Cullen speech on an MPs freedom of speech

NDP Government House Leader Nathan Cullen

Text of speech given this morning by NDP Government House Leader Nathan Cullen (above) on an MPs right to use a Members Statement on any topic the the MP chooses:

Thank you Mr. Speaker, for allowing me today to offer a few additional comments on what I believe is a particularly relevant matter.

On March 26, the Member for Langley rose to say that his rights as a Member of Parliament had been infringed upon when he was prevented by the Whip of his own party to deliver a statement in this House, a statement that, in parliamentary terms, we call an “S.O. 31”. Much like the terms ‘omnibus’, ‘prorogation’, and ‘closure’ the Conservative Party continues to offer Cdns an unintentional lesson in how are parliamentary system works and how it is being abused.

House of Commons’ Standing Order 31, says “a Member may be recognized […] to make a statement for not more than one minute” every day before Question Period. More commonly we refer to these as Member Statements.

Dans sa réponse au député de Langley, le Whip en chef du gouvernement a dit que le Président de la Chambre n’avait pas à se prononcer sur cette question, parce qu’il s’agit d’une situation qui doit être gérée uniquement par le Whip du party.

There are two central questions here:

One concerns the difference between the Standing Orders (rules), and the conventions (practices) that have evolved over time in this place.

The second is your role as Speaker in easing the natural tension that can exist between members and their political parties and the MPs right to speak in parliament.

According to O’Brien and Bosc, p. 254, the Standing Orders are “the permanent written rules under which the House regulates its proceedings”. They are the rules we are bound by and they are there to protect parliament and MPs.
Thank you Mr. Speaker, for allowing me today to offer a few additional comments on what I believe is a particularly relevant matter.

On March 26, the Member for Langley rose to say that his rights as a Member of Parliament had been infringed upon when he was prevented by the Whip of his own party to deliver a statement in this House, a statement that, in parliamentary terms, we call an “S.O. 31”. Much like the terms ‘omnibus’, ‘prorogation’, and ‘closure’ the Conservative Party continues to offer Cdns an unintentional lesson in how are parliamentary system works and how it is being abused.

House of Commons’ Standing Order 31, says “a Member may be recognized […] to make a statement for not more than one minute” every day before Question Period. More commonly we refer to these as Member Statements.

Dans sa réponse au député de Langley, le Whip en chef du gouvernement a dit que le Président de la Chambre n’avait pas à se prononcer sur cette question, parce qu’il s’agit d’une situation qui doit être gérée uniquement par le Whip du party.

There are two central questions here:

One concerns the difference between the Standing Orders (rules), and the conventions (practices) that have evolved over time in this place.

The second is your role as Speaker in easing the natural tension that can exist between members and their political parties and the MPs right to speak in parliament.

According to O’Brien and Bosc, p. 254, the Standing Orders are “the permanent written rules under which the House regulates its proceedings”. They are the rules we are bound by and they are there to protect parliament and MPs.

However, O’Brien and Bosc also tell us, on the very next page, that “interpretations given to the older rules have been adapted over time to fit the modern context.” This is what we call convention: the practice of the House, which has always and must always continue to evolve and adapt to changing times and circumstances. The growing number of MPs in the House of Commons, the fact that our proceedings are now televised and streamed online and the increasing use and importance of social media are just some of the realities that parliament attempts to adapt to. The associated expectations of citizens and the media that follow is something that we are all aware of.

Mr. Speaker, because the Standing Orders are actually silent on the manner in which statements should be attributed to Members, this House has had to interpret S.O. 31, and convention has evolved so that it is now the Whips of each party who are responsible for providing the Chair with a list of Members who will make statements before Question Period.

This practice is explained in O’Brien and Bosc, on page 423: “In according Members the opportunity to participate in this period, the Chair is guided by lists provided by the Whips of the various parties.”

Monsieur le Président, chaque jour notre Whip procède à cet exercice qui consiste à informer le Président de la liste de députés du NPD qui feront une déclaration.

Il va sans dire que les déclarations allouées au NPD sont réservées aux députés du NPD. Et le Nouveau parti démocratique a choisi d’attribuer la grande majorité de ses déclarations selon un principe de rotation, donnant ainsi l’opportunité à tous les députés néo-démocrates de discuter en cette Chambre d’enjeux locaux et de différentes questions qui préoccupent leurs citoyens.

