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A Speaker who tried to restore ’respect’ to Parliament is now accused of disrespecting it

Newly elected Speaker of the House of Commons Greg Fergus is escorted into the House of Commons by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. Liberal member of Parliament Fergus has been
elected the House of Commons Speaker in a historic mid-session vote. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Newly elected Speaker of the House of Commons Greg Fergus is escorted into the House of Commons by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. Liberal member of Parliament Fergus has been elected the House of Commons Speaker, on Oct. 4, 2023, in a historic mid-session vote. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Sean Kilpatrick

RCI

Speakers are not entirely non-partisan. So where do MPs draw the line?

Greg Fergus became Speaker of the House of Commons (new window) in October because his predecessor, Anthony Rota, failed to exercise due diligence about a guest invited to watch the Ukrainian president's address to Parliament (new window).

And so it's all the more unfortunate now that Fergus also finds himself accused of failing to exercise proper care — in this case regarding the Speaker's official wardrobe (new window).

But if Fergus has good reasons to reflect on his actions and his responsibility to the institution he serves and represents, he's not the only one.

In a 105-second video that was shown at the Ontario Liberal Party convention on Saturday, Fergus offered kind words and reflections on his friendship with John Fraser, the outgoing interim leader of the party. Fergus recorded those words while wearing the Speaker's robes.

In a statement to the House on Monday (new window), Fergus said he did not know his message would be shown during the Ontario Liberal convention and described his remarks (new window) as a non-political message to a personal friend of more than 34 years. But he also apologized.

Apparently unmoved by that apology, Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer argued before the House that the impartiality of the Speaker had been seriously wounded by Fergus's partisan tribute to a partisan friend at a partisan event. Scheer, himself a former Speaker, also objected to Fergus's use of the phrase our party in an interview about Fraser with the Globe and Mail (new window).

Both the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois say they believe Fergus's mistake is serious enough to require his resignation. The New Democrats have not joined that call and the matter is likely headed to a parliamentary committee for further study.

The (mostly) non-partisan Speaker

The tradition in Canada is that Speakers significantly limit their partisan activities. A Speaker does not, for instance, attend party caucus meetings, vote in the House (except in the event of a tie) or participate in debate. 

But the Speaker doesn't cease to be a partisan entirely. In the United Kingdom, if an MP serving as Speaker runs for re-election, they do so as an independent candidate. In Canada, the Speaker still runs as a party candidate. 

In 2015, for instance, Speaker Scheer ran as a Conservative and reportedly attended a campaign event for Stephen Harper (new window)

The Speaker does have to get elected under a party banner, and I'm proud to do that, proud to run as a Conservative in Regina-Qu'Appelle, telling all the people in Saskatchewan how our policies have helped them — whether it's the wheat board, or our low taxes — and help them make up their mind, Scheer told the Canadian Press at the time.

Whether such comments cast a shadow on Scheer's impartiality became a moot question when he did not enter the Speaker's election that followed that year's general election. (Four years later, Green Leader Elizabeth May suggested Scheer had undermined the office of the Speaker (new window) by running for the Conservative leadership.)

Whether Fergus's wardrobe malfunction constitutes a firing offence is now a question for his fellow MPs to answer.

Fergus's fight for decorum

After the damage done to the institution of Parliament by Rota's downfall, Fergus assumed the throne with the stated intention of improving decorum and restoring respect. But when he attempted, two weeks later, to deliver a speech on that subject, he was nearly drowned out by protests and heckles from the Official Opposition (new window).

A week ago, Fergus reprimanded Conservative MP Jake Stewart for referring to the NDP as Hamas supporters — but Conservatives then called on him to hold Liberals to account for suggesting that the Conservatives were sympathetic to Russia. A few days later, Fergus singled out six members for their heckling: Conservative MPs Larry Brock, Rick Perkins, Damien Kurek, Randy Hoback and Garnett Genuis, and NDP MP Charlie Angus.

Decorum in the House of Commons is a perennial concern. And no matter how bad it is now, it was certainly worse in the booze-soaked early days of Parliament. But it also would be a mistake to accept that incivility is inevitable.

WATCH: Opposition calls on Speaker Fergus to resign

Calls grow for the House Speaker to step down

Monday, December 4 - Conservatives, Bloc Québécois call for House Speaker Greg Fergus to step down after he appeared in a video message played at the recent Ontario Liberal leadership convention.

While the Conservatives now decry Fergus's disregard for the sanctity of his office, they have been testing the rules of the House themselves — as if the Conservative Party's disdain for elites extends to the standing orders and conventions of the House.

MPs are not supposed to refer to each other by name, but Conservatives have enjoyed using the phrase just inflation as a winking nod to the prime minister's first name. And Fergus has had to remind (new window) Conservative members lately that they are not to refer (new window) to the presence or absence of another member. (Deputy Speaker Chris D'Entremont also had to do so (new window) during the interregnum between Rota and Fergus.)

The Conservatives also have tried to use question period to pose questions (new window) to backbench MPs (new window) and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (new window). Those MPs can't actually answer those questions because, with a few specific exceptions, only ministers and parliamentary secretaries are allowed to respond during the 45 minutes set aside each day for questions about the government.

Questioning the Speaker's impartiality

But if the concern now is the perceived impartiality of the Speaker, it seems fair to revisit an incident that occurred almost exactly a year ago — when Conservative MP Raquel Dancho accused a Liberal MP of lying.

Such an accusation is considered unparliamentary and Fergus's predecessor asked her to withdraw the remark and apologize. When Dancho refused, Rota ordered her to leave the House.

A day later, the Conservative Party sent out a fundraising appeal in which Dancho claimed that the Liberal Speaker kicked me out of the House of Commons yesterday for telling the truth.

It was a blatant lie, and I called them on it. Then they tried to silence me for it, she told party supporters.

Claiming the Speaker is a Liberal who took part in a partisan effort to silence an opposition MP amounts to a rather serious accusation — and a direct attack on the impartiality that the House is now being asked to take quite seriously.

Ideally, the Speaker would not say or do anything to call themselves, their office or Parliament into question. And that would include leaving the ceremonial robes on the hanger sometimes (and maybe declining all requests to record messages for friends who happen to be partisans).

But the Speaker is not the only MP who owes Parliament a duty of care.

Aaron Wherry (new window) · CBC News

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