On Tuesday, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair became quite angry when, after repeatedly asking questions about Canada’s engagement in the latest war in Iraq, he received a string of non-answers from Paul Calandra, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister. Calandra has established himself as one of the best non-answerers in the House, but that didn’t make Mulcair feel any better about being one of his victims. In his rage, Mulcair lashed out at Speaker Andrew Scheer, whom he said had a duty “to enforce the rules of relevancy.” He also questioned Scheer’s neutrality. In response, Scheer cut off Mulcair’s question time. On Wednesday, Scheer went one step further. He gave a poorly researched, passive-aggressive speech designed to defend himself from actually having to do anything.
As if it helped his cause, Scheer began by quoting House of Commons Procedure and Practice, “The Speaker is the servant, neither of any part of the House nor of any majority in the House, but of the entire institution and serves the best interests of the House as distilled over many generations in its practices.” So it serves the best interest of the House to allow non-answers to simple questions about involvement in an oversea war? Scheer knew that’s what everyone was thinking, so he came prepared. Scheer said that he was powerless to police the quality of questions and answers in the House because his job involves “adhering to practices that have evolved over a broad span of time, and that have consistently been upheld by successive Speakers.” Do Paul Calandra’s actions qualify as evolutions over broad span of time? Calandra’s act is old, but that doesn’t mean it’s traditional.
In an effort to absolve himself of any responsibility, Scheer highlighted the trend in Canadian history of Speakers taking a “laissez-faire, I don’t care” leadership style. This had to be the meat of Scheer’s argument. And it was! Well, sort of. Scheer searched the archives for a great example, and golly gee did he ever find one. Taking us all the way back to the distant year 2010, Scheer points out that then-Speaker Peter Milliken said it wasn’t his job to police the quality of answers. To prove Milliken’s decision was part of a tradition, Scheer points to a time in 2014 when another Speaker, Andrew Scheer, said the same thing. It’s a bulletproof argument if one is trying to prove that the last 5 years in Parliament have featured low quality question periods. On the other hand, it’s a pretty useless argument for the existence of a traditional role for the Speaker. That isn’t to say that such a role doesn’t exist (I’m not about to go through the archives), just that Scheer did a terrible job of trying to convince everyone that it does.
The Speaker concluded by saying that he can punish those who accuse him of being biased. He then challenged the entire House to “elevate the tone and substance of question period exchanges,” and reminded everyone that he had already asked everyone to do so last January. It was a weak plea to an audience that was, as best, not engaged. The closest he came to identifying a member by name was in his final comments, when seemed to single out Tom Mulcair. No one had any reason to pay attention.
So, is Scheer biased? After bashing him for five paragraphs, it’s probably worth asking that question. Let’s look at the facts. There are a number of clowns on both sides of the green chamber, but, as previously discussed, the most consistently appalling behaviour during Question Period comes from Calandra, who happens to sit on Scheer’s side of the House. Poillievre, another blue coat, deserves an honourable mention. Since Pat Martin’s Twitter feed doesn’t appear in Hansard, he escapes criticism here. Is it Scheer’s fault that two of the biggest dopes in the House represent his party? No. So it isn’t his fault that they abuse Question Period. The blame for that falls squarely on their shoulders.
If indeed a tradition of doing nothing existed beyond the reigns of Milliken and Scheer, then perhaps the current Speaker has his hands tied. Yet, for some reason, that doesn’t feel like an excuse for his idle watching as the House of Commons loses what little integrity it still has. Sometimes, people have to take risks. Good employees do more than what is asked of them. Good people break bad rules for good reasons. Scheer won’t earn a promotion from the Prime Minister for changing the quality of discourse in Question Period, but that shouldn’t matter. The Prime Minister isn’t Speaker Scheer’s boss. The Canadian people are—and Canadians of all political stripes would appreciate a return to decency in the House. This isn’t about party ties or allegations of partisan bias. It’s about making sure parliament serves the people. If that’s going to happen, it will be because the Speaker found it in himself to do something about it.