OTTAWA, April 29, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A pro-life Conservative MP says he intends to challenge the Harper government during Question Period in the wake of a ruling by the Speaker of the House that allows MPs to bypass their party and seek the floor directly from the Speaker.
“What's wrong with MPs asking some really tough questions of their ministers?” Alberta MP Leon Benoit told CBC Radio on Saturday. “Parliament exists to hold government to account.”
In a decision last Tuesday, Speaker Andrew Scheer asserted an MP’s right to seek the floor by “catching the Speaker’s eye” rather than being dependent on the party-provided list of speakers.
Pro-life leaders and MPs hailed the ruling as a way to loosen the stranglehold of party leaders who fiercely oppose discussing abortion and other controversial moral issues in Parliament.
Fighting for freedom in Parliament
Since the 1970s, the convention has been that the Speaker is guided by lists provided by the party whips during Question Period and a 15-minute slot beforehand when members make 60-second statements called S.O. 31s.
As time progressed, the practice devolved into a system where it was effectively up to party leaders to decide who would be allowed to speak.
As a result, some MPs have been denied the floor, as in the case of B.C. Conservative MP Mark Warawa, who raised the question of privilege that occasioned Scheer’s ruling. Warawa says he was barred by Conservative Party whip Gordon O’Connor from making an S.O. 31 before Question Period last month because the topic – sex-selective abortion – was “not approved.”
Warawa and ten other Tory MPs argued before the House that it was an infringement of MPs’ free speech rights and that House rules say it is up to the Speaker to decide who may address the House of Commons rather than the parties.
Tory MP John Williamson took it even further. While Warawa’s question of privilege focused on the 60-second member statements before Question Period, the pro-life New Brunswick MP, a former communications director for Prime Minister Harper, argued that MPs should also be able to seek the floor of their own accord during Question Period, as is done in Britain.
Government whip Gordon O’Connor, on the other hand, argued that the Speaker of the House merely acts as a referee and it is up to the parties to decide who to put on the field.
“Essentially, you are being invited to become involved in adjudicating the internal affairs of party caucuses and their management,” said O’Connor. “Under any reasonable and generous interpretation of your powers, it is not for the Speaker to assume such a novel and expansive power.”
MP’s right to speak ‘not dependent on any other MP’
In his ruling Tuesday, Scheer turned the convention on its head by insisting that MPs do not address the House at the behest of parties but through being recognized by the Speaker. He said that while the Speaker has found it useful in recent decades to be guided by party lists, all MPs can seek to “catch the Speaker’s eye.”
He quoted the memoirs of former House Speaker James Jerome, who served in the 1970s during the time when the party lists first became the norm. Though Speaker Jerome said he was comfortable with parties submitting lists, this was the case only “so long as it didn’t unfairly squeeze out their backbench.”
Scheer said that based on his review of parliamentary rules and interpretation, the Speaker’s “authority to decide who is recognized to speak is indisputable and has not been trumped by the use of lists.”
“Members are free, for instance, to seek the floor under ‘questions and comments’ at any time to make their views known,” he said. “They are also free at any time to seek the floor to intervene in debate itself on a bill or motion before the House. 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.”
“The right to seek the floor at any time is the right of each individual Member of Parliament and is not dependent on any other Member of Parliament,” he added.
Speaker challenges backbench MPs: ‘Rise…and seek the floor’
Scheer also noted that the use of lists has created the problem that MPs no longer seek to be recognized by the Speaker and simply wait for their ‘turn’ to be called, as well as the fact that MPs who are not on the party lists have not sought recognition by the Speaker. And so, in effect, he issued a challenge to backbench MPs.
“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,” he said. “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,” he added. “They have to rise in their places and seek the floor.”
Praise for the ruling
Scheer’s ruling won praise from pundits, as well as pro-life leaders and MPs, including Warawa, who wrote on Twitter that he was “pleased” Scheer ruled “MPs have the right to seek the floor at any time.”
Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott told LifeSiteNews that Scheer had “cut the Gordian knot.” “As a protector of the rights and duties of Members, Speaker Scheer demonstrated the wisdom of a young King Solomon,” he said. “When asked whose baby the little one was, he discerned the maternal instincts and passed the baby back to the woman who birthed it.”
John Williamson told Sun News the ruling was “astute.” “It affirms the speaker's authority over the whips, which was critically important, while putting the onus on MPs to stand and be recognized for a scheduled statement or indeed whenever they wish,” he said. “I like that opening.”
Faye Sonier, legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, told LifeSiteNews that it was “a sound decision for Canadian democracy.” “For all MPs this ruling means they have a greater opportunity to participate in the House, represent the concerns of their constituents and express perspectives informed by their consciences,” she said.
“I thought it was a pretty wise thing to do and I thought it probably solves the difficulty,” said Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition.
Hughes also noted that there’s far too often a confusion between the government and MPs of the governing party. Speaking of abortion legislation, Hughes said, “I’m surprised that the Prime Minister’s talking about how he promised that the government would not bring this up. The government hasn’t brought it up. The government is the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the Privy Council, but this is Parliament bringing it up from the grassroots.”
Challenging the government on abortion
Scheer’s ruling has already affected the debate in Parliament with numerous MPs from various parties popping up to be recognized.
Observers noted that both Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Independent MP Bruce Hyer have tried to gain recognition since the ruling, and Warawa spoke on Wednesday, the day after the ruling. According to National Post columnist John Ivison, Warawa was not on the Conservative Party list until after he had already been recognized. Though he did not speak about abortion, he received applause from backbench MPs for the successful outcome of his question of privilege.
On Saturday, both Benoit and Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber told CBC that they hope to challenge the government during Question Period.
Rathgeber said he intends to question one of the Cabinet ministers on departmental overspending. “The Speaker's ruling makes it clear that I don't have to have the approval of the party leadership in order to stand up and attempt to do so,” said the Edmonton MP. ”It is my hope that I will be able to stand and ask a fair but challenging question on how the government spends taxpayer dollars.”
It appears Benoit plans to question the government on abortion. “I present pro-life petitions as often as I get a chance.… I think it really is important to have the Speaker recognizing MPs on that issue as well as any other issue,” he told CBC.
Last week, he told Postmedia News that he was “not going to go poking my finger in the eyes of people who don't want issues discussed for certain reasons,” but would “speak on issues like abortion that are important to me and important to a lot of my constituents.”