservatives would be equally unkind.

This takes us to last week’s NDP motion calling on the Speaker of the house to “force” the government to provide relevant answers during question period.

This motion arose out of the previous week’s farce in the House of Commons where Conservative MP Paul Calandra — who is not a minister, but is somehow permitted to address matters for the prime minister on foreign policy — babbled incoherently on a relatively straightforward NDP question on a troop deployment in Iraq.

After being rightly blasted in the media for this ongoing deceptive practice, Calandra delivered a much-ballyhooed tearful apology for his irrelevant, smarmy answers. But he pretty much hinted he’ll gladly do it again.

Well, if the Speaker does his job, Calandra wouldn’t be allowed to do so.

For starters, the Speaker is responsible for recognizing all members before they speak. There used to be a quaint tradition in this country whereby only cabinet ministers answered questions. It was a good one, because those with serious cabinet designations do bear responsibility and would be less inclined to engage in the political buffoonery we have seen from Harper’s parliamentary secretaries, including Pierre Poilievre, Dean Del Mastro and now Calandra.

Second, the Speaker already has the authority to address the quality of question-period answers. A parliamentary committee report 50 years ago stressed that “answers to questions should be as brief as possible, should deal with the matter raised and should not provoke debate.”

Simply rising to his feet and raising this would have long ago dealt with the quality of answers we’ve been getting.

In other words, Scheer does have the authority to deal with at least some of what ails the House of Commons in question period. Sadly, it never seems to be in a Speaker’s interest to be that impartial.

 

Murray Mandryk is a columnist for the Regina Leader Post.