The Speaker's colours are showing

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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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.”

Nudgity-nudge, winkity-wink.

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 rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Progressive Conservatives, Conservative MHA, Public Utilities Board

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • grisha
    December 12, 2012 - 12:09

    I dunno, Ed Power. I am a citizen of your friend to the south and live in a fairly conservative area. I have had occasion to pass by Tea Party Patriot rallies on occasion and have observed them on the media news. The reports that you seem to get and repeat as God's own truth I have personally seen NO evidence of. Those I have seen on wildly left/liberal leaning "news" reports are wildly misrepresentative of what actually occured. It seems that the liberal perspective is sonomous with a truth narrative (whether true or not) that is the Holy Grail and must be reinforced and advocated no matter where any pesky real/objective evidence may take you. I watched the news media as some of our own government clowns ambled through a Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. attempting to stir them up without any reaction whatsoever other than to get out of their way to let them pass only to have the media go through the usual littany of alleged intimidation, racist comments and other fairy tale narrations. Bottom line, be careful what you absorb from the main stream media in the good old USA. It is unashamadly left leaning and selective. Some of the local news is pretty straight up, however, the national outlets are extremely selective on what is reported and quick to take whatever statement best reinforces its accepted liberal narrative. There is plenty of published material on that if you are interested.

  • Ed Power
    December 09, 2012 - 12:02

    I dunno, Auntie Liz, maybe if the Speaker were to actually control the House instead of letting the children run amok, you might have a point. Still, it's no different here than anywhere else in Canada. Some pundits blame the boorish behaviour on the TV cameras, but I'm not sure if this entirely the case. If you watch televised debates in the US Congress, the Mother Parliament in England, Germany, France or other countries, you don't see this sort of behaviour. You can argue that they are different political forums, and with different rules, but I don't see the elected representatives in those counntries - the US Tea Party Patriots being an exception - engaging in such shrill, ignorant, disrespectful and childish behaviour. Behaviour that wouldn't be tolerated in a schoolroom, playground or modern workplace , is not just accepted as the norm in our Canadian Houses , but is televised, and the "hits and bodyblows" are played and replayed in all their 15 second highlight glory on the nightly news broadcasts. And the pundits and experts bemoan the falling voter turnout in elections, and wonder why ordinary citizens are tuning out of the political process? It's because we see them at work and it ain' t a pretty sight. Maybe if we were to turn the cameras off they might behave better. It certainly couldn't hurt. I always found that my two-year olds would quickly settle down when we ignored their temper tantrums...

  • crista
    December 09, 2012 - 10:54

    why don't the government let some one go in and confront the house leader and express the concerns of corruption that is gone on and going on,you have a government that is in contempt former premier danny williams can go in and voice concerns and that is allowed and they come back and say russell do not under stand what is gone on YES he do ???? AND SO DO THE GOVERNMENT and what is going on is the governments do not want you to know what is gone on and going on ask frazer march he knows what went on that is when he was hired to be an obudsmen what went wrong with the house rules then so we do not know who some one is trying to fool if that is what the government is trying to do because that is all they are doing is TRYING????

  • Coco
    December 09, 2012 - 07:00

    Aunt Lizzie, You seem to know a lot about parliamentary procedure and who the rules should apply to and so on - so let me ask you this, if I may. Do you believe that confident, secure people need to yell out, interrupt, and heckle (as they call it) during a meeting of the House of Assembly? And if so, why?

  • Winston Adams
    December 08, 2012 - 16:51

    Russell, you say the PUB has to balance the needs of the customers against the needs of the power suppliers, especially when the those suppliers are the only source of that electricity. The need of the customers is primarily that of low cost energy for heat and light. That energy comes from electricity but also from efficiency. Energy from efficiency is free, but the equipment is not. In 2008 the PUB ordered the power companies to improve customers efficiency, but they have done a poor job, and treat this as a joke. So what happens if the PUB orders the power companies to deliver 40 Megawatts per year of cost effective efficiency to the residential customers? And orders that these efficienies be tendered for delivery via a competitive bid process. Or orders that these efficiencies be delivered by other than the power companies , as in other jurisdictions. Nfld power is using the yardstick of the cost of Holyrood power, about 19 cents per kwh, to justify their generation upgrades . And efficiency comes in at much lower cost than that. Is Andy Wells without means to deliver on this option to protect customers from high electricity costs? However, such moves to protect the customer will likey be outlawed by the government. They need every loophole to screw the consumer in favour of the need for electricity demand to remain high and grow to favour MF. Maybe such efficiency benefits may violate the federal term sheet?

  • david
    December 08, 2012 - 14:58

    When you elect several consecutive governments with little or no oppostion, you get the predictable and well-deserved result --- dysfunctiion, unaccountability, and dangerously power-drunk government. And in Newfoundland's case, when you start with a political talent pool that is so shallow, unskilled, poorly educated and inexperienced in anything...well, let;s just say that any perceived "leanings" of the Speaker of the House is the least of our problems.

  • Coco
    December 08, 2012 - 14:50

    Aunt Lizzie, You seem to know a lot about parliamentary procedure and who the rules should apply to and so on - so let me ask you this, if I may. Do you believe that confident, secure people need to yell out, interrupt, and heckle (as they call it) during a meeting of the House of Assembly? And if so, why?

  • Aunt Lizzie
    December 08, 2012 - 13:40

    It is Russel Wangersky's colours that are really showing here. There is no evidence in this column that the occupants of the Speaker's chair in the House of Assembly are anything other than impartial and professional. Just because Minister O'Brien has a bit of fun with the rule that MHAs must address the Speaker instead of the Opposition, that doesn't say anything about the conduct of the Speaker. And just because the Speaker often rules Opposition amendments out of order doesn't mean anything either. The Opposition often moves amendments it knows are out of order, just to make a point. If Wangersky could give a concrete example of the Speaker applying any particular rule differently to the Government and the Opposition, then he would have a useful article. Instead, all he has written here is a pro-Opposition, anti-Government diatribe.

    • Corporate Psycho
      December 09, 2012 - 07:14

      Aunt Lizzie, you've got to be kidding. Get real. The day Dunderdake and Wiseman skipped up to the Speakers chair sealed it for me. Wiseman's complete buffoonery seems to fit well for the position though. On that note Mr. O'Brien would be a good fit to.

  • HELLO
    December 08, 2012 - 10:32

    Speaking of colors Russell, you got no trouble flaunting yours on a daily basis.

  • W Bagg
    December 08, 2012 - 07:46

    listen leave Ross alone, here was an MHA who had at one point the largest dept and budget in the province and didn't did briefing notes. KI'm sure he's capable of running the House of Ass..