POLITICS

House Speaker's Race 2015: Why 4 MPs Want The Best Seat In The Commons

11/30/2015 07:06 EST | Updated 12/01/2015 03:59 EST

Three Liberals and one Conservative MP are lobbying behind the scenes campaigning in another election — the one to be Speaker of the House of Commons.

The job, akin to being the chief referee of MPs, comes with a car, a driver, a picturesque farmhouse, an apartment on Parliament Hill, as well as a big salary boost, and the responsibilities of overseeing not only question period but also the Commons' $415-million budget and the task of representing parliamentarians at home and abroad at diplomatic functions.

The Speaker also presides over the powerful Board of Internal Economy, the committee that administers the House of Commons and meets behind closed doors to decide various issues from security of the grounds to the use of Parliament funds, to wrongful dismissal lawsuits against members of Parliament.

Longtime MP Geoff Regan from Halifax, as well as returning MPs Denis Paradis, who represents a riding in Quebec's Eastern Townships, and Toronto's Yasmin Ratansi are competing against each other and against the lone Conservative candidate — MP Bruce Stanton, from Simcoe, Ont.

Ottawa Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger had been campaigning but announced Monday afternoon in an email to his colleagues that he would be stepping down from the race after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable disease also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

mauril belanger

Liberal MP Mauril Belanger speaks during question period in the House of Commons. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

Winnipeg MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a newcomer to Parliament, had also launched a campaign but pulled out over the weekend after making comments that suggested that, as Speaker, he would be better placed to try to influence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The race for Speaker is unlike most other elections. To not be considered for the job, MPs have to ask to remove their names from a list of candidates. The list of candidates above includes MPs who are publicly campaigning for the job. It's quite likely more MPs' names will find themselves on the candidate list on Dec. 3 when electing the House Speaker is the first order of business for the new Parliament.

The Huffington Post Canada spoke with candidates vying for the role about why they want the job and what they plan to do with it. We also asked them the same series of questions regarding several controversial issues that popped up during the last session — such as:

  • whether current and former NDP MPs should continue to be penalized for using their office budget improperly to set up satellite offices outside Ottawa
  • whether the auditor general should finally be allowed to look at every member of Parliament's spending, something MPs in the past have resisted
  • whether they planned to live at the Speaker's home in Kingsmere
  • what scotch they would select as their "Speaker's scotch" — a tradition that sees the Commons' Speaker's own label stuck on a whisky of their choice. The current brand is a 12-year-old Balvenie.

Denis Paradis

denis paradis

Denis Paradis is shown after he was sworn in as a minister of state for financial institutions in 2003. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP)

Riding: Brome–Missisquoi

Age: 66

Length of service: First elected in 1997, re-elected in 2000 and 2004, but lost in 2006, 2008 and 2011. He was re-elected again in 2015.

Previous experience: Former minister of state for financial institutions, secretary of state for Latin America and Africa, as well as la Francophonie. He served as a parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs and minister of international co-operation. Paradis is a lawyer who also co-authored a book on the procedural rules for administrative tribunals in Quebec.

Bilingual: Yes

Paradis told The Huffington Post Canada that he is making a "comeback" to the Commons nearly 10 years after he was defeated at the ballot box. He is championing his business experience, which, he said, will be important in overseeing the Commons' budget of about $450 million a year. (The Commons' budget last year was $414 million).

"I started a vineyard in Brome–Missisquoi, in my home riding, from scratch and now we are the second largest vineyard in Quebec," he said.

Paradis noted his experience writing procedural rules as well as his time as a junior minister engaging in parliamentary diplomacy abroad and his handling of tricky issues, such as raising human rights concerns with a high-ranking official during a visit to Africa. Paradis recounted raising the case of Safiya Husaini, a woman sentenced to be stoned for adultery, with a Nigerian minister. She was later acquitted after a retrial.

Canada's House of Commons needs to be more active diplomatically, Paradis said. He would like to see more foreign guests welcomed and more international travel — "to exchange and to build better relations among the countries."

He also wants to make Parliament more relevant in people's lives and he believes committees should hold sittings in different parts of the country — one week here or there — to get closer to Canadians.

After being away for a few years, Paradis said he is enjoying campaigning for the top job, and he wants to make sure his fellow MPs know who he is, what he stands for, and what he wants to do.

