House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer ruled today tactics by his own party to spread false rumours about the resignation of Liberal MP Irwin Cotler were "reprehensible."
However Scheer could not find Cotler’s parliamentary privileges had been breached because he was not rendered unable to carry out his parliamentary duties.
The ruling relates to the fact the Conservatives hired a polling firm to make calls into Cotler’s Montreal riding, telling voters Cotler had or was about to resign, there was a by-election imminent and wondering if the Conservative party could have their support. The Conservatives acknowledged they had done this. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan defended the practice as freedom of speech, saying the calls were based on long standing rumours that Cotler was going to resign.
Cotler argued it had ruined his reputation in the riding, that constituents were confused as to whether or not he was still their MP and that it had hurt his ability to do his job effectively.
Scheer said unfortunately he could not agree Cotler’s ability to do his job had been compromised.
"In the case at hand, the Chair is entirely sympathetic to the situation faced by the Member for Mount Royal. There is no doubt that he has been bombarded by telephone calls, e-mails and faxes from concerned and confused constituents. However, the Chair has great difficulty in concluding that the Member has been unable to carry out his parliamentary duties as a result of these tactics. The Member for Mount Royal has been extremely active in the House and in committee. By raising the matter in the House as he has done, the hon. Member has brought attention to a questionable form of voter identification practice and described in detail the negative impact it has had. Indeed, his interventions here in the House on this very question have garnered, as he himself points out, extensive sympathetic coverage in media across the country."
However Scheer did not let the Conservatives entirely off the hook. He might not be able to rule against them because his powers as a speaker relating to parliamentary privilege are limited to determining if an MP’s ability to do his job was compromised. But that didn’t mean he could tell the Conservatives that he thinks the calls to Cotler’s riding were unacceptable.
"I am sure that all reasonable people would agree that attempting to sow confusion in the minds of voters as to whether or not their Member is about to resign is a reprehensible tactic and that the hon. Member for Mount Royal has a legitimate grievance. I would hope that his airing of this grievance and the discussions this case has provoked – here in the House and in the media – will lead to two results. On the one hand, managers of legitimate exercises in voter identification should be more careful in the information they disseminate to the people they contact. On the other hand, Canadians contacted this way should be more wary and judge more critically any information presented to them by unsolicited callers.
I can understand how the Member for Mount Royal and others are seeking relief from the climate of cynicism — not to say contempt — about parliamentary institutions and practice that seems to prevail. But I fear that such relief is not within my gift: the Speaker’s powers in these matters are limited, as my predecessors have repeatedly stated."
What is also interesting in Scheer’s ruling is that he is sending a warning that he can and will — as Canadians can and will — judge MPs and political parties for what they do and say both inside and outside of the House of Commons.
"It does not matter that the resources of the House of Commons itself were not used to carry on this particular campaign. On this point, let me point out that the rights and immunities of individual Members can be breached by a wide range of actions and that such actions are not limited, as has been suggested, to actions taken in the House or actions involving the use of House resources," Scheer said.
Cotler wasn’t that happy with the ruling. He said he had no choice but to accept it but also said he thought perhaps Scheer might reconsider the ruling in the future.
Likely Cotler wouldn’t have been happy unless Scheer booted the offending party out of the House of Commons which of course wasn’t going to happen.
But Scheer has shown a lot of careful thought and courage in this ruling. He is in essence standing up to bullies as best he can – by calling the tactics for what they were and warning all MPs to be more careful. As speaker he is to be impartial but he is still a Conservative MP as well. Had the ruling come from a Liberal or NDP speaker the effect may have been more muted. Nothing works better to stop bullies in their tracks than to have one of their own friends call them out.