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Anthony Rota, the Liberal MP for Nipissing—Timiskaming, is the 37th Speaker of the House of Commons and the first Speaker to preside over hybrid meetings of the House — an innovation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the spring sitting of Parliament wrapping up this week — the House is now adjourned until September — Rota spoke with CBC News this week about his recent return from heart surgery, the eternal struggle to maintain order during question period, the new concerns about security and the potential future of hybrid sittings.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: Let’s start with you. You obviously had heart surgery a few months ago. How’s the recovery going? How does it feel to be back at work?
A: I’ve been back for a little over a month now and it’s been working out very well. I think the recovery has been ahead of schedule, which is good, but it’s taken a little bit more out of me than I anticipated. I thought I’d be back after three weeks, to be honest with you – second guessing my doctors, of course. But it took awhile to recover and I’m still recovering. I’ve talked to other people who’ve had bypass surgery or open heart surgery, and it takes at least three months to kind of get back on your feet and then a year to get back to normal. So overall, I’m feeling pretty good about it. What I find is near the end of the day, the energy level is not what it used to be, but it’s coming back. I notice a difference every day.
Q: Obviously, decorum is a constant concern, but how do you find the tenor of the House at this point?
A: Compared to other years, they’re actually doing well. And there’s a concerted effort by the whips and the House leaders to keep a certain amount of decorum in the chamber and that’s very much appreciated. I know that at times it seems like it gets out of hand, but that’s just emotions running high at the end of every session and this one is no different than the others. But I do find, believe it or not, decorum is actually better and I have to give credit to the whips and the House leaders.
Q: I don’t know how often you watch the British Parliament, but their speakers are often a little more, let’s say, heavy handed and forthright about getting mad and putting people in their place. And I’ve always found – and I think it continues with you — that Canadian speakers take a sort of lighter approach to things, a lighter hand. Do you think that works?
A: Well, I remember my father telling me, you get a lot more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. And that’s something that I think is important when you’re trying to keep calm. I have raised my voice a couple of times, and sometimes it’s more as an experiment than anything else just to see. When they’re used to you being calm all the time, when you do raise your voice or when you do get a little bit stricter, they take you seriously. What I always look at is, okay, how can this be a learning moment? And rarely do I pick one MP and make an example of them. What I’ll normally do is say, okay, this is what the rules say, and I just want to make sure that everyone is aware. And the person who’s acting out or the one who’s being the problem knows who I’m speaking to … and they calm right down. Whereas if I were to slap them on the wrist and publicly shame them, I’m not sure it would accomplish much other than embarrassing them in front of everyone, which is not the objective. It’s about getting peace in the chamber and it usually works out fairly well.
Q: You had an intervention back in February where you said, “I’ve been getting emails from people who are watching us at home and they’re pretty ashamed of their Parliament because of the shouting that goes on.” Do you hear a lot from Canadians who watch question period or catch a clip on TV and are upset about it?
A: There’s a few every week who will send me an email and say, like; how can you keep them from shouting at each other? Or; please be more severe with certain people. And I guess everybody has a different style. I’ve seen Speakers who are very harsh with people and those who try to work with people, and I think working with people gets us further ahead. But overall, I’m surprised at how many people are watching and take the time to actually write, which is much appreciated because it’s always nice to get the input and be able to act on it.
Q: Presiding over Parliament at this moment, does it take on a different feeling given the concerns about democracy and the political conflict we’re seeing in other countries?
A: Well, democracy relies on civilized discussions and debate and that’s what we want to do – we want to keep it civilised. As soon as people start shouting at each other, well, we lose that, that civil discourse that is so important to our democracy. So it’s important to keep it at a certain level. Now, during debate, you’ll notice that everything is fairly quiet. It’s usually during question period, when everyone comes together, that you’ll see the emotions run high. And sometimes it’s more powerful than the individual and they’ll shout out a comment. That’s what heckling is. What I really don’t like is when they try to drown out the person who’s speaking, because then all of a sudden it’s no longer heckling, it’s bullying. And that’s something that regardless of whether it’s government or opposition, it shouldn’t be allowed.