Like several other candidates, Paradis wants to improve the "tone" of the House of Commons. With some 200 new MPs, Paradis said he is confident the ingredients are there.

"I'm looking for the House to be a big family that works together, and that's what I intend to do, if I'm elected as Speaker."

"I'd like a House where everybody works together." A few years ago, when Paradis was still an MP, he said he organized a summer job exchange program where young people in his riding could go and live with families in another MP's riding across the country for a few months. "I sent 10 students to Vancouver, and he sent he 10 students to my riding from Vancouver." The program was so popular other MPs asked to be involved, he said. "Two or three years after, more than half of the MPs in the House, whatever party they were from, were participating in that program. So that's the kind of things, I would like to do."

Paradis also suggests changing the way backbench MPs and opposition members get chosen to table private members' bills or motions. Instead of a lottery system, where MPs are randomly selected and placed in an order of precedence, Paradis said he thinks MPs should be given priority to introduce motions or bills if they can get more than half the members of the other parties to sign on to their pet project.

"Whenever you can get the support of so many members like that, please can you be privileged in the rank of presenting your private member's bill? Those are the kinds of little changes that would [encourage] co-operation." Members would be forced to engage with opposition MPs and their colleagues, which, he said, would help build trust.

"I'm looking for the House to be a big family that works together, and that's what I intend to do, if I'm elected as Speaker."

Should MPs who took part in the NDP satellite office affair have their severances or expenses clawed back to recuperate the funds that the previous Board of Internal Economy ruled were improper?

"I don't want to say in advance what is going to happen." Paradis said he wanted to meet with the new board and review the decision. "We should discuss that with an open mind."

Should the auditor general be invited to audit each MP's expenses as was recently done in the Senate?

Paradis said he is not against the idea. "The auditor general is responsible to make sure that the money spent in public service across Canada is well spent. The more public it is, the better it is."

Should the Board hold its meetings in public?

Paradis supports holding most Board meetings in public but wants to ensure the committee can go in-camera to discuss sensitive matters such as lawsuits against MPs. "The rules should be open meetings, except in cases where individual rights could be attacked."

Should partisan mailings — 10 per centers or householders, which are often sent outside an MP's riding — be eliminated?

Paradis said MPs shouldn't be allowed to send mail to other MPs' ridings. "You are allowed to do it in your own riding." Mailings should be limited to "positive news" rather than partisan and negative attacks against the other parties, he added. "Let's have respect for every member of Parliament."

Would you move to Kingsmere?

"I will do whatever needs to be done to be a good speaker," he said. Paradis said his grandchildren might use the swing set that Scheer had installed. His family went to tour the grounds to see what the farmhouse looked like a few weeks ago.

What would be the Speaker's scotch?

"The best thing would be to have the members’ tasting the scotch.

Geoff Regan

geoff regan

Liberal MP Geoff Regan speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa in 2014. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Riding: Halifax West

Age: 56

Length of service: First elected in 2000, he was re-elected in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015

Previous experience: He served three years as minister of Fisheries and Oceans, he also served as parliamentary secretary to the leader of the government in the House of Commons and has sat on the Procedure and House Affairs committee.

Bilingual: Yes

Regan said he wants to change the "tone" of the House of Commons and thinks there is an opportunity right now to turn things around.

A number of MPs want to see greater decorum and greater respect shown, he said. "They don't want an atmosphere in which some people may feel intimidated, in terms of being able to speak their minds on behalf of their constituents."

Some MPs have raised the issue of S.O. 31s — statements by members of Parliament that are made just before question period — with some of the candidates vying for the Speaker's job. This is usually a time for MPs to recognize groups or individuals who have made important contributions to their ridings or to raise important issues.

During the past two years, however, the Conservative government experienced backlash from its own members for controlling the speaking slots on a list party whips provide to the Speaker in order to prevent some members of its own backbench from expressing themselves. When he was asked to rule on the manner, former speaker Andrew Scheer suggested MPs could stand up in the chamber if they wanted the floor and he might recognize them.

Regan seems to agree with that solution. "There is not much a Speaker can do about some of their grievances among their own leadership." Speakers can and do, however, help set the general tone in the chamber, he said.

"Some people have argued we need a Speaker who is more assertive on parliamentary language, on things like decorum and heckling, who will work hard to reduce these things and try to find imaginative ways to encourage members to show mutual respect."

