The House of Commons from the Speaker's Chair
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 17 Apr 1958, p. 300-311
Description
Speaker
Michener, The Honourable D. Roland, Speaker
Media Type
Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
Reflections by the speaker of his own experiences in the Speaker's Chair of the House of Commons. Observing the appearances as well as the substance of political neutrality. His recalled promise: "My aim will be to understand and interpret the will and the moods of the house; to secure the transaction of public business in an orderly manner; to protect the minority; to enable every member to express his opinions within the limits necessary to preserve decorum; to prevent unnecessary waste of time, and above all to be non-partisan and impartial in my decisions." The Canadian practice of electing from the governing party a different Speaker at the beginning of each new Parliament alternating between one whose mother tongue is English and one whose language is French, in contrast to British practice. A detailed discussion ensues, under the following headings: British Parliamentary Institutions—In the Commonwealth/In Canada; Government by Debate; Routine and Non-debatable Proceedings; Debates. Some concluding remarks about the role of the Speaker.
Date of Original
17 Apr 1958
Subject(s)
Language of Item
English
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
"THE HOUSE OF COMMONS FROM THE SPEAKER'S CHAIR"
An Address by THE HONOURABLE D. ROLAND MICHENER, Q.C., B.A., B.C.L., M.A. (Oxford), LL.D., M.P., Speaker of the House of Commons in the 23rd Parliament
Thursday, April 17th, 1598
CHAIRMAN: The President, Lt.-Col. W. H. Montague.

LT. COL. MONTAGUE: today it is our great honour and delight to welcome as guest speaker one of our own members, The Hon. D. Roland Michener, Q.C., B.A., B.C.L., M.A.(Oxford), LL.D., M.P., Speaker of the House of Commons in the 23rd Parliament who on 31st March last, was re-elected to represent the federal constituency of Toronto-St. Paul's.

We offer him our warmest congratulations on his recent success at the polls and we take this opportunity to anticipate the 19th of April, his birthday, and wish him very many happy returns of that day.

Lincoln County, in Ontario, was the birthplace of Mr. Michener's parents, but they moved to Alberta two years before his arrival so he is a true son of the west. Politics come naturally to him as his father was Leader of the Conservative Party in the Alberta Legislature and later, from 1917 to 1947, was a Member of the Senate of Canada.

Senator Michener's son, our guest of honour today, graduated from the University of Alberta with the Governor-General's Gold Medal, a B.A. degree and a Rhodes Scholarship. He studied at Oxford; collected another B.A., a B.C.L. and a M.A. from that great University; read law at the Middle Temple, London, ate the required number of dinners there and was called to the English Bar; returned to Canada and was called to the Ontario Bar, all by the time he was 23 years of age. Twenty years later he was appointed a Q.C. and, five years after that, the University of Ottawa honoured him with a LL.D.

From the time of his return from abroad, he continued on the practice of law in Toronto, until 1945, when he was elected to represent Toronto-St. David's in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. From 1946 to 1948 he built a great reputation for himself as Provincial Secretary of Ontario and member of the Executive Council of the Hon. George Drew.

He offered himself as a candidate in the federal constituency of Toronto-St. Paul's in 1949; was elected on his next try in 1953 and was re-elected, with emphasis, in 1957 and again this year. On 14th October, 1957, the House of Commons elected him its Speaker for the 23rd Parliament. The integrity and impartiality which he has displayed as "Mr. Speaker" have been commented from all quarters within and without the House.

Mr. Michener's professional success, his community activities and the many important directorships which he relinquished on becoming Speaker are well known to many in this audience. Suffice it to note that he continues his interest in the Toronto Western Hospital and that he retains the office of General Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarships in Canada.

He has chosen for his subject: "The House of Commons From The Speaker's Chair".

Gentlemen: The Hon. D. Ronald Michener, Q.C., M.P. for Toronto-St. Paul's and Speaker of the House of Commons in the 23rd Parliament.

MR. MICHENER: This welcome opportunity to speak to my fellow members of the Empire Club of Canada recalls to my mind a biblical text to the effect that "a prophet is not without honour, save in his own Country". Of course, I do not claim to be a prophet. At the moment I am more like a shepherd without my sheep, a Speaker with no House of Commons in the inter regnum between the 23rd Parliament which came to a rather sudden end at about 6 p.m. on February 1st, 1958, and the 24th Parliament which will have no powers until it meets on May 13th and the House of Commons elects its new Speaker.

Nevertheless, I feel doubly honoured, as the biblical prophet would have felt, to be welcomed here in my home country, as it were, and presented to my family group in such glowing terms.

As for the notable events of the "interregnum" as I have called it, which had their culmination on March 31st, I shall maintain a discreet and non-partisan silence; for I suspect that our description of those events would range all the way from calamitous to miraculous.

