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Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer addresses the right of backbenchers to be heard.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It was not the sort of decision that will reverberate in the annals of parliamentary democracy, but might in the annals of Canadian parliamentary procedure. Statements made during the ruling by House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer on a question of privilege by a Conservative backbencher should embolden MPs of every party to stand up and demand their right to be heard.

Mr. Scheer found no prima facie breach of privilege took place when Tory MP Mark Warawa was struck from the list of members scheduled to make statements before Question Period because he intended to raise the issue of sex-selective abortion, a debate that the Conservative leadership would understandably rather do without. However, Mr. Scheer said there is a "legitimate concern" about whether MPs are getting "equitable distribution" in speaking.

He affirmed that it is the Speaker who ultimately decides who speaks on the floor of the House, and he effectively gave an undertaking that he will exercise his discretion fairly and reasonably, as he put it, "not in a cavalier or uninformed manner but, rather, in a balanced way that respects both the will of the House and the rights of individual members." He said he will continue to be guided by the lists provided by party whips when deciding who will get to make members' statements, but made it clear he is not bound by those lists.

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What Mr. Scheer seemed to be saying is that the "shift from scheduling and co-ordinating to command-and-control," as one Tory MP described it last week, when speaking to the question of privilege, may involve a degree of self-censorship. It is possible that members have allowed themselves to be cowed by party heavies in the form of house leaders and whips, and have failed to use their powers.

The onus is now on MPs, including the Conservative backbenchers who have spoken out eloquently on the matter, and those belonging to other parties, to exercise their right of free speech in the House, not only with respect to members' statements, but also in Question Period.

John Williamson, a Conservative MP from New Brunswick, called the ruling "astute," adding, "It affirms the Speaker's authority over the whips, which was paramount, while putting the onus on MPs to stand and be recognized for a scheduled statement or indeed whenever they wish, including Question Period. I like that opening."

MPs must test the rights that the Speaker says they enjoy, and hold officers of the House to account if they fail to live up to the Speaker's commitment.

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