As was first reported by CBC’s Micheal Gorman on Oct. 5, premier Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservative government is thinking about removing the legislature’s Speaker of the House. After the caucus meeting last week, Eastern Shore PC MLA Kent Smith said the party isn’t removing the current speaker, Keith Bain, “just succession planning.”
Even though the Tories claim they aren’t planning on giving the speaker the boot—something that hasn’t happened in almost 150 years—the long-time province house reporter Jean Laroche is sounding the alarm after Gorman’s reporting broke. And the reason he’s raising the alarm, and The Coast is writing an explainer a week after the fact, is that it’s extremely important. And in order to understand why it’s such a big deal, everyone needs to understand what Speakers do and how they are normally replaced—and to understand how Houston holds power at Province House.
How power works at Province House
In the Canadian parliamentary tradition, parties are whipped, meaning whatever a party leader decides to do, their party will vote to support it. Elected officials who don’t follow their party are often removed from the party, meaning they lose all of the institutional support they need to achieve their legislative goals, or get re-elected. The threat is serious enough that it’s very effective at keeping people in line.
Because of whipped votes, when a party wins a majority—which the Nova Scotia PCs have done—its leader (Houston in this case) has a lot of power. One of the checks on his power is the rules of the house of assembly, which he has to follow. These rules prevent leaders from abusing the administrative power at their disposal and ensure legislation has a free and fair debate and vote—even if the whipped votes mean the outcomes are foregone conclusions.
The Speaker enforces free and fair debates and votes by making sure the parties follow the rules of the house in the debate and vote procedures.
How to change a Speaker
Until 1998, the Speaker in Nova Scotia was appointed by the premier. But in a move to modernize the province’s democracy, then-opposition PCs and NDPers passed a motion to have the Speaker be elected in a secret ballot by all members of the legislature. There are no rules dictating when a Speaker can be removed; it’s done by simple majority vote. This means it is possible for Houston to try and use his whipped caucus to replace the speaker.
“If it’s a simple majority vote, our rules aren’t good enough,” says international parliamentary development consultant Kevin Deveaux. After his stint as a Nova Scotia MLA, he started a company which helps countries set up robust parliamentary systems. He says it’s a “red flag” that the Speaker can be ousted by a majority, especially in a parliamentary system like Canada’s with whipped votes. He says the Speaker’s position should be better protected from the whims of the majority by having set criteria for removal, like criminal charges, serious health issues or death. At the very least, he says the Speaker should have stronger procedural protections like requiring a two-thirds majority instead of a simple majority to oust a Speaker.
Normally when a premier wants to remove a Speaker, the Speaker is tempted away from their job with a sweet political appointment with some perks like free travel and a nice salary in a job that can be leveraged for future political gain. For example, in 2011, NDP speaker Charlie Parker stopped being speaker to become the minister of natural resources.
The general scuttlebutt from those in the know down at Province House these days is that current Speaker Keith Bain is close to retirement and happy in his role as the guardian of Nova Scotia’s democracy. Or something. In any event, he does not seem to be easily lured away from his post. So if Houston does, in fact, want the Speaker removed, the only tool he has left is the sad little cudgel of a boring administrative power grab.
Why does Houston want to do this?
Deveaux says politicians only want to remove Speakers “when a government feels the Speaker is being unfair. Which usually means they are being fair, but the government doesn’t like it.” By all reports, mainly what opposition MLAs are telling anyone who will listen, Bain is an incredibly fair Speaker.
So why does Houston want to do it? Honestly, that’s a good question, and one Houston doesn’t have to answer if he doesn’t want to. The only thing critics can point to is that Houston disagreed with Bain’s proper handling of COVID procedures at Province House. When Houston was making a big show of not taking a pay raise, the Speaker ordered an independent review of MLA pay raises—as the rules required him to do.
AllNovaScotia.com is also reporting that the Speaker has yet to make a decision on two cases of bad behaviour in the chamber by politicians. One case stems from when Houston was accused of yelling, “Why don't you block another highway?” to former PC MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin. The second complaint has Economic Development Minister Susan Corkum-Greek accused of calling Smith-McCrossin, Kelly Regan and Patricia Arab a “coven.” There may be some very limited benefit to the premier to have the speaker in his pocket when these decisions eventually are made.
Does Houston have a problem?
On a political level, and a practical one, this is only a problem for Houston if enough people remember this at election time. And there may be some consequences if people start to vibe check his involvement with the Paradise Papers crossed with the first Speaker removal in almost 150 years as the same Tim doesn’t-like-rules-that-hold-him-back Houston vibes. But by and large, no one but the Jean Laroches of the world will remember this specific power grab come next election.
On a larger, more serious level, Deveaux says Houston’s move has major constitutional ramifications. By constitutional design, the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government all have independence from each other. In trying to remove the Speaker, Houston is imposing the will of the executive branch (his cabinet) on the legislative branch (his cabinet and all the rest of the MLAs, too).
“Trying to impose the executive will on the legislative branch is a breach of constitutionality,” says Deveaux. “Because all three levels have constitutional autonomy.” And having a premier willing to undermine the constitutionality of the democracy he leads because the referee is following the rules is terrifying.
An added bonus of this constitutional crisis is not only that it may undermine people’s faith in democracy, yes, but so too may the realization that Houston has a majority. And with a majority, the only people who can do anything to prevent Houston from making this constitutional mistake are in his whipped caucus.
Isn’t our democracy great?