There’s perhaps nothing that better shows how comfortable members of the provincial Progressive Conservatives are with being the government — or how closely that comfort veers towards contempt for anyone but themselves — than a snippet of “debate” in the House of Assembly last week.
But first, a little explanation. The House is overseen by the Speaker, a role that is supposed to be impartial, but more and more seems to be a branch office of the provincial government.
How much of an open joke is that impartiality?
As another writer pointed out in The Telegram’s editorial yesterday, it shows up clearly in the way the Speaker allows government members to amend opposition private members’ bills seemingly at will, but almost immediately rules opposition amendments as out of order — without appeal, discussion or even reasons.
Now, the Speaker, Ross Wiseman, is a Conservative MHA. (He was handpicked for the job by Kathy Dunderdale after he was removed from cabinet, a move that left other, more experienced MHAs on the sidelines and kept Wiseman’s cabinet-sized salary intact, but that’s a story for another day.) But even though he’s Conservative, he’s supposed to put that all aside, as are others who fill the Speaker’s chair.
And then, there’s Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien. Fact is, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t think the Speaker is out of the political game, either. Here’s a large block of what O’Brien had to say during the House on Tuesday, so there can’t be any suggestion that the minister is being taken out of context in any way — he’d just been reminded by the Speaker that members are supposed to talk to the Speaker during debate. The Speaker at the time was Wade Verge, another Conservative, and he reminded O’Brien, “I would ask the hon. minister if he could direct his comments to the chair.”
Kevin O’Brien’s response? “Mr. Speaker, no problem at all, but I did not think you needed any convincing in regard to Muskrat Falls. I am trying to convince the naysayers in this House, is what I am trying to do. I apologize to the hon. Speaker, because I know full well that you are well versed in regard to Muskrat Falls. You know what the future in Newfoundland and Labrador is and you want to get there because you know full well this government has the strategy and our premier has the strategy to get us there. I say that to the hon. Speaker.”
Now, when even cabinet ministers can’t be bothered to keep up the impartiality charade, you know it’s getting pretty obvious.
All of that may seem like pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but the guidelines are pretty clear: “The Speaker remains impartial and must avoid taking public positions on politically controversial matters. While no longer a member of a caucus, he/she continues to represent a district within the province, serving as an MHA,” the Speaker’s own website says.
It also spells out the importance of the position: “One of the main responsibilities of the Speaker is to ensure that the Rules of the House are followed. The Standing Orders — the House rules of parliamentary procedure — must be enforced by the Speaker to ensure that all MHAs have the opportunity to participate in debate.”
Shifting away from some of the more stodgy traditions of the House of Assembly might seem like a good thing: the classification of everyone except House officers and MHAs as “strangers” who can only be allowed in the legislature with the express permission of the MHAs seems a bit over the top, especially because they expect us to pay their salaries and top up their hopelessly underfunded (and spectacularly jammy) pension fund.
But there are clear reasons why impartial officers are needed in government.
An impartial Speaker lets the House work fairly. An impartial auditor general makes sure the financial rules are followed — except when overly secretive governments decide to legislate the auditor away from certain finances, leaving them open to abuse.
An impartial and quasi-judicial Public Utilities Board is supposed to balance the needs of consumers against the needs of power suppliers, especially when those suppliers are the only source of electricity.
Governments can and do decide that they are above all that: they can make a mockery of the Speaker’s office, or they can yank away the oversight of electrical bills from the PUB.
But, when a government is fully convinced that it is always right
and everyone else is a fool who shouldn’t have to be suffered any longer, it clearly crosses that line between comfortable and contemptible. And that always tends to be more obvious from the outside.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.