Peter Milliken has had it made for almost ten years. He lives just down the hall from work, gets to throw lavish parties at a country estate, and makes a whole lot of money every year.
Such is the life of the Speaker of the House of Commons—according to the image propagated by most news sources, anyway. Canada’s parliamentary journalists love to play up the apparently extravagant lifestyle of whichever Member of Parliament is lucky enough to be elected to sit in the big chair.
They play up the Milliken’s Centre Block apartment, which is apparently actually quite cramped. They love reporting on the parties he throws at the Gatineau Park mansion, because most of them are guests at those parties. And they always make sure to note that the speaker earns almost $230,000.
What they don’t always report is the reluctance of many MPs to actually want the job.
Milliken recently announced that he won’t seek re-election as Kingston’s MP. That means the Commons will need a new speaker. So what does it take to be speaker?
First, the speaker has to be an MP. Second, they should be bilingual. And third, they need to earn the respect of their colleagues. After all, the speaker is elected by a vote of the House. Beyond that, there are some important intangibles.
In an interview, Liberal MP Glen Pearson said that the job takes moral courage. He respects what Milliken has done in the role, but said the next speaker has to be tough with each party and take no prisoners along the way. Political scientist Nelson Wiseman said the job takes patience and collegiality, along with a sense of humour to offer some relief to MPs during tense debates. NDP MP Denise Savoie, currently a deputy speaker (officially the Deputy Chair of the Committee of the Whole), said it takes a profound respect for parliament and a flawless understanding of procedure and practice.
In sum: It’s a complicated job.
What we’ve also seen over the past few years is that minority parliaments, which are apparently becoming the norm in Canada at the federal level, force the speaker into the spotlight more often than during lazy days of majority governance.
During his tenure as speaker, Milliken broke a tie vote that saved Paul Martin’s Liberal government in 2005, and he also forced the current government to disclose secret documents to opposition MPs. Those decisions never would have seen the light of day in majority parliaments.
Although it might be more than a year before Milliken is officially retired, the race for the speaker’s chair is, according to Pearson, already in full swing. Given that our elected representatives are thinking about these kinds of things during the summer months, it’s only fair we give them some material to consider.
Below is a list of MPs who might be worth considering as speaker (even if they don’t want the job). It’s by no means exhaustive and, in the spirit of fairness, presented in alphabetical order:
When MPs speak about parliamentary or electoral or democratic reform, it’s often not very substantive. But Chong has pushed for very specific reform to the operations of parliament that have been applauded by his peers across party lines. He has introduced a motion in the House, M-517, that looks to reform Question Period. Chong suggests that questions and answers should be longer; a certain day of the week should be devoted to questioning the Prime Minister; and remaining days of the week should be devoted to certain ministers of the Crown.
Chong seems committed to improved decorum in the House. If his motion passes, someone will need to enforce it. He didn’t return our calls, so his interest in the job remains unclear.
The experts say a speaker has to earn the respect of their colleagues. Well, Comartin has twice been chosen by his peers as the Hill’s most knowledgeable MP in annual polls published by Maclean’s. He ran for speaker in 2008, finishing fourth after enduring four rounds of balloting (Milliken won on the fifth round, over two Tory MPs).
Duncan has only been an MP since 2008. She probably hasn’t been approached by anyone about running for the job. The job takes an intimate knowledge of the parliamentary system that takes time to develop, and Duncan is part of a class of MPs that is still learning the ropes. But for all the learning she would have to undertake, Duncan has some credentials that might pique the interest of more than a few progressive political observers.
She’s already won a Nobel Prize. It’s the same prize that Al Gore won, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, back in 2007. Although she wouldn’t be able to use the speaker’s chair as a pulpit—after all, the speaker could never get away with favouring issues or parties or people—it would be something of a coup for environmentalists to have one of their own in that chair. That most climate deniers would never trust her, though, means Duncan is a long shot.
When the news broke that Milliken was retiring, Pearson was approached by a group of Conservative MPs who took him out for a drink. They said they thought they could work with him as a speaker. After all, Pearson is known as a non-partisan MP who gives credit where credit is due (especially on his blog).
But he doesn’t want the job. He says his command of French is not sufficient, and he’s too much of an advocate to be speaker. He didn’t get elected to be impartial, and as speaker, he would leave it to his colleagues to pursue his interests. That’s not something that interests Pearson. He certainly spoke passionately about the position, though, and he seems to be trusted by his colleagues across the floor. His endorsement of a candidate could hold a lot of power.
Savoie has experience sitting in the speaker’s chair, and in an interview, she didn’t rule out aspirations to take over for Milliken as speaker. If Savoie were elected, she would be the first speaker who didn’t hail from either the Liberals or Conservatives. She would also be only the second woman to sit in the chair (the first was former governor general Jeanne Sauvé, who was speaker from 1980 until 1984. And she would be the first New Democratic speaker (as would Comartin).
The speaker does more than sit in front of rowdy MPs every day. They have various other duties, including the chairmanship of the Board of Internal Economy of the House of Commons. It’s an all-party committee that meets secretly, far away from cameras and tape recorders, to set the budget of the House. Recently, the committee was thrown into the spotlight because it initially refused to allow auditor general Sheila Fraser to scrutinize MPs’ expenses.
MPs were mostly tight-lipped about their expenses, deferring to their masters on the Board of Internal Economy. But one came out ahead of the pack and fully disclosed her expenses online: Scarborough Southwest MP Michelle Simson. If Canadians want a champion of parliamentary transparency in the speaker’s chair, perhaps they ought to look in Simson’s direction.