In the Speaker's Chair I became habituated to an attitude of political neutrality, so necessary to impartial decision. I did too, what I fancy former Speakers have done refrained from attending my Party's caucuses and from other Party activities not related to the organizations in the Riding of St. Paul's which I represent, and, incidentally which I continued to serve in all a member's many special activities on behalf of his constituents, except that of speaking for them on the floor of the House.

In trying, then, to observe the appearances, as well as the substance of political neutrality, I was following the promise which I made to the House at the time of my election as Speaker, in part in these words

"My aim will be to understand and interpret the will and the moods of the house; to secure the transaction of public business in an orderly manner; to protect the minority; to enable every member to express his opinions within the limits necessary to preserve decorum; to prevent unnecessary waste of time, and above all to be non-partisan and impartial in my decisions."

When Parliament was dissolved I, like all the members, was back in the arena at least in my own Riding fighting for my political life as a party man against the official nominees of other parties. I mention this because it illustrates one difference between our Canadian practice of electing from the governing party a different Speaker at the beginning of each new Parliament alternating between one whose mother tongue is English and one whose language is French. In Britain for well over a century the Speaker has been re-elected as long as he is able to serve notwithstanding changes in the governing party. Usually, if not invariably, he is unopposed by other candidates in his own riding. There, the Speakership is a semi-judicial career undisturbed by the exigencies of party politics and followed on retirement by appointment to the House of Lords with a retiring allowance of $14,000.

In contrast only one Canadian Speaker has been re-elected since 1900 when the rule of alternation began. He was the Hon. Rodolph Lemieux who served through three Parliaments from 1922 to 1931. For the Canadian Speaker his occupation of the Chair for three or four years is but an incident, and interruption of his career as a party politician and some of them have gone on after being Speaker to serve as Cabinet Ministers with their party colleagues.

BRITISH PARLIAMENTARY INSTITUTIONS

(a) In the Commonwealth

Now let me say a word about the parliamentary system of government on the British model. As a club we are devoted to that great Commonwealth of Nations which was evolved so steadily and peacefully from the older British Empire and Commonwealth. Today it comprises the U.K. and the original British Dominions, five Asian countries and the new African country of Ghana and it will soon include the West Indian Federation, all independent and self-governing countries but freely associated together under the Crown.

The Crown is the symbol of our unity, but one of the strongest bonds which holds us together in the Commonwealth is the common possession and practices of responsible parliamentary government. This was brought home to me in 1954 when I was with a Canadian Delegation to an unofficial conference of the Nations of the Commonwealth held in Lahore, Pakistan. Strong representative delegations from India, Ceylon and Pakistan emphasised again and again, that the similarity of our parliaments and governments, differing somewhat in detail, but all modelled on the Mother of Parliaments, promoted the sort of sympathetic understanding which comes from the possession of a common language and traditions. I visited the Speaker of the Indian House in his Chambers. I saw the House of People in action, on budget day in fact, and apart from the darker skins, the great variety of costume and of language (in which English was the most generally understood) and the presence of far more women than we have ever had in our House, the scene and procedure were quite familiar.

In all of these Commonwealth Parliaments the House of Commons holds the ultimate power. It controls the purse and the Ministry. In all, there is the Government Party and the Official Opposition and an elected Speaker to act as referee.

When our Commonwealth legislators meet, as their delegations do every second year--last November they met in Ceylon--they begin on common ground.

(b) In Canada

In Canada we have our own version, transplanted here by our forefathers but adapted to our own soil and climate.

--the same Crown, worn by the Queen as Queen of Canada, but giving the same continuity, as governments come and go.

--a Senate corresponding to the House of Lords.

--and an elected and similar House of Commons in which the real power resides.

Government by Debate

Now let us take a look at the Canadian House in action, something which I expect many of you have done from the gallery if not from the Speaker's Chair. Basically parliamentary government, as the word parliament from the French verb "parler", implies, is government by debate, by organized discussion pro and con, leading to decision. From the Speaker's point of view his function as presiding officer is not to speak or express opinions but to referee this debate and to declare the result. This he does by the application of rules and practices developed over centuries of trial and error.

Our Rules of Procedure consist, now of 128 Rules. Our Standing Orders are our own, but so similar is our constitutional practice that Rule No. 1 provides

"In all cases not provided for hereafter or by sessional or other orders, the usages and customs of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as in force at the time shall be followed so far as they may be applicable to this House."

These rules may be changed by majority vote, taken after proper procedure, and they may be suspended, at any time, by the unanimous consent of the House, but there must not be one voice raised in protest. Such consent is often given to speed the work of the House.