One things MPs have frequently spoken to him about, Regan said, is a desire to make Parliament more family friendly in order to encourage people who have young families to run for office. Perhaps the daycare centre on Parliament Hill could be staffed late into the evening so MPs or staff don't have to rush to get their child at 5 p.m. when the House is voting or committees are sitting, he suggested.

While there are a number of other qualified candidates, Regan said he thinks he is well-qualified because he dealt with procedural matters when he was the parliamentary secretary to the House leader from 2001 to 2003. He pointed to his 18 years of experience in the House and noted that his experience as a past minister overseeing a departmental budget is similar to the job of Speaker overseeing the Commons' budget.

"It's harder to be yelling at somebody when you have a good rapport with them."

As Speaker, Regan would continue the tradition of having small and frequent dinners between MPs from all parties. "It's harder to be yelling at somebody when you have a good rapport with them. Members will always to some extent perform for the cameras, but I think you have more chances of working things out and finding agreements or at least showing mutual respect and listening to each others' side of the argument if you have a personal rapport established."

Regan said he is a social guy who gets along with people.

"I like meeting people from diverse backgrounds. I've always enjoyed that."

Regan noted that some of his constituents might be concerned his job as Speaker might occupy a lot of his time, but he pointed out that as Speaker he'll likely have more access to ministers and other MPs and be able to get things done on behalf of his constituents. "Let's face it, ministers like to speak in the House." He might even have more leverage, he joked.

Still, he said, if he's able to show Canadians that the tone in the House has improved, he believes his constituents will be quite pleased with seeing him in that new role.

Should MPs who took part in the NDP satellite office affair have their severances or expenses clawed back to recuperate the funds that the previous Board of Internal Economy ruled were improper?

"I think that is a matter for the Board of Internal Economy to decide." Regan didn't want to pronounce himself on the issue. He answered "we'll see" when asked if he would express his opinion at the Board.

Should the auditor general be invited to audit each MPs' expenses, as was recently done in the Senate?

"There are some things the Speaker should opine on, and something he should not opine on." Regan said he didn't think it was his place to say, but it would be something for the Board to decide.

Should the Board hold its meetings in public?

Regan suggested that would be a decision by the party's House leaders, but it wasn't something he planned to champion.

Should partisan mailings — 10 per centers or householders, which are often sent outside an MP's riding — be eliminated?

Regan noted that a decision to change the rules would not be made by the Speaker alone but his "personal view" was that "MPs should only be permitted to send ten percenters and householders to constituents in their own ridings and they should not be unduly partisan."

Each case must be judged on its own, he said, when asked what "unduly partisan" meant.

Would you move to Kingsmere?

the farm

"The Farm" is the official residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons. (Photo: National Capital Commission)

Regan would live there during the week but has no plans to move the family. His youngest daughter is in university and his wife, Kelly, is a provincial MLA and the labour minister in Nova Scotia.

"She's kinda busy…. I don't see the family moving to Kingsmere."

Politics runs in the family. Regan's father, Gerald Regan, was a provincial premier and federal cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau. His maternal grandfather, John Harrison, was a member of Parliament from Saskatchewan. Regan occasionally notes that his mother, Carole Harrison, and Margaret Trudeau are the only two women whose father, husband and son were members of Parliament.

What would be the Speaker's scotch?

"Glen Breton, single malt whisky." It is made in Mabou, N.S., he proudly noted.

Yasmin Ratansi

yasmin ratansi

Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi rises during question period in House of Commons in 2011. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

Riding: Don Valley East

Age: 64

Length of service: First elected in 2004, Ratansi was re-elected in 2006 and 2008. She lost her seat in 2011.

Previous experience: She is chartered accountant. She chaired the Government Operations and Estimates committee for a year, and the Status of Women committee for two years. She was also briefly the deputy opposition whip.

Bilingual: Yes (She also speaks several other languages, like Urdu and Hindi)

Ratansi proudly notes that she is the only woman seeking the Speaker's job.

She spoke passionately about governance and transparency issues and pointed to her work with GOPAC, the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption, where she sits on the audit committee.

While out of Parliament, Ratansi said, she worked with governments in the Philippines, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Mali, and several other African countries. "We need to set an example in how we can be transparent in our expenses and the way we conduct our businesses."

