13 June 2010

Roger Fitzgerald’s bias

Is Speaker Roger Fitzgerald biased?

The answer for any thinking person is unquestionably “yes”.

The most famous example of Fitzgerald’s bias in favour of his own political party is his vote against providing adequate financial resources to the official opposition.  An independent report did not prevent him from joining with his fellow Tories to single  out one opposition party for punishment.

Another example, perhaps a Freudian slip came after the Premier indicated what he thought ought to happen in response to the Cougar helicopter tragedy.  Fitzgerald said he would “do as you [the Premier] directed.”

No Speaker of any parliament anywhere in the Commonwealth other than those that have descended into petty local despotism would so meekly surrender his responsibilities. 

Well, except for Fitzgerald’s equally incompetent predecessor Harvey Hodder that is, but that is another story.

In the legislature this session, Fitzgerald has selectively applied the rules of the House on numerous occasions.  Over at labradore, there are legions of examples of government members and cabinet ministers breaking the simple rule against using names in the House. They do it to praise their master and Fitzgerald, knowing which way the very strong wind blows, lets them go on and on, as did his predecessor Harvey Hodder before him.

Each day, the House is a constant display of rudeness and crudity coming from the legion of government bobble-heads.  Some of the worst offenders are ministers like Kathy Dunderdale, Kevin O’Brien and the ever embarrassing John Hickey.

The heckling is confined largely to Question period which is, as most people know, the one time when the opposition can score any political points and get some news time compared to the government party.

Their political purpose in all this heckling is simple: intimidate the already small-in-numbers opposition.  Throw them off their game.  Break their stride. As the opposition has scored political points this session, as the government has screwed up, so too has the volume of the heckling and catcalls increased proportionately.

Fitzgerald has been deaf to it all.

Oh sure Fitzgerald has stood and cautioned members about their behaviour on a couple of occasions.  And sure, Hansard is full of his shouts of “order, order”.  But Fitzgerald selectively chooses who he disciplines and, as we have seen this week, how he acts.

This past week, Fitzgerald took aim at opposition leader Yvonne Jones.  Anyone listening to the audio version of the House will understand that Jones was not the most frequent cause of disorder nor was she the most vocal one. She also likely didn’t start any of it. Yet it was Jones whom Fitzgerald singled out.

Charlene Johnson was under fire.

She asked Fitzgerald to shut up the opposition leader specifically and he did so.

Fitzgerald did not merely ask for silence as he has done in the past.  He added a personal and revealing twist:

“Gone are the days that the Speaker is going to ask people to leave the Chamber. It is playing into the political hands of the people who are causing the disorder, but the people who are causing disorder will remain invisible to the Chair until there is an apology issued.”

He is referring, of course, to a couple of episodes in this session where opposition members refused to withdraw remarks and so were asked to leave the chamber.  Being named is a time-honoured form of protest, a nod to the rules and a slap at the same time.

For Fitzgerald to single the behaviour out with the words “playing into the political hands” suggests that he is sensitive not to the simple matter of order and decorum in the House but to the political points scored by the opposition. Truth be told, both Fitzgerald and his partisan associates seemed surprised when Marshall Dean made his stand on the sensitive air ambulance issue.

But note that Fitzgerald has made no such comment about the government members, especially those who have repeatedly violated the rules on using names in the legislature in order to score political points.

And an experienced member of the House like Fitzgerald knows full well that his new policy of ignoring certain members hurts only one group:  the opposition. It will not silence any of his political cronies nor will it stop them from doing their job of shouting down the tiny voices of dissent in the House of Assembly. john Hickey doesn’t rise to ask questions nor, thankfully, does he get to answer them very often.


Fitzgerald had to know that his new rule would serve only muzzle the opposition.

And in that one moment, Fitzgerald both admitted his bias.  If this were any other parliament, Fitzgerald would already have resigned in disgrace.

For Fitzgerald to hide behind the claim, offered to CBC radio Morning Show this past Friday,  that he is a guardian of free speech for people in the House with weak voices is as hypocritical as it is an insult to the intelligence of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fitzgerald’s actions this past week make it plain he has the same disregard for free speech in the House as the fellow from whom he took direction during the Cougar tragedy.

Government House leader Joan Burke was quite right last Thursday when she quoted from parliamentary authorities on the need for impartiality in a Speaker.  She quoted Beauchesne:

"In order to ensure complete impartiality the Speaker has usually relinquished all affiliation with any parliamentary party. The Speaker does not attend any party caucus nor take part in any outside partisan political activity."

These last two points are not, as Burke contended,  “significant political sacrifices.”  They are requirements of the job.

But Burke is right to say that impartiality is important both to to the integrity and functioning of the House. It is so important, in fact, that parliamentary authorities like Beauchesne have for centuries singled out the Speaker for protection against unfounded and unwarranted attacks on his integrity.

Unfortunately not many people understand that, as a result of those protections set up by noted authorities, being Speaker does not give one a form of diplomatic immunity for all offences against proper behaviour, impartiality and the integrity of the office. It merely raises the bar for those who must deal with a Speaker who, as Fitzgerald has done, transgresses the rules of the House himself in such an egregious manner so regularly and apparently so blindly.

New Democrat leader Lorraine Michael missed this point when she recently refrained from commenting on Fitzgerald’s behaviour.  So too did the Telegram editorialist miss this bit in what was otherwise an excellent essay on the current mess which is the legislature.

Roger Fitzgerald’s behaviour as Speaker has undermined the integrity of the Speaker’s office, contributed to the loss of order in the House and generally helped to create as unhealthy a democratic environment in the legislature as one has seen anywhere in the centuries of parliamentary history. 

Unfortunately, Yvonne Jones made the mistake of speaking her mind without herself apparently understanding the correct action to take. She spoke out of evident frustration.  That correct action would have been to bring before the House a substantive motion of non-confidence in the Speaker.  Along with properly documented examples of his inappropriate rulings, the case against Fitzgerald could be well and easily made in the House.

It would actually not matter that Fitzgerald’s former caucus-mates would vote down the motion;  Jones’ case would be obvious for all to see. This would leave Fitzgerald in the embarrassing spot of trying to carry on having already been suitably tagged for what he is not just in this province but throughout the parliamentary world community.  Fitzgerald would be hard-pressed not to resign.

And if Fitzgerald tried to prevent the motion from coming to the floor, either alone or in concert with his political friends, or if he and his partisan associates piled on the petty revenge, then their actions would be plainly seen as well. 

As it is, the House is likely to remain saddled with yet another biased Speaker.  The House will remain managed not by the competent and impartial member of whom Beauchesne and others have spoken spoke but by the mob the current Speaker so obviously serves.

If Fitzgerald had any regard for the House he would either straight himself up and start acting like a proper Speaker or resign immediately. 

Experience suggests that nothing will change in the near term.  This will become yet another example of a party which has lost its sense of political direction.

That’s okay.  To paraphrase what one wise old political hand said in 2001, either the government party will change or the voters will change them.