For example by tacit consent the House often sits a few minutes after the prescribed closing hour, to enquire from the Prime Minister, or the House Leader acting for him, as to the business of the next day. It was in this way that the P.M., Mr. Diefenbaker, rose immediately after 6 p.m. on Saturday, February 1st to make the expected announcement that there would be no next day, and no further business for the 23rd Parliament; because the Governor-General had accepted the advice of the P.M. and issued the writ dissolving Parliament. If there were time it would be interesting to relive those few minutes so tense with excitement and feeling--and to put it mildly--so harrowing for the Speaker, who felt it to be his duty, as soon as it was clear that the House had no further legal existence, to adjourn the controversy to the hustings.

Another example is the practice when passing Divorce Bills which come over by the hundreds from the Senate to give them their second and third reading in batches instead of individually.

If you sat with me for a day in the House you would see that there are three main kinds of proceedings:

1. Routine and other proceedings which are not debatable and are usually disposed of at the beginning of each sitting.

2. Formal debates on bills, motions and other specific subjects.

3. Proceedings in Committee of the whole House. Fortunately the Speaker is off duty when the House goes into Committee and the Deputy Speaker presides. We can pretend today that we are not interested in what goes on then, even when the House is in Committee of Supply and voting away your tax dollars in great bundles.

Before dealing with the other two kinds of proceedings you might like to know how the House is "opened". The galleries are cleared and locked. The Sergeant-at-Arms in an Admiral's hat and tail coat comes for the Speaker with five stalwart policemen and one small page boy. He takes the mace, a great gilded affair weighing 22 pounds, from its resting place in my study. I fall in behind him and the Clerk and two assistants behind me and we step off smartly on the left foot and solemnly proceed in procession through the Hall of Fame and corridors to the front of the Commons. It is for all the world like being led off a prisoner. Certainly there is no escape for the Speaker no matter what awaits him inside. The division bell clangs through the stone corridors to summon the members and adds to the illusion of penal servitude.

There is the story of the old lady frightened by the division bell and the scurrying members who asked one of the guards why the bell was being rung. "I am not sure, madam, but it may be that one of the inmates has escaped."

Once in the chair, the mace is laid on the table, the Speaker reads the prayers, rather lengthy ones, for the Queen and the royal family and for divine guidance for those assembled there in their legislative capacities. Every second day I read the prayers in what passes for French, hoping that the good Lord is bilingual, even though some of the members are not. Incidentally, last Session at least 35 of the English-speaking members were taking regular instruction in French conversation. Then the gallery doors are opened, the public and the press file in; the late members take their places and with a loud call for "Order" the sitting begins. Hansard and the daily papers tell you what follows. I am sure that most of you read the latter and some may even read Hansard.

At Question Time one day Mr. Herridge, that inimitable member for Kootenay West whose cheerful wit must have saved him from the recent fate of many of his C.C.F. colleagues in B.C., asked the Secretary of State, the Hon. Ellen Fairclough, if she was aware that a great many more people were now reading Hansard and would she consider a reduction of the subscription price. She replied that she did not know any other way in which one could get so much instruction and entertainment for so little money.

I think it is true, and a wholesome thing that public interest in our parliament, was greatly stimulated by the visit of the Queen, to open parliament last October, the televising of the opening ceremonies and, if I may mention it, by a change in government, something new to electors who had been going to the polls for as long as twenty-two years.

ROUTINE AND NON-DEBATABLE PROCEEDINGS

As in any well ordered meeting, formal matters which are not debatable, are disposed of first; reports, introduction of motions and bills, corrections, courtesies and important announcements by the Ministry. These latter should be factual and not made an excuse for argument. Even so it has been thought fair to allow one spokesman from each opposition party to make a brief comment on any such statement by the government. I found that these exchanges could easily get out of hand. Tit for tat, and everybody wanted to get into the act. I found the best hope of stopping it was to come down heavily on one side or the other when the honours appeared to be about even.

To finish these routine proceedings the Speaker calls "Orders of the Day" which is the heading under which all the debatable business of the House is listed. This is the signal for a barrage of oral questions fired by the opposition members at the Ministers, usually without notice or warning of any kind. It is quite unprovided for in the rules, but hallowed by practice. In the last Parliament with 152 members in opposition against a government party of only 112, this period of oral questioning often lasted a full hour before it dried up, or the House grew weary of the fun. The daily average was about 30 main questions, not counting supplementaries. Some old parliamentarians shook their heads; but the fact is that the House would be a dull place for the press and the public as well as the members without some such outlet for their energies and zeal. The proof is that as soon as the questions finish and the House settles down to serious debate there is a general exodus from the floor and the galleries. Of course it is a difficult time for the Speaker who must try to keep both questions and answers within recognized factual limits and he must make many snap decisions and often be wrong in both directions. It might be better and lead to more constructive use of the time if advance notice in writing were required for every main question leaving the supplementary questions to provide the spontaneity. That is the practice in the British House of Commons which also puts a time limit on questions.

