The Speaker of the House of Commons is not supposed to be the problem.
The Speaker of the House is the person elected by his or her peers to preside over their affairs, control their behavior, protect their privileges, and represent the institution. The Speaker is the robed officer who oversees proceedings from his throne, responsible for addressing issues and demanding apologies from MPs who cannot contain themselves, to protect and defend the reputation of Parliament.
What makes all of this especially bad for Anthony Rota is the context and severity of the mistake he apologized for on Monday. He didn’t just invite a Ukrainian-Canadian veteran of a Nazi-aligned military unit to Parliament to witness President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s remarks. He also called on all parliamentarians present to recognize and applaud that man.
So Rota’s mistake wasn’t just hurtful and embarrassing. It was very public and gave a propaganda victory to the Russian regime that invaded Ukraine.
All of this explains why Rota seemed so shaken when he addressed the House as soon as possible on Monday. This also explains why Rota barely retains his position as president.
“I wish to apologize to the House,” the president said, “and I deeply regret having offended many with my gesture and my comments.”
‘We trust you’
Rota appeared to choke up for a moment after State House leader Karina Gould, who is Jewish and whose grandfather was imprisoned in Auschwitz, expressed her disappointment.
“I would say that as parliamentarians, we put our trust in you, Mr. Speaker,” Gould said. “There are many times when we recognize people in the gallery, and we do it based on your good advice… All of us here did it on camera on Friday, because we trust you on that.”
Gould noted that Monday was Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and repentance. But then NDP House Leader Peter Julian stood up and, looking quite saddened, called on Rota to resign.
“While we appreciate the president’s apology yesterday and his comments today, it is with great regret and sadness that I say that I do not believe it is enough,” Julián said.
If Rota’s presidency was at stake, this was clearly a push.
Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien spoke next and simply asked Rota to search his own soul. But less than two hours later, BQ leader Yves-François Blanchet issued a statement calling for Rota’s resignation.
If the Conservatives did not immediately make their own call for the president’s resignation, it is only because they apparently intend to blame the prime minister.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was pointing fingers at Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government even before Rota took over on Sunday. But Rota’s admission did nothing to move the conservatives away from their original position.
“State visits are organized by the government,” Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer, a former House speaker, said Monday.
That may be true, but that does not mean that the government has jurisdiction over the Speaker of Parliament or decides who attends Parliament. Indeed, it would raise serious questions about the sovereignty of Parliament if the government were able to exercise such control over access to the parliamentary floor and the House of Commons.
During question period, Conservatives pointed to the fact that the director of the Parliamentary Protective Service, responsible for security on Parliament Hill, is a member of the RCMP who reports to the RCMP commissioner on operational matters (the commissioner of the RCMP then reports to the minister of public safety).
It is unclear whether anyone in the PPS or the RCMP would have flagged this individual as a security risk, rather than a political risk. But Parliament of Canada Act It also establishes that the Presidents of the Senate and the House of Commons “are, as custodians of the powers, privileges, rights and immunities of their respective Houses and of the members of those Houses, responsible for the [Parliamentary Protective Service]”.
A statement issued by Rota’s office also said that the names of those invited to attend a special address to Parliament (those invited by either the president or a political party) are not shared with the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It was my decision and mine alone,” Rota said Monday. “I was a voter who wanted to be here and I recognized that. It was my decision and I apologize profusely.”
But in their eagerness to harm the prime minister, the conservatives prevented Rota from facing a united front of all the opposition parties, which represent the majority of parliamentarians, on Monday.
Is Rota’s eventful turn as president coming to an end?
Rota is not the first spokesperson to encounter some kind of problem. President Louis-René Beaudoin faced a no-confidence motion and offered to resign during the infamous Pipeline debate in 1956.
But Rota’s mistake was egregious and would be an embarrassing end to his nearly four years of service as the 37th president of the Confederacy.
Rota was elected president by his peers in 2019, beating four other contenders, and re-elected in 2021. Within months of assuming the presidency, he was presiding over a pandemic-era Parliament. He then oversaw the transition to virtual and hybrid sittings, an innovation that may become a permanent part of the way the House of Commons conducts its business.
When the Liberal government attempted to challenge Parliament’s power to demand documents in court, Rota became the public defender of the institution.
“I want to confirm that the argument is that the legal system has no jurisdiction over the functioning of the Chamber. We are our own jurisdiction,” Rota told the House in 2021. “That’s something we will fight tooth and nail to protect, and we will continue to do so.”
And meanwhile, Rota evolved into a more aggressive defender of propriety during question period, someone who was willing to take questions away from a rebel party or even expel an MP.
But on Monday, the main topic in question period was what Rota had done, even as conservatives tried to blame someone else. That is an uncomfortable position for the Speaker of the House of Commons. It could also be unsustainable.