She believes she has the experience needed to be balance the Commons' books and be a prudent fiscal manager.

"I used to turn businesses around. I don't think the government needs to be turned around, but I think we need to be very mindful of the taxpayers' dollars."

On the diplomatic side, Ratansi believes her multiple languages will help her be more respectful of peoples' cultures because, she said, she understands where people are coming from. She spoke of moving away from a "West knows best" approach. Through GOPAC and her experience on several parliamentary associations, she said, she knows how to forge links between parliamentarians from other countries.

Rantasi said that she has been known to reach across the aisle and that she is not "hyper partisan." As the deputy whip, she sat on the Board of Internal Economy and knows how it operates. "[Conservatives] ministers who came before my committee were very thankful that I was a very fair chair. I didn't allow insults to be thrown at ministers. I didn't allow disrespectful behaviour. If you have a point to make, make it. Yes, you are partisan, but you don't really have to be hyper partisan."

She wants to help encourage collegiality and raise the decorum in the House. "It is a contribution that I would like to make."

"A lot of the women [MPs] have told me, this is like my children's kindergarten class. And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I know.' So they don't want that type of behaviour.'"

Ratansi said she thinks a woman would bring "a better perspective" to the role.

"We need to set an example in how we can be transparent in our expenses and the way we conduct our businesses."

"[Women] are more ready to negotiate. They are more ready to listen to the other side. They are not just stuck in their position. You don't have to be hyper partisan; you need to listen to the pluralistic viewpoint," she said.

"When you have children, every child wants attention. There is attention seeking in the House or attention seeking by people who want media time. How do you as a Speaker ensure that there is basic dignity in the House? You need to work with the leadership of the House and hopefully the leadership will work to ensure that the House operates in a dignified manner and is relevant to the needs of Canadians."

Should MPs who took part in the NDP satellite office affair have their severances or expenses clawed back to recuperate the funds that the previous Board of Internal Economy ruled were improper?

"I'd like to first assess the problem and seek the guidance of the clerks." Ratansi said she wouldn't make a decision on her own without consultation, but she thinks the issue should be reviewed to see whether the decision was fair.

Should the auditor general be invited to audit each MP's expenses, as was recently done in the Senate?

No. Ratansi pointed to the $23-million cost of the auditor general's review of the Senators' expenses and suggested such an audit wasn't good value for money. "I want to ensure that we use the taxpayers' dollars wisely." She thinks MPs' spending could be reviewed in a less expensive manner.

Should the Board hold its meetings in public?

Perhaps. "In camera meetings are in camera meetings because we want to discuss certain issues," she said. Ratansi said that in areas where the House needs to be open and transparent the meetings will be in the open, but for areas that need to be discussed in camera, meetings will be held behind closed doors as usual.

Should partisan mailings — 10 per centers or householders, which are often sent outside an MP's riding — be eliminated?

She would tackle this. "I think it's an abuse of taxpayers' dollars." All ridings need information, Ratansi said, but she calls some 10 per centers "propaganda." "Ten per centers are meant to inform the public, or constituents, about what is going on and what you are doing about it as an MP."

Would you move to Kingsmere?

"I would use the apartment that is in the House; Kingsmere I would leave it for when you have to have entertainment for dignitaries or whatever."

speaker apartment The living room of the Speaker's apartment on Centre Block. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost Canada)

What would be the Speaker's scotch?

"I don't drink…. I'll let [the MPs] pick the scotch."

Bruce Stanton

bruce stanton

Bruce Stanton is shown sitting in the Speaker's chair in the House of Commons. (Photo: Bruce Stanton/Facebook)

Riding: Simcoe North

Age: 57

Length of service: First elected in 2006. Re-elected in 2008, 2011 and 2015.

Previous experience: Stanton was Assistant Deputy Chair of the Committee of the Whole [Deputy Speaker] in the last Parliament. Before being an MP, Stanton worked in tourism for 28 years. He was active in several tourism organizations and was a town councillor.

Bilingual: Stanton candidly said he is not perfectly bilingual, but about 75 per cent bilingual. He said he can function in French and would spend half the time in the Speaker's chair speaking French.

