Is it time for an external review of the Speaker?

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Andrew Wilkinson

Vancouver: In the past two weeks, two senior officials with 30 years’ service have been suspended from their posts at the British Columbia Legislature at the initiative of the Speaker, and the normally low profile role of the Speaker of the Legislature has been mired in controversy. It has been noted that between elections the Speaker is accountable to no one unless he dies or resigns. Even the President of the USA can be removed when he or she is incapacitated or unable to serve, but the Speaker faces no such limits and our laws do not provide for his review or replacement. These dramatic events in the BC Legislature have led many of us to wonder – should the citizens of BC be able to hold the Speaker accountable?

A fundamental aspect of our democracy is the idea of accountability. Parliaments developed to keep the Crown accountable to the people through the election of representatives. For many years this was enough. But as the role of government grew, parliaments created new offices to assist them in their responsibility to hold public administration to account. To cite just a few examples, Auditors General hold governments to account on financial matters; Ombuds offices hold governments to account on individual administrative issues; and advocates for children hold governments to account when government becomes the effective parent of children in need of care. In each case, these offices are – in turn – accountable to the legislatures that appoint them. And of course, members of the legislature are accountable to the citizens at every election.

Some might ask “what of judges? – don’t they lack accountability?” While it is true that judicial independence is a fundamental part of our democracy, judges are accountable when their judgments are subject to appeal. And ultimately, even a judge can be removed from office in extraordinary circumstances that thankfully rarely arise. I raise the example of judges because it has been suggested – falsely in my view – that the Speaker has a quasi-judicial role. But even if that were true, he must still be accountable.

My point is that with the entire fabric democratic government being woven with accountability, it cannot be that the Speaker of the Legislature is accountable to no one. So what to do? The Speaker recently told off a reporter, saying that the media should do its due diligence. That is exactly what should occur.

When due diligence is needed in areas where information is sensitive or confidential, we turn to trusted authorities. We ask them to review the circumstances and report not the facts and circumstances, but their conclusions on whether matters have been dealt with fairly or not. So let’s appoint a trusted person to review the circumstances to date and, if the facts warrant, reassure the public that appropriate decisions have been made.

The public must have confidence in its democratic institutions. Let’s have someone do the due diligence suggested by the Speaker to reassure us that confidence in the operation of the Legislature is warranted. This person must be independent of the Legislature, the Speaker, government and any BC political party. What about former Governor General David Johnston or a former speaker of another parliament? They would be strong candidates for the role.  Let them review all of the circumstances and report to us whether our institution has acted properly, and what improvements are needed to restore credibility.

Our democracy depends upon public confidence in our institutions of governance. Our strength lies in our ability to constantly improve these institutions, rather than let them drift into controversy without any plan for improvement. The time has come for the Speaker to be accountable to the citizens of BC, just as every other institution has been for decades.