Canada

Keeping the peace

A fractious House searches for its next referee

JOHN DeMONT September 22 1997
Canada

Keeping the peace

A fractious House searches for its next referee

JOHN DeMONT September 22 1997

Keeping the peace

A fractious House searches for its next referee

Few politicians can work a room like Gilbert (Gib) Parent. So it may be a little hard to accept his claim that he is not even bothering to campaign for re-election to the post of Speaker of the House of Commons, which he held during the Chrétien government’s first term in office. “He firmly believes the speakership finds the person,” said an aide to the Ontario MP, who is not conducting media interviews in the run-up to the vote. That serene attitude does have a historical precedent. Four years ago, when Parent was a littleknown backbencher, he did not follow the other aspirants by promoting his candidacy at party caucus meetings.

The surprise outcome seemed as much fluke as fate: a sixth-ballot victory over the favorite, Ottawa MP JeanRobert Gauthier, who later received a Senate seat. But since then, Parent’s performance has inspired mixed reviews. And on Sept. 22, when the new Parliament convenes, comes the true test: will Parent be voted back to the Speaker’s chair?

The race may be close. Liberal Roger Gallaway is running; fellow Grit Peter Milliken is considering jumping in; even former-Liberalturned-Independent John Nunziata last week said the chances of him entering the fray were about “50-50.” Being the incumbent has obvious advantages for Parent. But he can probably forget about being propelled to victory by Reform party MPs, as he was in 1994: too many seem disappointed with his unwillingness to push for parliamentary reform. For that matter, some members of his own party seem to be wavering in their support. Privately, even Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has expressed concern that Parent may not be able to control the upcoming Parliament, with its four opposition parties and a government with a razorthin hold on power. “In certain circles there is a view that change has to be made,” contends Gallaway, 49, MP for the Ontario riding of Sarnia/Lambton.

Somehow the process seems a little undignified. The list of previous Speakers includes some illustrious names. Lucien Lamoureux, considered the best Speaker Parliament ever

had, went on to become Canada’s ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg in 1974, and later Portugal. Former governors general Roland Michener and Jeanne Sauvé both served as Speakers. But a new system, adopted in 1985 and intended to make the selection process more democratic, has, in the eyes of some critics, turned it into a consolation-prize contest among those who failed to make it into the cabinet. Before 1985, the Prime Minister nominated a Speaker, then the leader of the Opposition seconded the motion. But

now, all MPs except cabinet ministers or party leaders are automatically considered to be standing for the position until they take their names off the list by 6 p.m. on the day before the election.

While the job may lack the power or prestige of a cabinet post, on Parliament Hill it is the next best thing. With the title goes a $134,000 salary, a private suite in the Centre Block as well as a reception room, and a special residence in the Gatineau Hills. The Speaker, who in effect is the mayor of Parliament Hill, oversees a staff of 1,400—from clerks and security guards to computer staff—and a budget of $214 million. Most importantly, he sets the tone for the House, ruling on points of parliamentary procedure, deciding who gets to ask questions and in what order, and keeping unseemly squabbling, or worse, under control. Given the highly divided nature of the new Parliament, the Speaker will clearly have to earn every

perk and penny. “The Speaker is there as the guardian of the rights and privileges of the members—to enable the members to do the job that the electorate elected them to do,” stresses John Fraser, who became Canada’s first elected Speaker in 1986, serving until 1993 when he left politics to become Canada’s special ambassador for the environment. “In theory, Speakers have enormous power, provided the House supports them.”

Filling the Speaker’s seat will be the first order of business on Sept. 22 when the 36th Parliament opens. Parent, a 62-year-old teacher who represents the Ontario riding of Niagara Centre, may think that campaigning is beneath him. The others clearly do not. Gallaway, who fought and lost the battle in the last Parliament to outlaw negative-option billing by cable companies, has been working the phones, promising to deliver decisions and rulings without delay. (Parent has been faulted even by fellow Liberals for sometimes allowing committees and the House to bog down in petty squabbles.) Also working behind the scenes is Nunziata, a mediahungry former member of the Liberal Rat Pack who split with the party over its unwillingness to repeal the Goods and Services Tax. The controversial Toronto MP says members of every party— with the exception of the Bloc Québécois—have urged him to run for the post. The biggest push, he claims, is coming from Reform MPs.

On that point, Reform House leader Randy White says his party’s members will decide for themselves. But he adds that Nunziata has “been very open in trying for reform in the House, and he is very independent.” like most MPs, White stops short of directly criticizing Parent, who could still end up holding onto his old job. “Parent has the experience,” he points out. “Until we know who is running, we can’t be sure he is the best of the group.” White, however, stresses that Reform wants a Speaker who shares the party’s views about reforming Parliament, one of the central planks of its election campaign.

One good place to start, Reformers say, is by bringing the current contest for the Speaker’s chair out of the backrooms, substituting open question-and-answer sessions between the candidates and their fellow MPs. White, in fact, has gone so far as to book a room in the West Block, and invited the candidates to make their cases. But getting Parent—who at week’s end had not responded to the invitation—to show up and actually run for the job he wants might be a far bigger problem.

JOHN DeMONT

Ottawa