Andrew Scheer, Speaker of the House of Commons will not turn 34 until May 20th, but he has already distinguished himself from a long line of predecessors who have presided in silence over the trampling of the rights of ordinary MPs. Scheer delivered an opinion that could lead to greater freedom for ordinary MP’s to make statements of their own choosing during the Member’s Statements period in the house of commons. But Scheer went beyond that issue, hinting that he was also prepared to challenge the ability of party whips to control the speaking order in Question Period as well. These are tiny steps to be sure but they have the potential to return a measure of spontaneity to the two parliamentary speaking opportunities which have become tedious rituals with members on all sides reading from scripts and answering questions from rehearsed talking points.
The speaker’s ruling came after the government tried to block one of its own MP’s Mark Warawa from making a member’s statement on the subject of sex-selective abortion. While Scheer said he would continue to recognize members (which is the procedure by which they are allowed to speak) from lists provided by the party whips; he would not restrict himself to those lists. If a member wished to be recognized in either the Members’ Statement period or Question Period, he would reserve the right to allow those members to speak. We will have to wait and see which members are prepared to defy their parties by rising in the house, but Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has already signalled his willingness to allow his members more latitude by introducing a motion to that effect. In so doing Trudeau has exposed one of Prime Minister Harper’s vulnerabilities–a perception that he is a top-down control freak.
Trudeau no doubts hopes the parliamentary freedom issue will deflect some of the criticism he has received for his tepid response to the Boston Bombings. Until recent years, the member’s statement period was a folksy affair where MP’s on the far reaches of the back benches would get to make a statement that would get into Hansard and could then be quoted in the members newsletters to the constituents back home. Sometimes the statements would be planted by the party whips, but often they were simply personal comments reflecting the members’ personal views on a topic. Question Period, on the other hand has been a tightly-orchestrated affair since the 1970’s and moreso since the introduction of TV cameras in 1977.