Paul Mcleod, the intrepid Bluenoser over at the Chronicle Herald, reported today that MPs are mumbling and grumbling behind closed doors over the performance of neophyte Speaker Andrew Scheer.
Scheer, who has been on the job for a year and some change, has been criticized for siding too often with the Government benches.
So, does he?
I present to you, for your approval, an annotated year-in-review for Speaker Scheer. The following is an edited look at Scheer’s rulings on questions of privilege (QoP) - coming from both sides of the aisle - since the beginning of 2012.
A note on the scoring system - I’ll maintain a government/opposition score. If a ruling is in favour of the government, the score will be +1/0. If it’s in favour of the opposition, and against the government - -1/+1. If it’s neutral, it’s just 0.
December 13th (2011) - Irwin Cotler Get Crank Called
Okay, this ruling falls just outside of the 2012 scope, but I’m including it just the same.
As you may recall, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler accused the Conservative party of calling into his riding and planting the rumour that he would be retiring shortly. They also, he charges, created a shadow MP to tour around his riding and spread money around like a mafioso fairy.
Cotler argued that his ability to act as an MP was impeded by the calls, which Scheer tacitly agreed with.
In the ruling, Scheer points out that the callsare unacceptable and unbecoming of any MP or party. He went so far as to say,
In today’s case, too, the so-called surrounding matters have given me pause. I am sure that all reasonable people would agree that attempting to sow confusion in the minds of voters as to whether or not their member is about to resign is a reprehensible tactic and that the hon. member for Mount Royal has a legitimate grievance.
However, he also noted,
I can understand how the member for Mount Royal and others are seeking relief from the climate of cynicism, not to say contempt, about parliamentary institutions and practice that seem to prevail. But I fear that such relief is not within my gift: the Speaker’s powers in these matters are limited, as my predecessors have repeatedly stated.
Which is probably a reasonable ruling. Scheer cannot censure a parliamentary caucus for actions that may or may not have been committed by the party apparatus. And the one guy who could be held responsible - the former MP for Cotler’s Montreal riding - is not in the House, and therefore out of Scheer’s reach. The condemnation of the calls, however, is a sort-of victory for Cotler.
January 31st - The Wheat Board
Scheer rules on a QoP from Frank Valeriote on the Wheat Board. Explaining his question, Valeriote said,
It is now unambiguous that as members of Parliament our privileges have been violated as a result of our participation in the Minister of Agriculture’s single-minded mission to dismantle the Wheat Board without first consulting with and determining the will of western Canadian wheat and barley farmers, as he remains required to do.
He was reacting to a ruling from a Federal Court judge, who ruled that the government had no right to end the Board without a plebiscite. That, naturally, prompted opposition MPs to argue that the Speaker must act.
In his ruling, Scheer says of the QoP
It is the view of the Chair that the fundamental issue remains unaltered; namely, that the member for Guelph is essentially still asking the Speaker to rule on a matter of law. This, as I have gone to great lengths to explain previously, is something the Speaker cannot do.
There was mumbling about that ruling, especially from those who don’t understand how the House works. They, seemingly, think Scheer may act as an actual judge and overrule legislation that others deem illegal. He cannot.
And, in retrospect, he was entirely right to stay out of it, as that federal court ruling was overturned this week.
Running Score: 1/0
November 29th - The Angus/Clement Faceoff
Scheer rules on Tony Clement’s objection to the objections over his supposed transcript-doctoring. Dipper Charlie Angus accused Clement of editing hansard to absolve himself of criticism over the G8 maybe-boondoggle. It wasn’t true, Scheer said, as he knows who edits the transcripts.
So he was ruling on Clement’s assertion that his privilege was impeded because of the accusations. His honour as a gentleman was on the line, he said.
Whereas Cotler had a definite case for a prima facie violation of privilege, but no recourse for action; Clement had a very obvious target in mind and a shaky case for a violation.
Scheer agreed. Pointing to the fact that the violation supposedly happened in committee, and was therefore outside his jurisdiction, he said,
There can be no doubt that the minister feels aggrieved by the interpretation being given to these events. However, as presented to the Chair, and again, in the absence of a report from the committee on the matter, I cannot find that this is sufficient grounds to establish that the minister has been impeded in the performance of his parliamentary duties. Therefore, I cannot find that a prima facie question of privilege exists.
Clement then rose to thank the Speaker, but took issue with his ruling. Here’s the exchange:
CLEMENT: I would say that it is very unlikely the NDP did not know that the House of Commons transcription services routinely make inconsequential amendments to the official report. Many of those members have been around for many years—
SPEAKER: Does the hon. President of the Treasury Board have a point of order to make?
CLEMENT: Yes, Mr. Speaker, I will make that point of order now.With your ruling today, I would sincerely hope that the member for Timmins—James Bay will reflect on his actions. He made these accusations against me both inside and outside this place and I request that the member for Timmins—James Bay apologize for his baseless smear on my reputation as soon as possible.
SPEAKER: I did not hear a point of order in that.
And that was it.
Running score: 0/1
April 5th - #TellVicEverything
April was the cruelest month for the Public Safety minister. Having been saddled with the dubious honour of becoming one of Harper’s many “embattled” ministers, Toews faced criticism and attacks from an anonymous Twitter account - later unmasked as Liberal staffer Adam Carroll - and from the online ogre Anonymous (I say that with all the love in the world. Please don’t take my site down.)