Here we must emphasize the original intent of Members Statements. They are a key tool that Members of Parliament have to bring forward the matters of their constituents. They are often used to bring awareness to the efforts of local leaders in improving the lives of their communities. They are used to celebrate the achievements of their constituents and the work that they do. They are used to honour significant milestones and highlight important events going on in our ridings. They are also used to bring to the attention of the House serious local, national or international questions that require the attention of all Canadians.

Disturbingly, that original intent has been almost entirely lost on the Conservative side of this House. The Conservatives have turned their statements by Members into partisan attack ads, using their allotted statements before question period primarily to attack New Democrats and our leader. They use S.O. 31s as a way to launch a coordinated, concentrated attack against the Official Opposition, instead of talking about issues which really matter to the citizens who elected them.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer to a very good analysis done by Glen McGregor which appeared on March 26th in the Ottawa Citizen. This analysis of statements made by gov’t MPs in the House since the last election shows that the NDP and our leader are overwhelmingly the most popular topics for Conservatives. While we are certainly flattered by all of the attention this practice has obviously created some serious conflicts within the government caucus and brought further harm to the reputation of Parliament.

Monsieur le Président, ces démontrent que les conservateurs abusent complètement de cette privilige devant permettre aux députés de s’exprimer, préférant s’en servir pour s’adonner à des attaques mesquines contre l’opposition plutôt que de discuter des enjeux importants pour les citoyens qui les ont élu.

I am sure Mr. Speaker that you, like me, will not fail to see the irony in comparing the current situation with some of the principles of the (1989) Reform Party manifesto. In that document the party stated: “We believe in accountability of elected representatives, to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.”

Mr. Speaker, not only is this an abuse of the statements by Members, but it creates a serious and growing tension on the one hand between a Members of Parliament need to represent their constituents and to express themselves freely, and on the other hand with their responsibilities to their political party. That is, of course, intensified if the party does not respect their member’s rights.

Standing Order 31 tells us that “The Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order.” I know that in the past, Mr. Speaker, that you and your predecessors have been hesitant too impose too heavily when it comes to the proper and improper use of this Standing Order, but I think that the situation we are faced with here brings new light to the tensions that I just described.

Recently, the Chief Government Whip used a hockey analogy, however poorly applied in this case, and equated his role as Whip of the Conservative Party to that of a hockey coach deciding which player goes on the ice. He suggested that the Speaker was basically the referee and that it is not your place, Mr. Speaker, to interfere with his choices. I would simply offer this, Mr. Speaker, that if a coach insists on only sending so-called goons onto the ice simply to pick fights, there is no question that the referee will intervene to give some hope that an actual game might be played.

I think the analogy should stop here Mr. Speaker, because what is happening in this House is not a game. This is the House of Commons, where we, as parliamentarians, must deal every day with complex matters which have a direct impact on the lives of the Canadians who have elected us, who trust us to manage the affairs of this country.

And, Mr. Speaker, I believe that by changing the nature of statements and using them to mindlessly attack the Official Opposition instead of using that time to raise the issues that matter to the people who have elected them, the Conservatives are clearly abusing the Standing Orders.

Allow me to return to the Member for Langley’s assertion that his rights and privileges as a Member have been breached.

It bears repeating that I do not agree with the Member for Langley’s attempt to reopen the debate on abortion. The NDP will always promote and protect a woman’s right to choose. Period. We are clear in our convictions and present ourselves unapologetically and unambiguously to Canadians in that way each and every eleciton.

But whether one agrees or disagrees with the Member for Langley is not at issue here. The issue is the need for Members of Parliament to speak freely on behalf of those we seek to represent. We have two essential duties; holding the government to account and speaking four those who elected us to this place.

O’Brien and Bosc, on page 89, explain that “By far, the most important right accorded to Members of the House is the exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings.”