Q: There’s obviously been concerns about security around Parliament Hill and security concerns for individual MPs. In addition to your duties in the chamber, how much of a preoccupation, at this point, is security?
A: Security is always a preoccupation. We started looking into this when I was first elected and not long after COVID was declared. We started looking at different parliaments around the world and what they were doing to protect their members. And we’ve actually had meetings with other parliaments, including the United Kingdom. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has become a very good friend. We’ve been consulting with each other on a fairly regular basis. We brought in our security people, including the sergeant at arms, and they brought in their people and we compared notes and we learned a lot from them because they did lose two MPs to violent [attacks] and that’s something that they’ve reacted to. Since then, what we’ve done is we’ve included measures in increased security for MPs, whether it’s security assessments for their homes and office, security equipment, advice and just awareness of some of the things that could happen. We’ve included some training … not only how to protect yourself in Ottawa, but in the riding as well, and how do we engage local police forces. So there’s a lot of different variables there. The sad part is a lot of them are very unpredictable and we never know where they’re going to come from.
Q: I know the hybrid Parliament has become a political debate, so I’m not going to ask you to weigh in on that.
A: I appreciate it. Thank you.
Q: But do you feel, from a technical standpoint and a logistical standpoint, you’ve gotten to a point where it works?
A: I have a feeling it is where it can work. But we do have incidents like [this week] where the Internet went down and there’s not really much you can do about it, which will affect the way Parliament works. Now, the decision to continue will be up to the House leaders and the Parliament. Overall, it served us well up until now, and COVID has caused us to adapt to new technologies. Do we maintain them is the question I think we all have to ask ourselves, and it’s going to be interesting to see where it goes.
Q: Has presiding over a hybrid Parliament over the last two years changed the Speaker’s job?
A: It’s like everything else that we do under COVID, it has affected how we do things. But the main principle remains the same — it’s maintaining decorum in the chamber, and that chamber is now extended across the country over the Internet. It does make it a little bit more difficult and certainly has been a learning experience, but I think what’s happened with COVID [is] we’ve learned to use new tools that we’ll probably be able to use a little bit more often down the road. The one thing that does worry me is we don’t want it to become the status quo. And I’m concerned about anybody on the hybrid system just saying; you know what, I don’t feel like going to Ottawa this week, I’m just going to do this from home – wherever home may be in Canada. It’s nice to have that option, but the rules around when you can use that option should be very clear and concise.
Q: Do you worry at all about the impact on relations between MPs? I remember reading once that there was a proposal back in the eighties or nineties to to bring in electronic voting and one of the arguments against it became, well, look, one of the only times MPs are all in the same room together is when MPs are voting and so if you make it electronic voting, you lose that opportunity for MPs to get to know each other and talk and communicate and share information. Is that your concern? Do you worry that MPs will become more distant from each other and that you’ll lose that human connection?
A: That’s one of my biggest concerns, actually. Not being in the same chamber, we miss that human connection and a lot of the discussions, a lot of the deals, a lot of the compromises that are made are usually done in the lobbies, in the hallways, in offices together. That’s not something you get out of the Internet. Even with video conferencing, it’s not the same as being there in person. You don’t get the same feeling because sometimes just the expressions, the body [language] or the facial expressions that come out person to person — you can gauge where you’re at and whether you have to back up or this is good to go ahead. So, yes, I am very concerned about us losing that human contact because, really, when we know each other personally, it’s a lot easier to talk to each other – when we don’t just see some guy on a screen or someone on the other side of the floor that you’ve never actually sat down with. One of the initiatives that I’ve done since coming to the speaker’s job is I’ve tried to have as many dinners with MPs as possible. We have one a week and we try to have MPs from different parties sitting next to each other. So you’re not allowed to sit next to someone in the same party. And we randomly pick people and bring them in. And what ends up happening is by the time the dinner is over, people get to know each other better and they’re no longer strangers or that person I want to crush on the other side; It’s my friend John or Mary on the other side. I’m going to go talk with her and see what we can work out.