Speaker casts first-of-its-kind tiebreaker vote
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Date: Thu. May. 19 2005 9:33 PM ET
OTTAWA The Speaker of the House of Commons rarely votes but when he does, it means something.
Speaker Peter Milliken's tie-breaking vote on Thursday, which pulled the Liberal minority back from the brink of defeat, was a first in Commons history. Never before had a Speaker broken a tie on a vote to defeat a government.
But constitutional experts say it was a foregone conclusion.
"The rule is that in the event of a tie, the speaker votes to maintain the status quo," said Ned Franks, a professor emeritus from Queen's University and author of The Parliament of Canada.
Marleau and Montpetit's House of Commons Practice and Procedure, the bible of the Commons, also makes that clear:
"The Speaker would normally vote the status quo."
Franks said precedent is vital in these cases.
"In theory, the Speaker might vote any way he or she wanted, but the Speaker's actual discretion is tempered by precedent and the need for clear principles and practices," he said.
"There need to be rules and guidelines to make procedure in the House, especially on something as important as the survival of a government, something less than random and whimsical."
He said he couldn't see any Speaker, from any party, disregarding precedent in such a politically sensitive vote.
The Speaker only gets to vote -- it's formally called a "casting vote" -- in the event of a tie. It's only happened a few times since Confederation and it's never involved a confidence vote.
But the right of the Speaker to break a tie goes back hundreds of years. It was enshrined in the Constitutional Act of 1791.
The last time a Speaker broke a tie was on May 4 this year, when Milliken voted on a private member's bill. He also voted in September 2003 to break a 134-134 tie over an amendment to a motion about traditional marriage.
Just before announcing his vote in favour of the government Thursday night, Milliken joked: "I don't know why honourable members keep doing this to me."
Milliken, Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands, was chosen as a deputy Speaker in 1997. He took over the chair as Speaker in January 2001 and was re-elected at the start of this minority Parliament.
A lawyer, he has had to manoeuvre through procedural minefields in recent weeks, as the Commons grew more fractious by the day and the Opposition and government jousted over technicalities.
Milliken seems well-suited for the task, however. He's been in the House for 17 years and even as a boy, he followed Parliamentary proceedings. His brother, Bill, recalls him as a teen reading Hansard, the verbatim journal of Parliamentary debates.
The budget vote, which could have ousted the government, was the closest call any government has ever had.
The tightest previous confidence vote came in 1926, when Arthur Meighen's three-day old Conservative government was defeated 96-95. Meighen lost the ensuing election to Mackenzie King and the Liberals.
Franks said the Speaker of the day played a role in that vote, too. It involved an MP who was paired, that is one who had promised not to vote because an opposing MP -- his pair -- could not vote.
"Immediately after the vote, at the same sitting and while everyone was still reeling in shock, surprise, delight or whatever, depending on party, an opposition member asked if his vote could be withdrawn because he had forgotten that he was paired and he shouldn't have voted," Franks said.
"The Speaker refused this request, saying that the vote had already been recorded and couldn't be changed. What was written was written."
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