As House of Commons Speaker Greg Fergus pushes on with his plans to try to improve parliamentary decorum, he’s citing scripted speeches creating a “false polarization” and a sense that MPs don’t “know each other” enough as contributing factors to the current state of debate.
In a sit-down interview with CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos inside his West Block Speaker’s office, Fergus said one way he’s going to try to combat these factors, is by inviting MPs to dinner at The Farm, his official residence in the community of Kingsmere in Chelsea, Que.
“We don’t know each other as members of Parliament, surprisingly, even on your own team. When we get here on Parliament Hill, our days are so programmed. We are running from meeting, to committee, to briefing, to telephone calls with our constituents… We’re always busy. We never really get the chance to know each other,” Fergus said.
Fergus came up with this idea, after reflecting on his experience getting to travel with MPs from other parties as part of a finance committee study that went on the road so MPs could hear from stakeholders across Canada.
It has been a longstanding practice for House committees to travel, but it’s something that’s only started up again recently after a pandemic pause. Fergus said for him, that time off the Hill was a chance to get to know other MPs, their family situations, what drove them to run, and what they had in common.
“I’m not looking for people to become best friends. But, I think there’s a better respect when you have an understanding of where that person is coming from, why they have those beliefs,” Fergus said.
“Everybody wants to do well by Canada. Everybody wants to do well by their community. The trick is to making sure that they understand each other,” Fergus said. “They can still have pointed debate, passionate debates, and they can have profound differences of views… as long as there’s a fundamental respect.”
The other component Fergus said isn’t helping the effort to improve parliamentary debates are the amount of scripted speeches or canned answers given during question period.
“It creates a false, I think a false polarization or a false sense of the gap that probably isn’t as wide as most people think that it is,” Fergus said. He said the overly partisan or overstated assertions one party makes about another can have the effect of making issues “into something more than it is.”
He said that while sometimes those ideological gaps are wide, what is important is making sure that in the end, like after a hockey game or curling match, “you shake hands and you go have a beer together.”
Despite this desire for collegiality, Fergus’ tenure so far hasn’t been without tension. After promising to tackle what he saw as a real deterioration in MPs’ conduct and respect for one another in what he called the “sanctum of democracy,” his first big speech on the topic two weeks in, was met with heckling.
Fergus persisted, ending his contentious address by vowing to continue discussions with all parties on improving their parliamentary behaviour.
Asked what progress has been made on this front to-date, Fergus said he’s been working with House leaders from all parties and listening to MPs’ feedback about ways he can best do his job as MPs’ impartial adjudicator.
“Some of their suggestions are extraordinarily helpful. Some of them, we might just agree to disagree on,” he said.
Fergus said he’s also working with his fellow chair occupants, Deputy Speaker Chris d’Entremont, and Assistant Deputy Speakers Carol Hughes and Alexandra Mendes to present a united front.
“We’ve agreed that what we’re going to do is making sure that we’re applying the rules consistently across the board so no one feels that they’re getting a rough ride by one chair occupant as opposed to another. We are coordinating our enforcement of the rules,” he said
“The best way to get people to follow the rules is get them to really adopt and see the benefit of it. So, it’s not for me to come in hard as an authority to try to make them do what they have to do. It’s best when they adopt and integrate the desire the spirit behind the rules themselves, and then be able to conduct themselves accordingly,” he said.
Fergus was first elected to the House in 2015, representing the National Capital Region riding of Hull-Aylmer, Que. Though, as he told his peers in making his pitch for them to secret-ballot vote for him, his “lifelong love” of Parliament and experience in the Commons dates back decades.
All things considered, Fergus said now more than one month into the role – one he was elected to fulfill after Anthony Rota’s resignation over his errant and embarrassing recognition of a Nazi veteran – it’s already proving to be “even better” than he thought it could be.
“Being a member of Parliament is probably the greatest privilege that I’ve had in my life, but also the ability to then now help them promote the parliamentary traditions that we have, and to be their impartial arbiter it’s an amazing thing,” Fergus said. “You appreciate them from a different perspective when you’re sitting in that chair.”
Asked about some early opposition MPs expressions of concern about being too partisan to be Speaker, Fergus said from his perspective, it only took him “all of 60 seconds” to shed his political bias after years as a Liberal MP that was regularly tapped to defend the government on political panels and at times engaged in procedural shenanigans.
“It’s just a different role that you play,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes like everybody else has, and I will make mistakes in the future too. But, I’m just hoping that I’ll make new ones, innovative ones, not repeat the old ones.”