Cutting the Speaker some slack

Attacks on the Speaker are, generally speaking, the last refuge of the desperate, and those unwilling to look at their own complicity in the state of affairs they decry. And yet we have seen an increasing amount of grumbling about Speaker Scheer in the past few weeks, not only over venues like the Twitter Machine, but also by way of anonymous gripes to the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

It’s not to suggest that Scheer has done a perfect job, because let’s face it – his ruling this week that he couldn’t rule on the quality of written responses to questions was problematic. This isn’t to call him partisan, but rather, it’s to acknowledge that he’s in a pretty tough spot. The response was clearly a non-answer, and the government has a demonstrated pattern of trying to limit the flow of information and control what opposition parties – and the media – can see. And yet, Scheer is also bound by the rules of the Commons, known of course as the Standing Orders.

The Standing Orders don’t lay out what constitutes a proper response from the government on a written Order Paper question. Nor do they outline what is and is not a proper omnibus bill, as per Elizabeth May’s point of order in the lead-up to the vote-a-thon on C-38. Of course, the Standing Orders could be amended by MPs to lay out these kinds of guidelines if MPs wanted – but thus far they haven’t thought to put that in. Of course, this is more by accident than by design, because up until this point we haven’t had a government that has been willing to push the limits of the Standing Orders and the rules of the Commons to their very limits in order to pursue their own agenda. That said, it become very difficult to start to legislate or regulate “good faith” when it comes to the exercise of power in our system.

This having been said, I do believe that Scheer should have flexed a little more muscle, and exercised a bit more discretion on Irwin Cotler’s particular point about the quality of the written response because there should be a greater test than simply being given an answer, even if we all know that said answer is just a copy-paste from a press release. In this case, it cannot actually be said that a poor answer is better than no answer because of the implications this has on parliamentary democracy as a whole. After all, it is the duty of MPs to hold the government to account, and if they cannot get the information that they need in order to do so, then their role is degraded. The Speaker should have realised this in his deliberations and come up with some better balance than simply saying that they at least received an answer.

Again, let me stress that I’m not taking this as a partisan consideration on Scheer’s part. In fact, when Scheer has made disciplinary rulings in the House, he has come down against the Conservatives – even when the NDP (and Charlie Angus in particular) have deserved far more rebuke than they have been getting. For anyone to suggest that Scheer takes his marching orders from Peter Van Loan is not only not paying attention, but is insulting the Speaker and the very institutions they claim to want to protect.

And while we might blame the Speaker for not coming down hard enough on the government for their practices such as giving inadequate replies to written questions, one should also cast an eye back to the very MPs that make up the Commons – especially those on the government backbenches. It’s in their own interests to exert the pressure on the government (meaning the cabinet) to follow the rules, to provide proper written responses, and to let MPs do their jobs as the keepers of the public purse. It is not the role of backbenchers on the government side to simply be cheerleaders who clap like trained seals at the slightest of provocation for everything the government says and does, most especially because they need to remind themselves that governments change. One day, be it in 2015 or following an election cycle following, the Conservatives will eventually find themselves back on the opposition side of the House, and they’ll want these very same kinds of answers from future governments – much as they did when they last formed opposition and promised to be more open and transparent.

Of course, we know that things always look different from the government benches, but that doesn’t excuse the attack on parliamentary democracy and the institutions of Responsible Government that have been taking place. While we can all hope that they wake up to this fact, it doesn’t excuse the inexcusable attacks against the Speaker, not absolve these MPs from their own responsibility.