The Backbench Spring: Russ Hiebert speaks up

Another government backbencher asserts his rights

After QP today, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert became the latest government backbencher to speak in support of Mark Warawa’s question of privilege.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to the privilege raised prior regarding Standing Order 31, known as members’ statements.

Other members have already addressed a number of important points, which I will not dwell on in detail in my comments, including, (1) that without the right of all members to speak freely, this institution simply cannot function properly; (2) that the period of statements was originally intended to give members equal opportunities to raise issues; (3) that other opportunities for debate in this House, such as debate on a bill, reflect the principle that all members have the right to speak, even if their name does not appear on the list submitted by a party; (4) that the decision by Speaker Sauvé to ask parties for guidance or lists of members to speak was done solely as a matter of efficiency for the Speaker, and was never intended to give the various parties a veto over who could speak; (5) that conventions are not the same as rules and can be revised when needed to reflect current realities; (6) that S. O. 31s were not intended to be used as partisan; and, (7) that even if we view our parties as akin to hockey teams, the Commons is more like a House league than the NHL, and you, as the convener, Mr. Speaker, need to step in when some players are not getting equal time on the ice.

As I said, I will not examine these points in further detail, but instead I hope to add to your understanding of the issue, Mr. Speaker, by examining the history of Standing Order 31.

It is perhaps not surprising to learn that members have used various conduits to make statements since at least the time of Confederation. According to the Annotated Standing Orders of the House of Commons, second edition, the rules which guide the period for statements by members place the antecedents back to at least 1867.

For about 60 years following Confederation, a rule existed which permitted motions to be proposed without notice, provided unanimous consent had been granted by the House. In the early to mid-1920s, however, the use of such motions experienced a marked increase.

In 1927, the House agreed to a recommendation that the standing orders be amended so that unanimous consent would only be sought in cases of “urgent and pressing necessity previously explained by the mover”. The rule, as amended, was thereafter infrequently employed for decades, until around 1968, when MPs increasingly began to rise daily, choosing to do so in the time before question period to move motions that often demonstrated no urgent or pressing necessity.

In 1975, the House amended its standing orders to stipulate that such motions should only be moved by non-ministers during a restricted time period to be held before oral questions.

It is noted by O’Brien and Bosc that the moving of these motions prior to oral questions became, throughout the remainder of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, a common, although misused and often time consuming feature of the proceedings of the House.

In 1982, the House accept the Special Committee on Standing Orders and Procedures recommendation that it abolish this rule, which was called Standing Order 43, and institute a new renumbered standing order, Standing Order 31, that would have as its purpose to allow MPs to make statements on current issues on a daily basis during the first 15 minutes of a sitting.

I believe the key point that history teaches us is that members need to be assured reasonable opportunities to speak in this House, and should they be denied fair access, they may feel forced to use other opportunities the standing orders provide to ensure that their constituents concerns are represented.

The House has wisely recognized this tendency, and rather than allowing certain rules to be used in unintended ways, to better accommodate the needs of members, the House has instead set aside specific times for members to have their say. Thus we have Standing Order 31.

However, S. O. 31s are not unique to our House of Commons. The Australian House of Representatives has a practice that is broadly similar to the period our Parliament has, and they too set aside time for statements by members. During the time designated for non-government business, a 15 minute period is set aside prior to their question time for members’ 90 second statements. During this time, any member, other than a minister or a parliamentary secretary, may be called by the Speaker of the House to make a statement on any topic. In calling which member is to speak, the Speaker alternates between government and non-government members, with those who have not spoken given preference over those who have spoken already. Independent members are also called upon with the frequency appropriate to their relative representation in the House.

Likewise, the British House of Commons provides time for members’ statements, as do the legislatures of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan.

I will spare the House the details of each of these variations on the times allotted, the number of speakers each day and so on, but I will emphasize that there are two important points to be drawn generally from the various legislatures.

The first is that such statement periods are reserved for legislators who are not members of the cabinet. As ministers, they generally have a separate set of speaking privileges and opportunities assigned to them in each legislature. Fundamentally, the widespread and codified existence of a period for statements in so many different legislative bodies recognizes the need of legislators everywhere to have an outlet to briefly express their various needs or concerns.

A second lesson that we can draw from Westminster and the provinces is that in many instances, it is the codified practice that the Speaker alone decides on the rotation of the speakers and not the various parties. This is to say that the Speaker can be aided by a list, but is not bound by one. The Speaker is rightfully seen in these many legislatures as an impartial referee who determines that the right to speak is apportioned equally to all members, regardless of party affiliation.

I would urge you, Mr. Speaker, to consider that if members in this place are to be accorded equal speaking rights under S. O. 31, then you and you alone can guarantee that these rights are respected.

Indeed, our own House recognizes this very principle of equal time already when it comes to private members’ business. Under private members’ business, every member who is not a member of the cabinet has an equal opportunity to participate. The schedule of who gets to participate in introducing private legislation is arranged in a rotation, regardless of party affiliation, as we all know. The same principle should apply to S. O. 31. A rotating schedule would allow every MP an equal opportunity to participate in this critically important speaking opportunity.

I am aware of members who have suggested that if we want to speak freely in this place, we should become an independent. I know we all agree that free speech is fundamental to the proper working of this institution. The idea that someone should have to leave their party just to be able to make a one minute statement in the House is simply not justified or reasonable, nor is there any precedent for this drastic step in other parliaments.

Considering all the points that have been made, Mr. Speaker, I would urge you to consider this: There will always exist in our parliamentary system a tension between the demands of a party and the direction an individual member might want to take in representing his or her constituents. It is clear to me that under our system of government, sometimes the demands of the party will need to take to precedence if the government is to govern effectively, such as when it comes to support for a budget or other key government legislation.

However, there are also times when the rights of a member to speak freely should be paramount. Standing Order No. 31, speaking slots, is one of those times. After all, these statements are merely words, no matter how contentious some of the subjects raised might be. There is no vote or any other action that can be taken during a one minute statement that is going to topple a government or cause an election. There is nothing to fear on the part of any party from ensuring members’ rights to speak freely in the House are guaranteed.

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I would ask that you certify that the true spirit and intent of S. O. 31 are upheld by accepting the arguments in favour of the member for Langley’s point of privilege and ensuring that members’ statements be assigned equally on a rotating basis to all qualifying members of the House.

Mr. Warawa will apparently announce tomorrow whether he will appeal the committee ruling on Motion 408 to the House. And Conservative MP Brad Trost continues to gather support for his motion that would have committee chairs elected by a vote of the House. NDP MP Kennedy Stewart confirmed his support for Mr. Trost’s motion today. (Mr. Stewart has his own motion which seeks to study changes to the way citizens can petition Parliament.)