The Speaker is a key figure in the Legislative Assembly.
The Speaker is an MLA elected in a secret ballot by all Members of the Legislative Assembly to preside over debates and ensure that the Assembly's established rules of behaviour and procedure are followed.
The election of the Speaker is the first item of business for a new parliament and is open to all MLAs except cabinet ministers. It takes place on the first sitting day after each general election or when a Speaker resigns, retires or dies. If there is not a Speaker in place, the Legislative Assembly cannot proceed with its business until one is elected. The election of the Speaker is presided over by the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly.
The Speaker is neutral, responsible for making sure that all MLAs, no matter what party they belong to, are treated fairly and impartially. He or she votes only to break a tie.
The Speaker as MLA
The Speaker, when elected, does not stop being an MLA. That means that while remaining neutral and avoiding taking public positions on politically controversial matters before the Legislative Assembly, the Speaker must still continue to listen to the people of his or her constituency and to effectively represent their interests. The Speaker does this by making private recommendations to government and organizations on issues affecting his or her constituents. The Speaker, however, does not attend caucus meetings.
The Speaker as Presiding Officer
Balancing the right of the majority to conduct business with the right of the minority to be heard is one of the Speaker's most important responsibilities.
The primary role of the opposition is to question government actions and present alternatives to government positions. While this kind of adversarial system is a cornerstone of democracy, debates can, like a hockey game, sometimes get heated. The Speaker serves as a very necessary referee, ensuring fair play by all MLAs.
It is the Speaker's job to enforce the Standing Orders — the rules of parliamentary procedure adopted by the Legislative Assembly, which are designed to make sure that debates in the Chamber are properly carried out and that all MLAs have the opportunity to participate.
These rules require all MLAs to show respect for the Speaker and for each other. For example, members must not speak unless "recognized" (allowed to speak) by the Speaker and must not interrupt when the Speaker is speaking.
In addition, to discourage personal attacks, MLAs must address the Legislative Assembly through the Speaker at all times, rather than addressing each other directly. When referring to one another, they must use the name of an MLA's constituency (e.g., "the honourable member for Victoria–Beacon Hill") rather than the MLA's actual name.
This helps maintain order and decorum in the Legislative Assembly. In a spirited debate, the Speaker can act as a buffer between members, and heated words may be less inflammatory when directed through the Speaker. The Legislative Assembly is a forum for robust debate, not merely a polite debating society.
If an MLA does not obey the rules and makes inappropriate or discourteous remarks, the Speaker will ask the member to withdraw those remarks. If the member does not comply with the Speaker's instructions, the Speaker has the power to order the MLA to withdraw from the Chamber for the day. For more serious offences, the Speaker "names" the MLA, which means the MLA may be suspended from the Legislative Assembly without pay for anywhere from one to 15 days.
If the MLA refuses to leave the Chamber as requested, the Speaker may ask the Sergeant-at-Arms to remove the member. In such a case, the offending member may be suspended for the balance of the session.
Other Presiding Officers
The Deputy Speaker, Assistant Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chair, Committee of the Whole
The Legislative Assembly also appoints members to serve in the following positions: Deputy Speaker, Assistant Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chair, Committee of the Whole. The position of Assistant Deputy Speaker was created during the 38th Parliament. It was a significant change at that time as it was the first opportunity for an Opposition MLA to hold a position as one of the Assembly's senior presiding officers.
If the Speaker is absent, the Deputy Speaker presides over debate in his or her stead, with all the same powers, privileges and duties. If the Deputy Speaker is absent, the Assistant Deputy Speaker or the Deputy Chair may preside over debates in the Chamber. In the event that all senior presiding officers are absent, any member appointed by the House shall take the chair, perform the duties and exercise the authority of the Speaker in relation to all the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly.
Chairs of Select Standing and Special Committees
At the beginning of each session, a committee (the Special Committee of Selection) is formed to choose members for select standing and special committees. The Chairs of select standing and special committees preside over committee meetings and present committee reports to the Legislative Assembly.
A Little Bit of History
The Speaker has been part of the British parliamentary system since 1377. The first person to be called "the Speaker" was Sir Thomas Hungerford. In the beginning, the Speaker was responsible for carrying messages, often complaints or grievances, from the people's representatives to the King or Queen. This explains the title of "Speaker" — the one person empowered to speak to the monarch on behalf of Parliament.
At the time, the Speaker advised Parliament of the monarch’s wishes and conveyed to the monarch Parliament’s response. This was a potentially hazardous profession. The monarch was apt to express his displeasure at Parliament’s reply by putting the Speaker to death. History records at least nine such cases.
This rather bloody and dangerous past explains why a Speaker, upon election, will pretend to be reluctant to take the Speaker’s chair and must be dragged to the front of the Chamber.
The first Speakers were not appointed by Parliament but by the monarch. The Speaker was there to manage parliament on behalf of the King or Queen, not to serve as an impartial arbiter of proceedings. As the power of Parliament grew, the Speaker was no longer the agent of the monarch. In the famous incident of 1642, Speaker Lenthall refused the demand of Charles I to produce five members for arrest with his famous speech: "I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here." By the end of the 17th century, the Speaker was a fully independent appointee of the British House of Commons.
On the very first day of the first parliament in B.C., February 15, 1872, Lieutenant Governor Trutch would not continue with the opening proceedings because a Speaker had not yet been chosen. With Trutch absent, the members elected James Trimble as the first Speaker, and the following day the Lieutenant Governor returned and read the inaugural Speech from the Throne. To this day the Lieutenant Governor will not open parliament until a Speaker has been elected.