Stanton is the only candidate in the race who has previous experience in the chair acting as Speaker. In the last Parliament, Stanton served as Scheer's assistant deputy. He said he's running to be Speaker but knows that with a majority Liberal government, his chances are pretty slim.

"The reality of that is not lost on me, but, that said, it is a secret preferential ballot, or ranked ballot, and members can make that decision.

"I bring recent experience to the role. It's important for the House that the members' privilege and the management of the House is done in a way that observes the practices and the conventions of the House and conveys a respect to all individuals members…. And I've had recent experience doing that, and I think I could do it well."

The Speaker's role is to be the servant of the House and to impose the rules that the members have given you, he said. "I believe that you can make a difference in how the House operates… the kind of climate that you can create in the House. We do it by subtle interventions. Sometimes the exchanges can get quite emotional, but when that happens, there are things that you can do to bring that level down."

Stanton describes himself as an amateur historian. The MP with nearly 10 years experience said he's "quite a fan" of the Westminster parliamentary system and would love the opportunity to be "a more integral part of it."

He praised former Liberal MP Peter Milliken, who was speaker for 10 years during Liberal and Conservative governments, and said he believes he can also be a neutral Speaker. In a letter to MPs, Stanton said he thinks an experienced Speaker should be the foremost consideration and that it would guarantee all MPs are treated fairly.

Santon said MPs have told him they want to see decorum improve. But he also points out that MPs need to be free to speak their mind. "If members wish to make very strong and emotional points that come close to crossing a line, the House permits them to do so…. Freedom of speech is a critical part of the operations of the House."

Stanton said he agrees with Scheer's past ruling that MPs can stand up to be recognized and that he wouldn't interfere with the list that whips provide him. But he also doesn't think that members' statements should be used for partisan attacks against other members. "I think when they cross that line, they are out of order and you need to move on to the next piece of business."

"Freedom of speech is a critical part of the operations of the House."

He also thinks the Speaker should ensure that there is a culture of respect on Parliament Hill and that any unwanted behaviour, such as last year's allegations of sexual harassment, can be dealt with appropriately.

"As with any workplace, we just need to make sure that the culture is right and that we have rules in place to enforce that."

Should MPs who took part in the NDP satellite office affair have their severances or expenses clawed back to recuperate the funds that the previous Board of Internal Economy ruled were improper?

Stanton said he couldn't really make an informed decision because he hadn't sat on the Board and wasn't privy to its deliberations. "I do believe, in cases like that where the rules have been offended, that you certainly want to make sure that that decision is reached, if there are going to be penalties applied… I would think that any apportioning of that penalty would need to be just and there would need to be direct evidence that something like that was deliberately breached. That a rule was known and indeed was breached.

"I wouldn't want to prejudge the decision of the board, but I do think it needs a careful look."

Should the auditor general be invited to audit each MP's expenses, as was recently done in the Senate?

Maybe. "We work in a fishbowl, and we need to be making sure that our work is available, keeping a light and exposing the work we do in the public vein is important… the more we can work to do that, the better."

Should the Board hold its meetings in public?

He is not sure, having not sat on the Board, but "admittedly, in this day and age, it behooves us all as members… to make sure that our work is as open to the public as it possibly can be. I don't favour rules that prevent that from becoming public unless there is absolute necessity in terms of protecting people's privacy, or third party commercial interest."

Should partisan mailings — 10 per centers or householders, which are often sent outside an MP's riding — be eliminated?

"One can't completely extract the partisan business that we have…. Our ability to communicate with our constituents is important, and the House resources that we use to help us do that, I think, do need appropriate boundaries. But I don't think you can completely extract the ability to make criticisms of different parties' positions through your communications to your constituents…. I think that will be a natural part of our business, and I think it would be a disservice to take that out. I don't mean partisan mailings in terms of logos or using House resources to be too overt in that way, but I don't think that can be extracted from that situation."

Opposition MPs should be able to point out flaws in government legislation and the government MPs should be allowed to explain why their bills need to be passed quickly, he said.

Would you move to Kingsmere?

He would live there but his family would not move, at least not initially. He has one daughter still in high school in Orillia, Ont., who will finish Grade 12, he said.

What would be the Speaker's scotch?

"Oh we'd have to let the members taste those different ones. Andrew, as did Speaker Milliken, had some excellent scotch. In that wonderful, Westminster tradition, we would certainly have one."

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