Status of the Speakership: A comment by
Gerard Amerongen, Speaker of the Alberta Legislative Assembly
Background: In the previous issue we published a statement by
D. James Walding, Speaker of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly in which he outlined
some of the problems facing presiding officers and suggested certain solutions.
In this issue we are publishing a comment by Speaker Gerard Amerongen of t6e
Alberta Legislative Assembly on that statement.
Gerard Amerongen: My respected colleague, Speaker Walding sees three
difficulties as serious problems of Canadian Speakers.
One of them is separation of a Speaker from
his constituency and party. He says: "The more a Speaker strives for a
position of impartiality, the more he becomes separated from the constituency
and the party which endorsed him in the previous election."
No one could seriously disagree with Speaker
Walding's perception of a Speaker's separation from his party. That is
customary in Canada, though the separation is not as complete as in the United
Kingdom where it is total.
But, what of separation from constituents?
If Speakers are more separated from their constituents than are other members,
then they must have more difficulty being re-elected. Yet, generally, Speakers
fare better than other members (including ministers). A survey of provincial
election results since 1930 shows that the percentage of Speakers re-elected is
higher than the percentage of other members re-elected in every province except
Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan. In Alberta and New
Brunswick every Speaker who has sought re-election since 1930 has been
re-elected. In Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba more than 90% have been re-elected.
A second difficulty seen by Speaker Walding
is stated as follows: "There is an inherent unfairness in the Legislature
which places one of its Members, and one only, in the position of being
expected to support the initiatives of the government of the day while at the
same time being required to act with fairness and impartiality."
Since Speakers are always expected to be
fair and impartial inside the House and are never expected, to support (in the
House) the initiatives of the government, the dilemma referred to by Speaker
Walding, of having to be partial and impartial "at the same time"
obviously refers to what the Speaker may say outside the House. But is that a
It is true enough that a Speaker who makes
dramatically partisan statements outside the House, may be perceived to be
partisan in the House. The best antidote for such a wrong perception is a
continuing, sturdy impartiality in the House. Does not every Speaker express
opinions to his constituents? It is true that Speakers do not usually engage in
'high profile' statements on current political issues, but even if they did,
surely, that, would not prevent them from being impartial in the House.
In other words, a Speaker is not required to
be partial and impartial "at the same time". The same is true of any
chairman. It would be impossible to find a biasfree chairman. The only
reasonable requirement is that he put aside bias while in the chair.
A third difficulty of the speakership as
perceived by my respected colleague from Manitoba is the Speaker's lack of
opportunity to debate in the House. Relevant to this and the preceding two
points is a study by a distinguished committee of the House of Commons at
Westminster in 1938. The resulting report appears to be the Westminster
Parliament's last word on the subject to this date.
The Committee consisted of some well known
and experienced parliamentarians, among them David Lloyd-George, a former prime
minister who chaired the committee, and Sir Winston Churchill.
It must be remembered that this committee
was studying the role and position of the British Speaker whose separation from
his party is total and not partial as in Canada. So, if separation from one's
party is a problem, it should be a far greater problem in the U.K. Yet the
committee recognized that the existence of a conflict between the rights of the
Speaker's electors and the Speakers own political aloofness, but pointed out
that it was the preservation of those very rights in the House of Commons which
compels the Speaker to withdraw from political combat. The conclusions of the
Committee were as follows:
"To attempt to deprive a constituency
of the right to choose as its member one who is considered most representative
of the popular will would be a serious infringement of democratic principles.
To alter the status of the Speaker so that he ceased to be returned to the
House of Commons by the same electoral methods as other members or as a
representative of a parliamentary constituency, would be equally repugnant to
the custom and tradition of the House. To advocate that a Speaker should modify,
even in his own defence, the established attitude towards political controversy
would be to reverse the whole trend of our parliamentary evolution. Such are
Your Committee's conclusions. No scheme or proposal within their purview offers
more than a partial solution, and each introduces new elements which, in your
Committee's considered judgment, would be less acceptable than the ills they
seek to cure."'(Quoted in Philip Laundy, The Office of Speaker p. 71)
Mr. Laundy continues: "The suggestion,
sometimes heard, that the Speaker is not able to represent his constituents
adequately because of the political restraints upon him does not seem to be
well-founded." (Laundy pp. 71-72) The select committee appointed in 1938
made the following comments on the matter:
1t has been argued by those who advocate
some change in the existing system that the Speaker's non political position
after election further disfranchises his constituents, in that he cannot
express their views in debate or by his vote in divisions, nor can he by
political means seek to redress their grievances. Your Committee do not find
themselves impressed by these arguments. In the British political system,
whatever may be its merits or demerits, there is a strong party control over
the action of members in the House and the sterilization of a single vote on
whichever side it might have been delivered will have so small an influence on
matters which are the subject of party divisions as to be entirely negligible.
On the other hand, on non controversial matters and particular grievances your
Committee feel assured that there are many members in any House who would most
willingly place their services at the disposal of the Speaker and his
In matters of individual interest or
grievance the Speaker's constituents are in fact in a peculiarly favoured
position. Though the Speaker himself can put down no questions, any matter
affecting them which he feels justified in raising privately with a Department
of State will, in the nature of human reactions, coming from such a source,
receive the most careful consideration. Again, if the circumstances of a
particular case require that a question should receive public expression it
would be, and in fact is, willingly sponsored by other members. Apart from
these considerations, it cannot be disputed that a great honour is conferred on
the constituency whose member is chosen from among all others for those rare
qualities which will enable him to fill the high off I ice of presiding over
the deliberations of the House of Commons and representing it as the first
commoner in the land.
There are many ways in which a member may,
by actions within his constituency, advance the proper interests of his
constituents of whatever party, while yet holding himself completely outside
the field of political controversy; and the value of such services cannot fail
to be enhanced by the status of their proponent. Your Committee are convinced
that participation in such activities could in no way derogate from the
authority and impartiality of the Speakership; and no man is in a better
position to judge to what extent they might be carried than one who has been
elected to this office." (Laundy p. 72)
Lack of space prevents further quotation except
Mr. Laundy's reference to the late Speaker Selwyn-Lloyd's remark that those who
have themselves held office as Speaker appear to agree with the views expressed
by the Committee. Mr. Selwyn-Lloyd. thought the Speaker could represent a
constituency more effectively than a minister since the former is not bound by
collective responsibility and is therefore not inhibited in raising
constituency problems even though he may be obliged to raise them privately. He
is also on the record as defending the present system of electing the Speaker.
If this system is altered, a fundamental
blow will be struck at the Speakership. If by some resolution of the House the
Speaker became a notional Member for a fictitious constituency, it would
gravely diminish his authority and standing. He would soon have only the status
of an official of the House without a corresponding security of tenure.
In conducting the business of the House,
moreover, the Speaker should be familiar with what ordinary people are
thinking, by letters from those whose homes and backgrounds he knows, and by
personal contacts with them."
All of this does not say that my colleague
Speaker Walding is not raising genuine concerns. What it does say is that
Speakers should continue to be elected first by constituents and then by the
House. They should not become civil servants nor be without an ordinary
constituency. The real need is for an increasing recognition and understanding
of the realities facing the one member without whom a parliament cannot function.