07 June 2016

The House and Twitter #nlpoli

Guest post by Simon Lono

The latest House of Assembly Twitter flap raises more issues that it first appears.  Leaving aside the wisdom of the timing, it’s worth understanding why the point was raised at all.

The Telegram, in their Saturday thundering and mocking editorial condemned the whole exercise because “We actually have a right to know if you or your fellow MHAs don’t deign to come to work”.

This is true but ultimately irrelevant to the issue.  And like so many rules of parliament, pointing out absence or presence of members just seems silly until you examine why it’s there.

A recap: Steve Kent re-tweeted from James McLeod that three MHAs (Gerry Byrne, John Finn and Sherry Gambin-Walsh) were not in the House for a budget vote.  Dale Kirby raised a Point of Privilege alleging that Kent broke the rule regarding making reference to the absence of members.

First, Speaker Osborne noted that this was not a Privilege issue but a Point of Order.  And Osborne even said Kirby would have been more successful if he had raised the right point in the first place.

It’s a point of order because the Canadian standard book on parliamentary practice, O’Brien and Bosc, says it is: “Allusions to the presence or absence of a Member or Minister in the Chamber are unacceptable.”  The earlier version, Marleau and Montpetit, elaborated: “It is unacceptable to allude to the presence or absence of a Member or Minister in the Chamber.  The Speaker has traditionally discouraged Members from signalling the absence of another Member from the House because there are many places that Members have to be in order to carry out all of the obligations that go with their office.” 

I know this rule also applies to the British House of Commons (Erskine May) and a little more digging will show it’s in place in just about every province.  And for good reason for reasons other than just inheriting it from the federal House of Commons.  In parliamentary procedure, the reason for rules is often the product of many hard-learned lessons over a long time. 

The point of this rule, like so many others in Parliamentary procedure, is to ensure that members stay impersonal, on point and relevant to the topic under discussion.  Just like rules prohibiting personal names and insults and requiring relevant remarks, the rule prohibiting members mentioning who is present or absent encourages members to stay relevant with remarks on the business at hand rather than permitting irrelevant attacks on members.

Would we approve of Steve Kent, MHA, launching into persistent attacks on cabinet minister missing House sessions or votes because they were on official business elsewhere and while they were not present to defend themselves?  No, we would prefer that he did his job and spend his House speaking time on the issues at hand: legislation, committees and other parliamentary business.

But in fact that’s exactly the attack he made by retweeting MacLeod’s observation.

Do we have a right to know if MHA’s are missing sessions or votes?  Of course we do.  And McLeod reported on that fact in his tweet because that’s MacLeod’s job as a journalist. Kent did not have the automatic right to jump in because he is subject to House rules (at least while in the House for most purposes) where McLeod is not.

Do the Standing Orders need to be updated?  They sure do.  They were adopted in haste shortly after confederation and only lightly revisited since then despite much work by staff thus far ignored by the elected members.  Never mind the complexities added by social media, there are sections opaque even to the professionals who have to deal with them on a daily basis.

It’s easy to watch the House and disparage the enforcement of rules that seem silly and strange.  But you can be sure that it’s these same silly rules that keep the House on point (to the extent that it is) and ensure  that the people’s work that needs to get done does get done in the end with the absolute minimum of irrelevant nonsense.