12/28/2012 06:27 EST | Updated 02/27/2013 05:12 EST

Powering Up The Speaker Of The House

Two former Liberal MPs and a former law clerk of the House of Commons, weary of what they see as a dysfunctional House of Commons, are working on a proposal to give more power to the Speaker.

Former MPs Paul Szabo and Derek Lee, along with Rob Walsh, the recently retired law clerk, have been brainstorming about how to fix Parliament, and are quietly lobbying for change.

For instance, they are aiming to curtail the heckling and noise, and want questions to be answered in question period rather than have "grenades" lobbed at a person posing a question.

The three all agree the Speaker should be more independent.

Szabo and Lee believe the Speaker should not have to campaign to be re-elected every new Parliament, currying favour with MPs for their votes.

Walsh doesn't believe Speakers should be elected at all. He would rather see them chosen by consensus and then reconfirmed after every election.

"That would give longevity of tenure, and allow the Speaker to not be so beholden to the membership moods as they change from time to time," Walsh said.

The British House of Commons

Canadians who despair of the cacophony in question period might be heartened by what goes on in the British House of Commons, where the Speaker has the power to evict members, cut off speeches and adjourn the legislature if things get too rowdy.

In a video on the website of the British newspaper the Telegraph, Speaker John Bercow is shown yelling full bore at MPs, ordering them to sit down and be quiet or risk being kicked out. He admonishes one MP for a "bogus point of order" and tells another "to act like an adult."

Bercow has even publicly blasted his own party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, for refusing to answer questions about the phone-hacking scandal.

Exasperated question period junkies in Canada might look to the Australian House of Representatives, where there is a penalty box, or "sin bin," that the Speaker can employ for an hour to hold errant MPs.

"I was in Australia with [former Speaker] Peter Milliken," said Szabo, "and we went to QP, and there were actually two or three people put in the penalty box while we were there, for good reason."

Canadians saw a near dust-up in early December when government House leader Peter Van Loan angrily crossed the floor to wag his finger at opposition House leader Nathan Cullen. Van Loan apologized later for swearing.

'They just don't trust each other at all'

Walsh thinks the near brawl was a manifestation of a larger problem.

"They just don't trust each other at all. Arguably they hate each other. It's very regrettable. And the institution suffers because of it."

The only way out, he believes, is to vest some powers in the Speaker so he or she is not just the referee, but also the conscience of Parliament, which would enable the MPs to be "better than they are inclined to be."

Walsh suggests changing the rules to give the Speaker more power.

"Put something in the Standing Orders (written rules of the House of Commons) that recognizes the well-established traditions of parliamentary practices and call upon the Speaker to see that those practices are respected and not in some manner abused."

As examples of abuse, Walsh cited omnibus bills that amend dozens of acts, or the constant moving of committee business behind closed doors.

"We're talking about obstruction by majorities, using the majority position to suppress the opposition."

But Peter Milliken, a retired Liberal MP who was Speaker for 10 years, never threw anyone out of the House of Commons.

“Big deal,” Milliken said, “You can go out and have a press conference out front in the foyer, you can get on a flight to Vancouver at House expense one day, and come back the next day.”

Milliken has a much better idea.

"In my view, the guy should be kicked off the Hill for a day, docked a day's pay and all his privileges as a member suspended. No free travel anywhere and no expense paid by the House if he goes out to dinner.... If you ... say something you shouldn't, you're going to pay. It'll cost you something."

He said he raised the issue, but no one was keen to change the rules.

'He never spoke in the House again'

But Milliken had his own method of imposing order.

Bill Matthews, a Liberal MP, once called Prime Minister Stephen Harper a liar, and refused to withdraw the remark.

"The Conservatives were saying, 'Throw him out, throw him out,'" Milliken recalled, "I said, 'I'm not going to throw him out, but he'll have trouble speaking.' And he never spoke in the House again. He sat there for 14 months and never got to give a speech or ask a question."

Matthews decided not to run in the next election.

Milliken said the Speaker can't intervene in committee business, and added there's no restriction about what "you can stick in a bill," meaning that omnibus bills can't be stopped.

But another former Speaker, retired MP John Fraser, who emphasizes he has been a Tory since he was 17, said he was outraged by omnibus bill Bill C-38 tabled last spring that among many other things amended the Fisheries Act so salmon habitat wasn't as fully protected as it had been.

"I would have split that bill," Fraser, a former fisheries minister, said, raising his voice over the phone from Vancouver. "The argument would have been put to me that the rules don't say that omnibus bills are forbidden. And I would have said, 'No, maybe they don't. But I'm the Speaker, and my responsibility is to the democratic process.'"

Fraser concluded, "The Speaker's first duty is to the people ... and among his absolute first duties is to the democratic process."

But even Derek Lee doesn't want the imposition of order to go too far.

"It's a house of debate," he said, "not a church."

Fraser, raising his voice again, stressed, "It never was a tea party. It's been a tough, difficult place."