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With contempt rulings, Milliken caps career filled with firsts

With his two historic rulings, Peter Milliken caps a decade-long career as one of the most powerful and influential Speakers in Canada's House of Commons.

The decisions delivered on Wednesday could trigger a federal election, at which time Mr. Milliken has said he plans to retire to his home in Eastern Ontario - ending a career as the defender of Parliament's rules and tradition that began in early 2001.

Being Speaker is never easy. You are part judge, part referee and part diplomat, and it's never more difficult than when a minority government is sitting and could be defeated at any time.

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But Mr. Milliken, a Liberal, has outlasted his predecessors, all the while managing to keep the respect of his fellow MPs.

Re-elected to the post in 2006 after the Harper government took office, he became only the second MP chosen as Speaker from an opposition party in the history of the Commons.

Speakers refrain from voting in the Commons except in the case of a tie, and here Mr. Milliken has made history too. On May 19, 2005, for instance, he broke a tie vote on a confidence motion - a first time for a Speaker and one that helped forestall a federal election.

For constitutional scholar Ned Franks of Queen's University, Mr. Milliken's rulings on Wednesday culminates a career marked by firsts.

"He has cast half the deciding votes that have been cast in the House of Commons when there has been a tie in the House," Mr. Franks said.

"Two, he's the longest lasting Speaker that we've had. And three, he's dealt with as many contempt issues as any Speaker and probably more, and he has a very judicious, intelligent, wise approach."

Mr. Milliken has been fascinated with the rituals and powers of Parliament his entire life. He subscribed to Hansard as a young man and is deeply absorbed by questions of precedent and history. He was first elected as a Liberal MP in 1988.

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Just as his decisions will be studied by constitutional scholars in other Westminster democracies, which have yet to experience some of the minority government conflicts of recent Canadian Parliaments, so too he consulted broadly for his own rulings, seeking authorities and parallels in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Mr. Milliken has been criticized for allowing the House to become too raucous; he implores members, rather than chastises them.

In response, Conservative MP Michael Chong has proposed legislation that would compel greater decorum in the House. But that legislation will die if an election is called.

The Speaker enjoys a fine scotch, and encourages cross-party amity with small dinners for MPs in his Centre Block dining room.

When he leaves, Mr. Milliken, 64, will be giving up a special apartment set aside for the Speaker in Parliament's Centre Block, and a house at Kingsmere, Mackenzie King's former estate in Quebec's Gatineau Hills.

He doesn't hesitate to tell any who ask that he is impatient to return to his hometown of Kingston and the quiet of a life devoid of shepherding 308 MPs through the parliamentary day.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More


John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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