DEBATES

There is no need to weary you with talk of the formal debates. The rules are followed in all club and corporation meetings. From the Speaker's chair the main problems are:

to control the order of speaking and to assure to all their right to speak within the rules;

to stop members, except the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition when the allowed 40 minutes have expired;

to enforce reasonable relevance in the discussion--special leeway is given in "maiden speeches";

to stop abusive and unparliamentary language;

to secure a hearing and generally to preserve order and dignity;

and most important to bring the matter to a decision and to declare the result.

As you know debates cannot be interrupted except to raise current points of order or to raise matters affecting the privileges of the House of Commons or its members.

In all these proceedings the great and distinguishing virtue of our system is that there are always two sides, some times more than two. Each has its rights and its duties. The Government has the power. As long as it has the votes of the members it can direct the course of legislation, or taxation and administration, but it must submit to criticism, not casual criticism, but organized criticism.

The Official Opposition is as much a part of parliament as the government. The Leader of the Opposition is paid to oppose. At question time and in debate every private member has the right to question, to press for action, to criticise and condemn. The Ministers of the Crown, great as is their authority and their influence, have to defend and justify or appear as defaulters. Can anyone imagine a dictator submitting to such insolence. Or can anyone imagine a dictator surviving for long in such a milieu. Authoritarian government and parliamentary democracy are incompatible. The struggle today between East and West is a struggle between different philosophies and the institutions which express them. It may not be possible for both systems to survive. Perhaps both are on trial. We believe that our system is best adapted to serve our Christian view of the nature of man and his relationship to God, and is most likely to provide the free society in which the individual can personally attain his best development. We do well therefore, to try to understand, and when possible, to improve these inherited institutions.

In praising our House of Commons I have in effect declared my belief that responsible government in a parliamentary democracy depends on opposition, organized, recognized and supported by opinion both inside and outside of Parliament. Hockey fans will agree, that where there are two opposing sides, there must be a referee, or there will be confusion. With him, there may still be confusion, unless the referee is respected and supported by both sides. I ask you this question. Would a Speaker be more likely to deserve and hold that respect and support if he occupied his position permanently, as a career in itself, rather than as a brief episode in his life as a party man? It is a question which has been discussed much of late. In my opinion, formed after a rather short experience, the answer is yes. This is not to say that Canada has not been well served by a succession of conscientious and able Speakers. Since Confederation there have been 24 Speakers. Only the first, the Hon. James Cockburn, and the Hon. Rodolph Lemieux, who presided through three parliaments, were elected Speakers for more than one parliament. It is at least arguable that they would have been able to display greater independence, and to develop more skill, had they been able to approach their duties as an end in themselves, much as a judge takes on his judicial role, for life and good conduct.

If the change were made I think that it would be desirable to abolish the right of the House to over-rule the Speaker by majority vote.

One difficulty is the principle of alternative election of English- and French-speaking members to the Chair as has been done since about 1900 with only one exception. The period of alternation would necessarily be longer but the principle could still be followed.

The new Parliament will be very different from the last, in which, as I have said, the government instead of the Opposition was in the minority. In the new House the Opposition will be smaller in numbers than ever before, but by reason of the strong endorsation of the government by the electorate this Parliament may be more tranquil, for a time, than its predecessor. But in the long run, the great preponderance of members on one side is likely to make the role of the Speaker more important and perhaps more difficult than it would be in a more evenly divided assembly. However, as I said at the beginning I do not claim to be a prophet, and I have detained you long enough, if not too long. May I close by thanking you for your hospitality and your interest in the House of Commons and its Speaker and the parts they play in our attempts at self-government.

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Mr. Marvin Gelber.

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The House of Commons from the Speaker's Chair


Reflections by the speaker of his own experiences in the Speaker's Chair of the House of Commons. Observing the appearances as well as the substance of political neutrality. His recalled promise: "My aim will be to understand and interpret the will and the moods of the house; to secure the transaction of public business in an orderly manner; to protect the minority; to enable every member to express his opinions within the limits necessary to preserve decorum; to prevent unnecessary waste of time, and above all to be non-partisan and impartial in my decisions." The Canadian practice of electing from the governing party a different Speaker at the beginning of each new Parliament alternating between one whose mother tongue is English and one whose language is French, in contrast to British practice. A detailed discussion ensues, under the following headings: British Parliamentary Institutions—In the Commonwealth/In Canada; Government by Debate; Routine and Non-debatable Proceedings; Debates. Some concluding remarks about the role of the Speaker.