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In the brief campaign before the election of a new Speaker of the House of Commons, much emphasis was placed on the need to enforce a greater civility and decorum on members of Parliament. All candidates agreed “there is a profound and pressing need to repair political discourse in the House,” the Toronto Star reported.

No one who has watched the House in action could be in much doubt about that. Still, if you were to ask me to rank the problems afflicting the House, the lack of civility and decorum would place quite far down the list. The greater problem is the impotence of the Commons as a body, and of MPs individually, either to represent the people who elected them or to hold government to account.

In fairness, the two are related. People tend to behave with a greater sense of dignity when they feel they have a meaningful role in life, notably in the work they do. Conversely, people who have no such meaningful work to do tend to act up. If your only job was, in effect, to stand up and sit down when you were told – if your every act or statement had to be vetted by some higher authority, if you could not so much as go to the bathroom without asking someone’s permission – you’d probably utter the occasional incivility, too.

That’s what really ails the Commons: the lack of decorum is merely a symptom. In this regard, it is of less interest to know how the new Speaker intends to referee between the House’s warring parties, than how he will represent the House as a whole in its dealings with the executive.

That’s why he’s called the Speaker. It was to the king that early Speakers “spoke” – most memorably on the occasion of Charles I’s historically ill-advised visit. “May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me,” Speaker William Lenthall replied, to the king’s demand to know the whereabouts of some particularly impertinent MPs.

It has been a long time since a House, or a Speaker, showed such backbone in defence of their ancient rights and powers. It was faintly comical, in this regard, to hear the Prime Minister, of all people, invoking these in the noble cause of excusing himself from responsibility for the fiasco of a former soldier in the Waffen-SS being invited to attend Parliament. Of all the parliamentary prerogatives a string of prime ministers have arrogated to themselves over the years, surely the least significant is the power to decide who gets on the Speaker’s guestlist.

Perhaps it’s time to get serious. The election of a new Speaker could be the occasion, if the House chose, for a renewal of Parliament’s place at the heart of our democracy. The Speaker could take the lead – to restore order to the House, by restoring its agency.

Take Question Period. Part of what makes QP such stale offal is the sense that the whole thing has been scripted in advance. Individual MPs may be asking the questions, but only in the sense that a ventriloquist’s dummy appears to move its mouth. It is the party brass that dictate the words.

And what ensures this MP will ask that question when told? Because the Speaker is obliged, when calling upon the next questioner, to consult a list drawn up for him by – you guessed it – the party brass. Obliged? Well, no. That is not how it is done in the United Kingdom, for example. There, it is the Speaker who decides who asks the next question, based simply on who “catches his eye.” A Canadian Speaker could assert the same prerogative, just as he could assert the right to decide who gets to make members’ statements.

In the same spirit the Speaker could be given the power, as he has in the U.K., to decide when debate has gone on long enough, rather than leaving this to the unilateral (and hardly disinterested) discretion of the government. The House, rather than the government, could assume the power to decide such matters as when to prorogue, and when to dissolve itself. Party caucuses could decide to elect their own committee representatives, rather than leaving this, too, to the party brass.

All these and more are within the power of MPs to bring about, if only they could summon the will to do so. Can anyone doubt that if they did, decorum would improve – that if MPs had adult responsibilities, they would begin to behave like adults?

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