House Speaker Fergus is currently on strike two

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Parliament’s hyper-partisan climate has made the Speaker’s job doubly difficult, but Greg Fergus can defuse crisis situations with his moderate demeanour. But the Conservatives feel that any venal sin is reason for his dismissal.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 27, 2024.

OTTAWA—Three strikes and you’re out.

House Speaker Greg Fergus is currently on strike two.

According to the New Democrats, this strike was really the fault of the Liberal Party organization, and should not be blamed on the Speaker.

In the end, it was much ado about nothing. The Conservatives are all about focusing on anything negative, especially if it involves members associated with the governing Liberals.

Conservatives would not want the public to focus on the good numbers that have dominated the news recently.

A drop in inflation and a reinforcement of Canada’s AAA credit rating may make the governing Liberals smile.

But they don’t make the news with the same ferocity as a generic press release from Fergus’ local riding association which had not-so-nice things to say about Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Fergus’ first strike occurred early in his tenure when he made the mistake of appearing in a partisan tribute video wearing his speaker’s robes.

He apologized for the mistake, and dodged the firing bullet with all parties eventually accepting his apology.

That was before Fergus threw Poilievre out of the House of Commons for refusing to apologize for the use of unparliamentary language against the prime minister.

In that exchange, both Poilievre and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traded insults. The difference was that Trudeau quickly withdrew his statement while Poilievre would not.

The hyper-partisan climate in Parliament has made the Speaker’s job doubly difficult, but Fergus has a moderate demeanour, and is usually ready with a smile to defuse crisis situations.

The latest mess was not of his own making. The party posted generic information about the local riding association’s spring gathering, and included some negative comments about the leader of the opposition.

In normal circumstances, this would probably go unnoticed, but the Conservatives have obviously decided that any venial sin is reason for Fergus’ dismissal.

What must be particularly difficult for Fergus is that, although he is bound to impartiality in the management of House debate, he needs to get re-elected as a Liberal.

The Speaker is chosen from amongst Members of Parliament, most of whom are attached to a political party.

Never in Canadian history has a non-aligned member served as House Speaker.

So Fergus has to tread a very fine line between impartiality in the House, and partisan politics in the local community.

He also happens to represent a riding within a stone’s throw of Parliament, which makes it much easier for Hill staffers and political followers to keep an eye on all material that emanates from his local association.

Long-serving House Speaker Peter Milliken served a decade as Speaker, and also had the distinction of being the only one to preside over four Parliaments.

He was succeeded by Andrew Scheer, who used his private time in the Speaker’s chair to reach out to caucus members in a bid to become his party’s leader.

Having spent most of his parliamentary career in neutral positions, as deputy Speaker and then Speaker, Scheer managed to secure huge caucus support when he ran for the Conservative Party leadership.

One of the perks of being the Speaker is that you can organize parliamentary dinners on a regular basis, and invite small numbers of members to join you in Speaker’s chambers.

As Speakers don’t attend caucus meetings or parliamentary committees, most of their energy can be devoted to building relationships behind the scenes.

Those relationships are often partisan, as private dinners can include only members of your own party, but no one in the public has access to the list.

So it is easy to be quietly partisan but—heaven forbid—you have an event in your own riding for local activists.

Even though Speakers are expected to prepare for re-election, their hands are ultimately tied when it comes to riding-organized events.

Fergus cannot be blamed for this cock-up, but when you are the Speaker, the last thing you want to be making is the news.

The summer break is looming. That is good news as it will give all parliamentarians a chance to cool off in their ridings, and lower the political temperature.

That may not make the official opposition very happy. Their strong lead in recent polls reinforces the wish to have an election as soon as possible.

Chaos in the Commons plays into that scenario because an unruly Parliament is usually a precursor to an election.

Instead, Speaker Fergus can use the summer period to nurture government and opposition relationships.

He will need them to hang on to his job.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.