The government side had persisted in interrupting the leader of the opposition with sarcastic applause and the Speaker had apparently seen and heard enough. “We will have to make up the time somewhere else,” Andrew Scheer explained. That was the extent of the admonishment, but a short while later, when the day’s lineup indicated a Conservative MP was scheduled to ask a question, Speaker Scheer proceeded instead to the next opposition MP on his list. As the New Democrats—who had called for such a sanction to be applied to parties in the House of Commons—were happy to note afterwards, the Conservatives, for wasting the House’s time with unnecessary noise, had been docked one of their three opportunities to lob a friendly query during that day’s question period.
It has been a year now since Scheer became the 35th Speaker of the House of Commons—since the boy who used to skip afternoon classes in high school to watch question period became, at 32 years old, the youngest person to ever occupy the chair. And if the last 12 months—a little over 130 sitting days—have seen any change from the unseemly brawl that Parliament is widely seen to be, that change has come in small moments like that subtracted question.
“If I were to compare this Parliament with any I have seen since I came here in 2004,” says Peter Van Loan, the Government House leader, “I would say it’s the most orderly.”
This is perhaps something like saying the 41st Parliament is currently on pace to finish last in an ugly contest. But for those who seek a more genteel cathedral of democracy, there have been positive developments. “I think question period has not been as noisy or bad, on a continual basis, as it used to get,” says Elizabeth May, the Green MP who is a constant presence in the House and who regularly attended QP before being elected. Jack Layton vowed that New Democrats would not heckle and the official Opposition has mostly kept this promise. And as he did in previous sessions, Government whip Gordon O’Connor, with the stern demeanour of a 73-year-old former brigadier general, can regularly be seen raising a hand to silence Conservative MPs or wandering over to someone’s seat to admonish directly. Scheer has periodically identified hecklers by riding or title, thus outing MPs who would have otherwise been shielded by the House’s restrictive policy on television cameras. “I think that there was a real commitment, when this Parliament started, from everybody, to try to make it better,” says Scheer, now 33. “I think everybody who ran for Speaker mentioned it in their speech. And the major parties acknowledged the need to do better. The Speaker can’t unilaterally make everything better. He or she needs co-operation from all the members.” Van Loan credits the calming influence of majority government and the steady hand of the Speaker, but he also commends what he sees as the NDP’s “focus on policy.”
When he stood for election, Scheer told the House that he agreed the Speaker needed to “play a more assertive role,” but he also says he has, taking a lesson from his predecessor, Peter Milliken, practised diplomacy. “One of the things I’ve come to appreciate, and this is something where I really value the advice of Speaker Milliken, was to never underestimate the ability to bring members in without an incident in the House—without making it a thing in the House, bring people in and try to defuse things ahead of time. It is a unique perspective to be in the Speaker’s chair and to just start intervening on absolutely everything, because that can almost create an unsustainable relationship between the Speaker and the House.”
Scheer was born and raised in Ottawa and attended a high school near enough to Parliament Hill that he could slip over to watch question period some afternoons. Shortly after completing a degree at the University of Regina, he went to work in the constituency office of Canadian Alliance MP Larry Spencer and was then elected himself in the riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle in 2004 at the age of 25. Realizing that the Liberals, with several parliamentary veterans in their ranks, possessed great institutional knowledge, he figured he might help his side by studying up. In 2006, he was named an assistant deputy speaker, and two years later he became Speaker Milliken’s deputy. He and his wife, Jill, both split time between Regina and Kingsmere, the historic estate in Gatineau, Que. (the nooks and crannies of which provide ample fort-building opportunities for their four children, ages seven, five, three and one).
“There are 307—if you take me out—MPs who got elected because they care about things and they’re very passionate about issues. And when something’s said that touches a nerve, there’s an emotional response,” Scheer says. “My job is just to make sure that doesn’t spill over and if there is an incident or a portion of question period where it gets kind of rowdy, that we can kind of pull back and it doesn’t start to cascade. And that’s the tough thing. Sometimes about five minutes into question period you can just get the sense that this is going to go off the rails.”
With the NDP taking a vow of silence, the responsibility for heckling from the opposition side of the House has fallen on the Liberals. But even from that noisy corner of the room, there is praise for Scheer’s speakership to date. “Speaking for my party, I know we Liberals are a feisty bunch and that this occasionally tests his skills,” says Marc Garneau, the Liberal House leader. “He is growing into the job and gradually acquiring the gravitas that the position requires.” Van Loan says that while it may be tougher for “young people” to possess authority, Scheer is “doing very, very well in the face of that challenge.” “There still is heckling,” says the NDP’s Megan Leslie of the current atmosphere in the House. “But it is different. I would call it grumbling, more than heckling.”
The 15 minutes that immediately precede QP provide an interesting study in both the state of the House and the challenge of overseeing it. The time reserved for statements by members is nominally set aside for the noting of honourable constituents, cherished causes or issues of concern. In recent years it has become an opportunity to lob partisan bombs at the other side—the Conservatives particularly using the time to attack successive opposition leaders. Three years ago, Speaker Milliken attempted to ban MPs from making personal attacks during this time, but if the swipes are somehow less personal, they still persist, the NDP now opting to fight partisan fire with partisan fire. “The fine balancing line is, is this a legitimate debate about something that was said or a position that was taken or a party policy, or is this crossing the line into attacking character. It’s tough to, as you’re hearing it, parse words, but I think there’s been times where I’ve cut members off who, in my view, were very clearly down a path of just flat out insulting another member rather than a legitimate critique of a position or a statement.” So, for instance, in February, the Speaker cut off Jim Hillyer when the Conservative MP referred to Justin Trudeau as “Pierre Trudeau’s pompous parliamentary prince.” But suggestions that the NDP would impose “dangerous economic experiments” are in bounds.
Herein lies the riddle of civility. Rote partisanship is not against the rules. And even if the House may be somewhat more quiet of late, it is still a place of debate, competition and conflict. Asserting oneself as Speaker is thus a complicated task. “One of the toughest things about being Speaker is it’s never the same. You’re not calling balls and strikes on a definite strike zone. Every day is different. The mood can be different,” Scheer says. “Sometimes the House needs the Speaker to come right in and nip something in the bud. And other days you need to let a little bit of steam out of the valve and it might go away on its own. So I think it’s difficult for any Speaker to say on day one, ‘here’s where all of the lines are,’ because those lines shift. The House is dynamic, it’s constantly changing, the mood is constantly changing. So I’ve kind of got to use my own judgment and my own instinct to get a sense of where that’s going and try to react.”