As the Speaker proceeded through his ruling on Mark Warawa’s question of privilege this afternoon, Michael Chong, the cabinet minister turned parliamentary agitator who last week spoke in support of Mr. Warawa’s appeal and who currently sits directly in front of Mr. Warawa on the government side of the House, periodically nodded and smiled.
Officially, there was nothing for Mr. Warawa or his supporters or any agitators for a more perfect parliament to smile about. On the strict question of whether Mr. Warawa’s privileges as a member of parliament had been breached, the Speaker found no such prima facie case.
Unofficially, Mr. Warawa, his supporters and all willing agitators have been invited to stand and, in doing so, change the rules by which we understand our parliamentary democracy in some small, but significant, way.
“The Chair is being asked by the Member for Langley,” the Speaker explained, “whether the practice of whips providing the Speaker with the names of members who are to be recognized to speak during Statements by Members represents an unjust limitation on his freedom to speak, to the extent that such opportunities are not afforded to him on an equitable basis.”
The 15 minutes set aside each day for MPs to stand and speak about any matter of local, national or international concern is governed by lists: lists determined and provided by the party whips for the purposes of guiding the Speaker as to who should be called on to stand and speak during those 15 minutes. There are lists as well for Question Period. If your party whip does not wish you to be there, you are not on the list. And if you are not the list, you do not stand to make a statement or ask a question.
It has been this way, more or less, since 1982. “Even if not enshrined in the Standing Orders, generally the House has been well served by this collaboration and the lists have helped the Chair to preside over this portion of each sitting day in an orderly fashion,” the Speaker offered.
“But does this mean that the Chair has ceded its authority to decide which members are to be recognized?” the Speaker asked rhetorically. “To answer this question, it is perhaps useful to review the history of the lists, which were first used for Question Period in the 1970s.”
To Speaker Jerome then, the 28th individual to occupy the chair, appointed by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the fall of 1974
“At page 61 in his memoir Mr. Speaker, in which he describes his time in the Chair, Speaker Jerome explains that he was comfortable using a party’s suggested lists, ‘so long as it didn’t unfairly squeeze out their backbench.’ ”
And what if, heaven forbid, the backbench should ever be unfairly squeezed? What if a backbencher were to suggest such a squeezing? What then?
Here now was the question before not merely the Speaker, but the House of Commons in its entirety.
It is, in the Speaker’s estimation, still he who possesses the authority to determine who will speak next. And it is, in all cases, for the members of this place to, as they say, catch the Speaker’s eye.
“Members are free, for instance, to seek the floor under ‘questions and comments’ at any time to make their views known. They are also free at any time to seek the floor to intervene in debate itself on a bill or motion before the House,” the Speaker noted, reminding members of how the rest of each day’s proceedings are conducted. “Ultimately, it is up to each individual Member to decide how frequently he or she wishes to seek the floor, knowing that being recognized by the Speaker is not always a guaranteed proposition.”
And here the one sentence of these 2,700 words Andrew Scheer spoke that mattered most.
“The right to seek the floor at any time is the right of each individual Member of Parliament,” he said, “and is not dependent on any other Member of Parliament.”
Here is the principle—the unalienable right—that trumps both the list and the list-maker.
The Speaker explained that, for lack of evidence, he could not find that Mr. Warawa had been “systematically prevented from seeking the floor.” However, “on the broader question of the equitable distribution of Statements by Members … the Member may well have a legitimate concern.” And yet, “as Speaker I cannot exercise my discretion as to which Member to recognize during Statements by Members or at any other time of the sitting day if only one Member is rising to be recognized.”
And so now an invitation. Or, rather, a challenge. An allowance for the possibility that one might put up. That one might stand up. That the duly elected might put up by standing up.
“Were the Chair to be faced with choices of which Member to recognize at any given time, then of course the Chair would exercise its discretion,” the Speaker explained. “But that has not happened thus far during Statements by Members, nor for that matter, during Question Period. Until it does, the Chair is not in a position to unilaterally announce or dictate a change in our practices. If Members want to be recognized, they will have to actively demonstrate that they wish to participate. They have to rise in their places and seek the floor.”
After various qualifiers and caveats—”but,” “however,” “even so,” “were,” “but” and “until”—here was the simple and obvious and straightforward. If members wish to be somewhat freer of their party whips, they need only stand.
It is surely silly that it has come to this. That members should be appealing to the Speaker to determine this much. That the time reserved for members statements—15 minutes out of each day that might otherwise be of little to no note—might be the subject of such a fundamental conflict. That the Speaker might have to suggest—with all due respect to the two current members in wheelchairs—that members exercise one of the smallest of physical acts. But if it has come to this, and if it is to be reversed, we must start here.
This is not quite a revolution. Or at least it does not quite amount to revolutionary change. In fact, nothing has changed. At least not yet. But here, maybe, is a small thing that might eventually amount to something. Wednesday afternoon, at 2 p.m., after MPs have sung the national anthem, the Speaker will call the House to order and announce the time for statements by members. And if anyone wants to say anything, they might stand, regardless of any list, and hope to be called on. And if an MP stands without being on a list—tomorrow or the next day or some afternoon in the future—it will be a statement of a particular kind. And then, perhaps, an unlisted someone will stand during Question Period. And then, perhaps, he or she will be followed by others. And then, who knows? To a political system that presently thrives on and demands and rewards control, the Speaker has invited just a tiny bit of chaos.