Optional: Le premier rapport du Comité special sur les droits et immunités des députés de la trentième législature a étudié de près la question de la liberté d’expression. Dans son rapport de 1977, le comité défini le droit à la liberté d’expression des députés comme suit: “un droit fondamental, sans lequel ils [les députés] ne pourraient remplir convenablement leurs fonctions. Cette liberté leur permet d’intervenir sans crainte dans les débats de la Chambre, de traiter des sujets qu’ils jugent pertinents et de dire tout ce qui, à leur avis, doit être dit pour sauvegarder l’intérêt du pays et combler les aspirations de leurs électeurs. »

Mr. Speaker, in conclusion, without the right for Members of Parliament to express themselves freely, our democratic institutions simply cannot function properly. The NDP recognizes this and has always allowed its members the opportunity to express themselves, arriving at consensus through discussion instead of imposing one single, unilateral vision. There is always to be a natural tension in being part of any team: the benefits of being in a party are weighed against the responsibilities to that same party. That is our system.

You have a difficult task in judging this fine line and believe that you will need the support and confidence of all parties in this place whatever you decide. This is why I find this matter so important, and I am looking forward to your ruling on this matter and on the matter of the protection of Member of Parliament’s freedom of speech.

6 thoughts on “Cullen speech on an MPs freedom of speech”

  1. I have been concerned for some time re the power of the Party Whips to control not only public statements but voting. I think the present course of devolution is removing representation of constituents in favour of control by the ruling party.

  2. An excellent commentary Nathan, and one that I fully support. The heavy handed use of the “whip” not only disparages the concept of democracy, it is, INMHO, one of the main reasons that people are both turned off by politics and politicians. And why so many don’t vote.

  3. MP’s first loyalty must be to the people who elected them, thats what representative democracy is about, anything else is not democracy.

  4. The NDP House leader should practice what he preaches, it wasn’t that long ago that his leader Jack Layton whipped the vote on the gun registry against the wishes of 12 of his caucus; It was Jack Layton who booted Bev Desjarlais from Caucus because she refused to vote for the same sex marriage bill; It was Thomas Mulcair who kicked to members of his Caucus: Rafferty and Hyer out of caucus because they voted with the government to scrap the long gun registry. So that little speech he made is nothing more than playing politics, this is something that all political parties regardless of the stripe do once elected.

  5. letter from former ndp senator Lillian Clark

    ‘I was appointed to the Senate of Canada in the spring of 2005 by former Prime Minister Paul Martin. In my naiveté, I decided to become a New Democratic Party (NDP) senator, but was immediately rejected by the leader of the NDP, Jack Layton. The federal NDP did not know me as I had not been politically and publicly active and they had not bothered to contact me to enquire about my senate appointment. In fact, they did not do their homework to find out that I was a First Nations, First Generation Chinese, Feminist, Scientist and Senior University Administrator. The NDP would not allow me to join their caucus, but the NDP women did invite me to their meetings. After a year or so, I changed my designation to Independent NDP and then in 2009, I joined the Liberal caucus.’

    Nathan Cullen, your party has made it clear to your mps that if they defy his or her leader will be kicked out or reprimanded. No wonder they all stand in a chorus to vote against a budget or bill that is good for their constituents.

    Problem is the media just like the ndp mps are afraid of their own shadow.

  6. I agree with Rich @ April 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm about the contradictory behaviour of the NDP & Nathan Cullen, whose frequent pleas for more civility in the House are in direct contrast to his often venomous accusations against the government during the Thursday “Business of the House” question about upcoming business.

    As for Cullen’s lofty intentions of S.O 31s — “… to celebrate the achievements of their constituents … to honour significant milestones and highlight important events going on in our ridings. … to bring to the attention of the House serious local, national or international questions that require the attention of all Canadians.” — his own party often uses them to attack government policies. Randomly chosen, here are a couple of examples:
    • Mrs. Carol Hughes (Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, NDP) March 20:
    “… This government’s decisions disregard the identity of francophones, as if they were not important at all. …”
    • Ms. Mylène Freeman (Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, NDP) March 27:
    “… Canadians deserve better than a party torn between its old macho men making sexist comments and these young men trying to trample on women’s rights. …”

    If MPs are truly serious about the intent of S.O. 31s, they should limit their statements to riding events, end of story. However, as usual, they will point fingers at the other guys while sanctimoniously absolving themselves of the exact same transgressions.

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