EAC Conference 2012, Day 2—Closing keynote

Peter Milliken, Canada’s longest-serving Speaker of the House of Commons, gave the closing keynote at the EAC conference, elucidating the many roles of the Speaker and offering his perspectives on the importance of language and communication.

The Speaker’s diplomatic role gets virtually no media coverage, but it involves receptions and meetings with ambassadors, high commissioners, and other dignitaries. Milliken particularly appreciated the meetings where he got to share experiences and exchange ideas with other parliamentary speakers. The Speaker also has an administrative role—chairing the Board of Internal Economy, which approves the House’s annual budget.

Of course, the Speaker also presides over the House of Commons—the role that people are most familiar with. Milliken riffed on the conference theme of language, giving some examples of “unparliamentary” words and terms that some MPs would launch at others—”bag of wind,” “scarcely entitled to be called a gentleman,” “lacking in intelligence,” “dimwitted saboteur,” “trained seal,” and so on. Although the Speaker’s supposed to be impartial, the fact was that Milliken could hear remarks in his vicinity but couldn’t hear if an insult was uttered at the other end of the chamber. In those cases, the target of the verbal attacks would typically ask the Speaker to demand a withdrawl. Milliken objected to the fact that there wasn’t much he could do if an MP refused to withdraw a comment; the act of kicking an MP out of the House was as far as he could go, and that approach was toothless, Milliken complained, as it came with no dock of pay. In one case Milliken resorted to not recognizing an offending MP to speak until—several months on—he officially apologized and withdrew his comment.

The story Milliken told that struck me most was that there used to be three sittings of Parliament in a day—a morning sitting, followed by a two-hour lunch break, then an afternoon sitting, followed by a two-hour dinner break, and then an evening sitting. At the dinner break, all MPs would head upstairs to the restaurant in Parliament. The dining area had designated areas for each party, but there was always overflow, and MPs of all different parties would end up sitting together in the middle of the dining room, where they had an opportunity to talk and get to know one another in an informal setting. The format of Parliament was revised, however, to eliminate the evening sitting—and hence the dinner break—and it saw MPs working through lunch. They took their lunches in their separate parties’ lobbies, and there was no longer an opportunity for a collegial exchange of ideas. After that shift, Milliken found more partisanship; the House became noisier and harder to control.

In recent years we’ve seen Canadian politics become the most polarized it has been in decades. Although it would be an oversimplification to blame this change in format for our fractured politics, one can’t help but wonder about the extent of its impact.

Milliken ended by reiterating how important it is for us to look past our differences and talk to one another with respect. We never know what kinds of lessons we could learn.

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