Monday, October 12, 2009

Congratulations to Peter Milliken. Longest Serving Speaker of the House

I have to admit that I didn't vote for Peter Milliken until 2008. He has served Kingston for more than 20 years, and has done a great job.

I was just never really a Liberal supporter, though I have voted for all of the top three at some time.

My allegiance, if I had one, was with the Progressive Conservatives. However, I have been following Stephen Harper and his Reform movement for many years and just knew that his goal of dismantling our social safety net, is the absolute wrong thing for Canada. Like Bob Rae recently stated. He is a Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. I call him the Devil you think you know.

Mind you, he hasn't won his majority yet and I still have confidence in the Canadian people, that they will come to their senses. If Harper was honest with Canadians, he would ask us how we feel about losing our public health care, Canada pensions (many seniors quit the Reform Party when they learned of this), public education and help for the most vulnerable. He would ask us how we feel about supporting a nuclear war in the Middle East to fulfil a Biblical prophesy.

But he won't ask, and hoping that Stephen Harper could be honest, is like hoping the Maple Leafs will win the Stanly Cup. It's never going to happen. Sigh.

Commons Speaker Milliken marks milestone today
The Canadian Press
October 12, 2009

OTTAWA — Peter Milliken's job might be compared to herding cats, but he's done it longer than anyone in Canadian history.

Milliken is the Speaker of the House of Commons and, as of Monday, he will have held the job for 3,178 days, surpassing the tenure of Lucien Lamoureux, a Trudeau-era Speaker.

While few people are likely to recognize the name, they'll likely know the face. On the evening news clips from the Commons, he's the white-haired chap in the black robe trying to keep the exasperation from his voice as he tries to calm a raucous question period.

The 62-year-old MP from Kingston, Ont., was elected the 34th Speaker on January 29, 2001, and has since been acclaimed once and re-elected twice to the post. It's probably an apt vocation for a man who, as a teenager, subscribed to Hansard and wrote a college thesis on question period in the 1960s.

The short, elfin-faced Milliken says, though, that he never aspired to the Speaker's chair. "I think when I first got elected I wanted to be a minister, but it didn't happen," he said in a recent interview.

He grew up in Kingston, where he attended high school and Queen's University. He came to Parliament in 1988, as the Liberal member for Kingston and the Islands, which takes in much of the riding once held by Sir John A. Macdonald.

He drifted into the arcane world of parliamentary procedure after his re-election in 1993. He was parliamentary secretary to the government House leader for just over two years. He then moved into deputy chair and deputy speaker's jobs as he mastered the intricacies that govern Parliament.

He was finally elected Speaker and was dragged, feigning protest, to the chair, which he has held for eight years, eight months and 13 days. It's a job drenched in tradition and wrapped with precedent.

The traditions range from the tricorn hat, black robe and white collar tabs of his office to the historic oil paintings that hang in his chambers. The precedents that govern his rulings stretch back to the 17th century and Westminster.

It's a tough job. He has to cut himself off from his own party and caucus to avoid any perception of bias. He must maintain order among 307 often-fractious MPs. He has to handle his own constituency work, like any other MP. He's basically the chief executive officer of Parliament, overseeing budgets and operations for the Commons and the various buildings that make up what's called the parliamentary precinct.

He's a member of various international parliamentary groups. Plus there's a busy social schedule of dinners and receptions for MPs, ministers and visiting dignitaries.

"It's time-demanding, very demanding, time-wise," he said. "You start reasonably early in the morning and you go fairly late at night every day."

Traditionally, the Speaker steps away from his party and caucus and takes an impartial stance, voting only in the event of a rare tie.

Since Confederation, Speakers have voted only 10 times. But Milliken - who has presided over three minority governments - has cast five of the tie-breakers himself, the most recent just last week.

He's the only Speaker ever to break a tie in a confidence vote. On May 19, 2005, he voted against an NDP non-confidence motion, sustaining Paul Martin's minority Liberal government.

But that vote was essentially pre-ordained because, as Milliken explains, the Speaker is required to vote either for the status quo, or to continue debate. A vote for the government met both conditions. But there's one case he hopes to avoid, that would be a tie on third and final reading of a major bill.

"The argument would be, what you do on third reading?" he said. "What if it had been third reading? When you're supposed to vote for the status quo do you then vote to throw the bill out so that you don't change the law? Or do you argue that the status quo is maintaining the government?

"I haven't had to face that one and I'm quite thankful I haven't."

One topic that always comes up in discussing the Speaker's job is decorum. The Commons often echoes with hoots, cat-calls, boos, cheers and the affable Milliken is charged with calming the din and getting things back on track.

Although many complain that the House has become a bedlam in recent years, Milliken remembers sitting in the galleries as a student in the 1960s, when the boom of fists slammed on desk tops could be deafening.

"There was a lot of yelling and desk thumping. ... It was so loud it drowned out anything," he said. "You couldn't hear a thing when people were pounding their desks and that's exactly what they did. It would start in the middle of an answer or the middle of a question."

Today, desk thumping is out of style on the House, replaced by booing or cheers and ovations. "I don't think it's that much worse than it was," Milliken says. "It's bigger - then there were 265 (MPs) now it's 308 - so it is bigger. ... But I don't think the noise is particularly worse."

What has changed is that more people see the question period uproar. "Because it's on television, people see it more than they did before. I think they're thinking: 'Boy! Look at this.'
"You can see what they're doing and they are making a lot of noise."

Milliken is the third Speaker to be elected by the MPs themselves. Until 1986, the government selected the Speaker. Milliken says election means MPs have a stake in ensuring the Speaker succeeds.

They were always quick to jump on an appointed Speaker for real or perceived flaws.

"Now, having been elected by everybody, they are prepared to be a little more forgiving if the Speaker's making errors or making rulings they don't like, because they have to take some responsibility for having chosen the person themselves.

The elections aren't always easy. He was first elected to the post on a fifth ballot and took four ballots to win last November.

For all the long hours and procedural wrangling, the job does have perks. The Speaker gets a cabinet minister's salary. He has a country residence called The Farm, at Kingsmere in the scenic Gatineau Hills north of the capital. It was once owned by Mackenzie King and one room holds the very bed where the former prime minister died.

The Speaker also has a suite of rooms in the Centre Block, looking out toward the Ottawa River. They are panelled in hand-carved wood and furnished with antiques and heritage pieces, including the chair used by the very first speaker in 1867.

A giant enlargement of Karsh's famous photo of a glowering Winston Churchill dominates one wall.

At one time, Speakers alternated between anglophones and francophones. Tradition dictated that an anglophone Speaker would hang a portrait of Maj.-Gen. James Wolfe in his chambers. A francophone Speaker would hang a portrait of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. The generals, both killed at the Battle of Quebec, maintained two solitudes.

Milliken, however, follows an example set by Lamoureux 40 years ago and has both portraits on his wall. Although Milliken keeps a serious face in public, he isn't a fuddy duddy. The Trailer Park Boys dropped into his office one day and he promptly threw a headlock on one of the lads.

He's a fan of the Tragically Hip - not so much the music because he favours classical - but because they're from Kingston and went to school with his younger sister. He cultivates a dry sense of humour, which can slip out with a twinkle even in the House.

All in all, Milliken says he's satisfied with his lot. "I've quite enjoyed the experience and continue to do so."

More Postings on Peter Milliken:

1. Peter Milliken Just Sent me a Ten Percenter. I'm in Shock!

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