On the first question - the Vikileaks account - Scheer took Bob Rae’s pre-emptive unequivocal apology as sufficient.
The second point was Toews’ complaints over the number of calls, faxes and emails that inundated his office.
Scheer’s reaction? ‘Tough shit.’ If Canadians had legitimate concerns, he says, they had the right to contact a member of parliament about those concerns. So long as they didn’t cut the phone lines, the MP just had to deal with it. He rejected the second part of the QoP.
And then there was the third point. It was in reference to a video released by Anonymous that contained some of the Vikileaks info, and contained a peppering of vague threats to the minister.
Here’s his ruling;
As your Speaker and the guardian of those privileges, I have concluded that this aspect, the videos posted on the Internet by anonymous, therefore, constitutes a prima facie question of privilege
As such, Toews moved a motion to move the matter to the procedural committee.
Ruling: (Ruling 1) 0/0 (Ruling 2) -1/0 (Ruling 3) +1/0
Running Score: 0/1
May 7th - Rae Has His Privilege Violated By Fighter Jets
Diving in, Scheer said,
The charges being levelled against the Prime Minister and three ministers are serious. They go to the very essence of the need for clarity in our proceedings and the need to ensure that information provided to the House by the government is such that the ability of members to carry out their duty of holding the government to account is not diminished or impeded.
The issue of ministerial responsibility and accountability has also been raised by several members. The Chair would like to set aside this aspect of the matter immediately. As all members know, constitutional issues of this nature are not matters for parliamentary procedure, and they are well beyond the range of matters the Speaker can be asked to rule upon.
Scheer pointed out that Rae was essentially asking him to work as a lie detector, ruling on questions of whether or not ministers were telling the truth. He, rightfully, points out that that is not his job. He cites a Procedure and Practice,
The Speaker, however, is not responsible for the quality or content of replies to questions.
Rae’s argument balanced itself on the assumption that to agree with the Auditor General’s report on the F35s excludes the government from holding the line that they did nothing wrong. That, of course, is a very narrow and hyperpartisan view. Rae’s view is essentially that a widespread conspiracy of lies and cover-ups around the cabinet table is more likely than simplistic oversights in releasing numbers - the government’s line - or a multitude of other reasons. Scheer cannot simply pick an explanation that runs contrary to the government’s and run with it.
Scheer - bless his heart - goes on to break down exactly how one might agree with the AG’s report without faulting the government.
Running Score 0/0
March 15th - Pat Martin’s #$*%ing QoP
Okay, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Pat Martin cursing.
He was actually asking about a visit from the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu where some opposition MPs had their mobility around parliament limited due to intense security measures.
The very short version - yes, Pat Martin, you’re right. Scheer called on Martin to move a motion to have it examined in committee.
Quick-learner on parliamentary procedure Elizabeth May then stood up to point out that it should be studied why the Israeli PM wasn’t hosted at Rideau Hall, as is precedent.
That question is now in committee.
Running Score: 0/1
June 13th - Oh, the Huge Budget.
This wound is still fresh.
Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen stood in the House on a QoP, arguing that the government was not forthcoming when he tried to obtain information on the omnibus budget bill. Cullen argued that, due to failing the Federal Accountability Act, this constituted contempt of parliament (yes, that racket again.)
It is not for the Speaker to decide whether the opposition House leader is correct in stating that the government is required by law to provide the Parliamentary Budget Officer with certain types of information. This is a legal question and is not a matter for the Chair to advocate, much less enforce.
That much is, certainly, true.
But he goes on, addressing the crux of Cullen’s argument - that members’ privilege were impeded due the Government’s obstructions. That is a matter for the Speaker.
While I usually find myself agreeing with this speaker, here is one ruling I cannot wrap my head around,
In the case before us, the opposition House leader has acknowledged that information was unsuccessfully sought through various means including written questions, questions posed during question period and questions posed in committee. I cannot presume to judge the quality of the responses that have been received.
Speaker Milliken clearly established this on December 1, 2010, on page 6677 of theHouse of Commons Debates:
…it is not for the Chair to decide whether an answer or response given to a question constitutes an answer to that question. It is beyond the competence of the Chair to make that kind of decision under our practice.
Furthermore, as I noted earlier, there is no House or committee order requesting the information sought by the hon. member…
However, while the member may have a legitimate grievance, I can find no evidence that he or any other member has been impeded in the fulfillment of their parliamentary duties. Accordingly, I cannot find that there is a prima facie question of privilege in this case.
This is interesting, because what Scheer is essentially saying is - I recognize that you sought the information, but I cannot see that you sought it, therefore I cannot rule on it. In the cases where the question is evident - Question Period, say - the answers were given. Their quality cannot be determined by the speaker, therefore the fact that the minister said words suffices as an answer.
Final score: 1/0
I think rumours of Scheer’s bias are greatly overstated. His greatest crime, it seems, is a very (small c) conservative approach to the Speaker’s chair. He consistently rules on the side of restraint and the status quo. He relies very heavily on the most mainstream precedent in his decisions and rarely takes a bold stance.
While one can point to the decisions he makes that are either against the wishes of the opposition, or in favour of requests of the government, one can point to just as many that are the reverse.
While I think Scheer got it wrong on this recent budget bill ruling, I think the majority of his decisions made in the past year have been solidly down the middle.
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