Whose Debate Is It Anyway?
How Debate In The Chamber Comes To Be
My maiden speech in the House of Commons was on March 22nd, 2016. A Member’s maiden speech is the first full speech given in debate, not the first time they rise to speak at all; I had already spoken over a dozen times. The maiden speech is treated as a significant moment in the career of an MP and used to be listed as a specific item in a Member’s official profile.
The subject of mine was Bill C-7, officially entitled “An Act to amend the Public Service Labour Relations Act, the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board Act and other Acts and to provide for certain other measures”, intended mainly to grant RCMP officers the right to unionize.
I was at a PROC meeting which, for technical reasons, was being held at a little-known building known simply as 1 Wellington, where rooms were set up for televised meetings, unlike the small committee room nearest the chamber known as 112N where PROC normally met. To the outside world, 1 Wellington appears as nothing more than a curious, almost science-fictiony glass box with a staircase disappearing into the ground between the historic Chateau Laurier hotel and the Rideau Canal. It consisted of a set of committee meeting rooms far from the Hill built on what had at one time been the extension of the railway platform for the tracks going under Ottawa Union Station and the Chateau Laurier toward the Alexandra bridge to Quebec.
At the end of that day’s committee meeting, the Whip’s office representative – one was present at almost every committee meeting – let me know that I was speaking in just a few minutes in the chamber – on what, I had no real idea – and that I was to hustle. I grabbed my stuff and ran as fast as I could, which, not being an athletic type, wasn’t especially fast, toward Centre Block to get to the Chamber before the Speaker called on me.
As I ran in, out of breath, the long-serving Liberal lobby coordinator, also from the Whip’s office, tossed a prepared speech into my hand. I ran to my seat, requested a podium from a nearby page, and immediately heard the Speaker call my riding – Member’s names are not used in the Chamber in the course of debate – to speak. According to the day’s Hansard, just 13 minutes had elapsed since the end of the meeting half a kilometre away. The first time I gave a speech in the House of Commons, then, was also the first time I had ever seen the speech, and I did not have any real idea what I was about to be talking about for the permanent record, being only vaguely familiar with the bill, much less the details I was reading into the record that had been written by an unnamed staffer somewhere. To make matters worse, having arrived just on time to speak, I had not heard the debate leading up to my speech to know what kind of questions the opposition would be asking. It all left me woefully unprepared for the five minute question-and-answer period following my speech.
Reading canned speeches was something I was guilty of more than I care to admit, on one occasion realizing half way through a speech on Bill C-26 at third reading on November 11th, 2016 that I had read a nearly identical speech into the record at the bill’s second reading on October 24th, 2016, just 18 days earlier.
In the role of a debate coordinator, my job was to keep debate going to meet certain time objectives. A debate that ended earlier than planned, what we called “collapsing,” could result in assorted problems caused by an immediate vote, and we might not have the people in Ottawa for that vote to pass, so having a dozen members saying absolutely nothing of substance for three hours could on occasion be essential to the survival of a majority government. If under time allocation, having debate end early could in some circumstances actually cause it to go extra days, missing the point of invoking the limit in the first place. It is also, I suspect, why the public and media galleries spend most of the day being completely empty: the quality of debate in the chamber is almost non-existent so much of the time that nobody really knows when they should be there to hear something substantive.
It isn’t that Members can’t give their own speeches; they absolutely can. I am not aware of a single instance in which any Member of any party was given a speech and told they must read it verbatim, without editorial or independent comment or a personal flair. Indeed there are many excellent extemporaneous orators in the House. It is just that it is much easier to read a speech that is already done for you, and all the parties are happy to provide those to their Members as embarrassing moments and comments against their desired party-line message are much easier to avoid.
Some embarrassing moments can’t be avoided, regardless of the text of the speech. On one occasion, I took a sip of water mid-speech and tried to put the glass back in the purpose-built water holder on my desk. I missed, spilling the contents on my blackberry, iPad, and the pages of the speech I had already delivered. I paused and said “oh shit!” before recovering and continuing to deliver my speech while visibly shaking out the water from my electronics. A helpful page spent the rest of my speech standing just outside of the camera shot holding a large stack of napkins for me, unsure whether and how to intervene. With the canned text, I was able to complete my speech without further interruption
Parliament in the United Kingdom does not provide desks nor permit podiums or prepared speeches for their Members. Canadian MPs have assigned seats with desks with significant storage space, including electrical plugs and network jacks, and can request a podium of a page or pick one up themselves in a closet behind the Speaker and are in no way discouraged from simply reading text into the record verbatim, some even limping through chunks of text in a language they don’t even speak. Indeed, in most circumstances, even the order of speaking is selected by the various parties’ Whips, with only those rising to ask questions of the most recent speaker in the few minutes provided for actual debate being selected based on the traditional basis of ‘the eye of the Speaker.’
In my role as a shepherd of debate in the Chamber, I often circulated through the government benches looking for Members to engage. Members of Parliament, despite outside perceptions, are regular human beings, subject to nervousness and diffidence like any other. Often, Members would rise to ask a question in debate just because I asked them to, but would not have if I had not come around to suggest it.
Sometimes, though, the conversation was rather less fruitful.
On one memorable occasion, I approached a Montreal-area MP to see if she would ask a question of the present speaker. Sure, she assured me, as she put away her work and turned to pay attention to the member speaking, and I returned to my own seat to listen. The speech ended and she did not rise, so I got up and asked a question. Once finished, I went back over to her and asked why she didn’t get up to ask a question. She replied, without any irony, “you didn’t give me a question to ask!”
Such is the level of expectation of scripting.