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The Speaker tried to make a speech about decorum — did anyone hear it?

Greg Fergus, who was elected Speaker of the House of Commons earlier this month, advised MPs on October 4 that he would be coming forward with “reflective guidelines” to foster civility in the House. He chose Wednesday afternoon, immediately before question period, to do so.
Newly elected Speaker of the House of Commons Greg Fergus speaks from his chair in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

In his seventh day in the chair, the new Speaker of the House of Commons sought to address MPs on the topic of decorum in the chamber. Much disorder followed.

Greg Fergus, who was elected Speaker earlier this month, advised MPs on October 4 that he would be coming forward with "reflective guidelines" to foster civility in the House. He chose Wednesday afternoon, immediately before question period, to do so.

But before Fergus could begin his remarks, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was on his feet, apparently expecting to ask the first question of question period.

After a few awkward seconds, Poilievre attempted to ask his question, prompting Fergus to stop him and state that the Conservative leader would be able to ask his question once the Speaker was done speaking. But Poilievre stayed on his feet, prompting Fergus to seek advice from one of the House of Commons procedural clerks.

WATCH: Speaker Greg Fergus heckled as he tries to deliver a speech on decorum

New Speaker's speech on decorum faces delays, heckles

12 hours ago

Duration 3:24

Featured VideoHouse of Commons Speaker Greg Fergus's attempts to deliver a speech on decorum faced opposition as Conservatives said he shouldn't have delayed question period to deliver his remarks.

After conferring, Fergus tried again, assuring the House that there would be a full session of question period just as soon as he was done with his remarks. Some members, apparently from the government side, applauded. Fergus motioned for them to stop.

This prompted Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer, a former Speaker himself, to rise on a point of order. According to the rules of the House, Scheer said, question period is supposed to start promptly at 2:15 p.m. Conservatives stood to applaud.

Scheer's reading of the standing orders was correct, but as an experienced MP, he also knows that this rule is very loosely enforced and question period often begins sometime after 2:15 p.m. On Wednesday, had it not been for the Speaker's statement and the resulting brouhaha, question period would have begun at 2:21 p.m.

After conferring again with a clerk, Fergus told the House that the start of question period was within his discretion. Scheer tried again and this time accused the Speaker of breaking the rules. Fergus thanked Scheer for his intervention, restated his intent and then, over a chorus of heckling, attempted once more to begin his remarks.

The Speaker finally gets to speak

Fergus made it only a few words into his remarks before Poilievre stood on a point of order.

Describing question period as "the sacred period during which we hold the government to account," Poilievre insisted that the time for questions is meant to commence promptly at 2:15 p.m. By then, it was 2:27 p.m.

The Speaker could have opted to deliver his statement after question period. That might have been more convenient for Canadians who wait with bated breath each day for the "sacred period" to begin.

But question period is both the most-watched portion of Parliament's daily proceedings and a national showcase for the incivility that Fergus meant to address. So there was a certain logic to his decision to use this particular time to make such a statement.

Poilievre claimed that this was the first time since he became an MP in 2004 that a Speaker had sought to make a statement before question period.

"I've never seen it," he said.

After conferring once more with the clerk, Fergus informed the House that his immediate predecessor had made just such a statement twice, while other Speakers also had done so in the past.

More heckling followed. Fergus began again. It was now 2:31 p.m.

Less than three minutes into his statement, Conservative deputy whip Chris Warkentin stood on a point of order to suggest Fergus was filibustering the House and ask when the Speaker expected to be done.

"It will continue for the time that it will take," Fergus replied, doing a passable impression of an uncompromising parent.

After more heckling, Fergus resumed his remarks. He was done by 2:45 p.m. The delay to question period would have been about half as long if he had just been allowed to deliver his remarks without interruptions or complaints.

Parliament, heal thyself

"I decided to stand for Speaker because in the eight years that I have been a member, and prior to that as a keen follower of parliamentary proceedings, I have noticed a deterioration in the collective decorum in this place," Fergus said, shortly before Warkentin's interruption.

"It is important to note that this deterioration was not inevitable. It is not a natural outgrowth of the advent of social media. We can choose to conduct ourselves differently."

That MPs have the power to change the way the business of the House is conducted is both a statement of the obvious and a revolutionary idea. Despite much evidence to the contrary, it suggests that politics is not fated to be practised at the level of the schoolyard — that adults are capable of behaving in a way that doesn't embarrass themselves or the the central institution of Canadian democracy.

For his part, Fergus proposed only to better enforce the rules and standards that already exist and outlined a series of specific concerns that he would be attempting to address in the days ahead.

"Excessive, disruptive and loud heckling must be toned down," he said.

Unnecessarily provocative and personal attacks will no longer be tolerated, he added, citing the example of one member comparing another to the late Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Attacks on the integrity of other members will not be allowed, the Speaker said, citing the use of "fake titles for members in order to mock them or comments that question their courage, their honesty or their commitment to their country."

Members will no longer be permitted to make direct or thinly veiled comments about the presence or absence of a member, in keeping with a longstanding rule that is now regularly challenged.

Fergus said he would use the tools at his disposal to pursue these issues, but also vowed to work with MPs and parties privately to "see how we can join forces in our collective objective to improve the decorum in our proceedings."

Depending on how hard Fergus pushes, he may face claims that he's unnecessarily restricting MPs' freedom of speech or ability to hold the government to account.

It has been argued that what really ails the House is a lack of power, independence and responsibility for individual members. Giving MPs more to do probably wouldn't hurt.

But the behaviour of MPs is ultimately regulated only by the MPs themselves and the voters who send them to Ottawa.

And while Fergus hopes to bring new level of civility to the House, Wednesday afternoon showed just how big of a challenge that promises to be.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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