Anthony Rota speaker on decorum, safety and ensuring deputies see themselves as human

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Anthony Rota, Liberal MP for Nipissing – Timiskaming, is the 37th Speaker of the House of Commons and the first president to preside over hybrid House meetings – an innovation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Parliament’s spring session wrapping up this week – the House is now adjourned until September – Rota spoke to CBC News this week about her recent return from heart surgery, the never-ending struggle to maintain order during Question Time, the new security concerns and the potential future of hybrid sessions.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:

Q: Let’s start with you. you obviously had Cardiac surgery a few months ago. How is the recovery? What’s it like to be back at work?

A: I’ve been back for just over a month and it’s been working great. I think the recovery is advanced, which is good, but it took me a little more than I expected. I thought I’d be back after three weeks, to be honest with you – guessing my doctors, of course. But it took a while to recover and I’m still recovering. I’ve talked to other people who have had heart bypass surgery or open heart surgery, and it takes at least three months to recover and then a year to get back to normal. So overall, I’m feeling pretty good about it. What I find is nearing 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: Of course, decorum is a constant concern, but how do you find the tenor of the House at this point?

A: Compared to other years, they are doing well. And there is a concerted effort by the whips and the House leaders to maintain a certain amount of decorum in the House and that is very much appreciated. I know sometimes it feels like it gets out of control, but that’s just emotions running high at the end of each session and this one is no different than the others. But I think, believe it or not, decorum is actually better and I have to give credit to the whips and the House leaders.

Anthony Rota is applauded as he is escorted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole to the President’s Chair after being elected Speaker of the House of Commons on Monday, November 22, 2021, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Q: I don’t know how often you attend the British Parliament, but your speakers are often a little more, shall we say, heavy and direct about getting mad and putting people in their places. And I’ve always felt – and I think it remains with you – that Canadian speakers have a lighter approach to things, a lighter hand. Do you think this works?

A: Well, I remember my dad telling me, you catch a lot more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. And that’s something I think is important when you’re trying to keep your cool. I’ve raised my voice a few times, and sometimes it’s more like an experiment than anything else just to see. When they’re used to you being calm all the time, when you raise your voice or when you get a little stiffer, they take you seriously. What I always look at is, okay, how can this be a learning moment? And I rarely choose an MP and make an example of him. What I usually do is say, okay, this is what the rules say, and I just want to make sure everyone is aware. And the person doing the acting or the person being the problem knows who I’m talking to… and they calm down immediately. Considering that if I were to slap them on the wrist and publicly embarrass them, I’m not sure I’d accomplish much other than embarrassing them in front of everyone, which isn’t the point. It’s about getting peace in the chamber and it usually works pretty well.

Q: Did you have an intervention in February where you said, “I’ve been getting emails from people who are watching us at home and they’re very ashamed of their Parliament because of the screaming that goes on”. Do you hear a lot from Canadians who watch question time or watch a clip on TV and get upset about it?

A: There are some every week who email me and say, like; how can you stop them from yelling at each other? Or; please be stricter with certain people. And I think everyone has a different style. I’ve seen speakers who are very hard on people and those who try to work with people, and I think working with people takes us further. But overall, I’m surprised how many people are watching and taking the time to actually write, which is really appreciated because it’s always nice to get feedback and be able to act on it.

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota addresses the House during a virtual session of Parliament in Spring 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Q: Does chairing Parliament at this time take on a different feeling, given the concerns about democracy and the political conflict we are seeing in other countries?

A: Well, democracy depends on civilized discussion and debate and that’s what we want to do – we want to keep it civilized. As soon as people start yelling at each other, well, we’ve lost that, that civil discourse that is so important to our democracy. So it’s important to keep it at a certain level. Now, during the debate, you will notice that everything is very quiet. It’s usually during question time, when everyone gathers, that you’ll see emotions come to a head. And sometimes it’s more powerful than the individual and they scream a comment. That’s what cursing is. What I really don’t like is when they try to smother the person who’s talking, because suddenly it’s not harassing anymore, it’s bullying. And this is something that, regardless of whether it is government or opposition, should not be allowed.

Q: Obviously, there were security concerns around Parliament Hill and security concerns for individual MPs. Aside from your duties in the chamber, how much of a concern right now is safety?

A: Security is always a concern. We started investigating 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 actually had meetings with other parliaments, including the UK. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has become a great friend. We have consulted with each other on a fairly regular basis. We brought in our security personnel, including the sergeant-at-arms, and they brought in their personnel and we compared notes and learned a lot from them because they lost two deputies to violent [attacks] and this is something they reacted to. Since then, what we’ve done is we’ve included measures to increase the security of deputies, whether that’s security assessments for their homes and offices, safety equipment, advice and just awareness of some of the things that can happen. We’ve included some training… not just how to protect yourself in Ottawa, but also in horseback riding, and how to engage local police forces. So there are a bunch of different variables there. The sad part is that many of them are very unpredictable and we never know where they will come from.

Q: I know the Hybrid Parliament has become a political debate, so I’m not going to ask you to have your say on that.

A: I appreciate it. Thanks.

Q: But do you feel that, from a technical and logistical point of view, you’ve reached a point where it works?

A: I have a feeling that’s where it might work. But we have incidents like [this week] where the internet went down and there’s not much you can do about it, which will affect the way Parliament works. Now, the decision to continue will rest with the leaders of the House and Parliament. Overall, it has served us well so far, and COVID has made us adapt to new technologies. Do we keep them is the question we all have to ask ourselves, and it will be interesting to see where this goes.

Q: Has chairing a hybrid Parliament for the past two years changed the President’s job?

A: It’s like everything we do under COVID has affected the way we do things. But the main principle remains the same – it is to maintain decorum in the chamber, and that chamber now extends across the country via the Internet. It makes it a little bit more difficult and it has certainly been a learning experience, but I think what happened with COVID [is] we’ve learned to use new tools that we’ll likely be able to use a little more often in the future. The only thing that worries me is that we don’t want it to become the status quo. And I’m worried about anyone in the hybrid system saying; You know what, I’m not in the mood to go to Ottawa this week, I’m just going to do it from home – wherever home is in Canada. It’s nice to have this option, but the rules about when you can use this option should be very clear and concise.

Q: Are you concerned about the impact on relations between parliamentarians? I remember reading one time that there was a proposal in the eighties or nineties to bring in electronic voting and one of the arguments against it has become, well, you see, one of the only times when deputies are all in the same room together is when deputies are voting and therefore, if you do electronic voting, you will miss this opportunity for parliamentarians to get to know each other, talk, communicate and share information. Is that your concern? Do you worry that deputies will grow further apart and that you will 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 usually made in the lobbies, in the hallways, in the offices together. This is not something you get from the Internet. Even with video conferencing, it’s not the same as being there in person. You don’t have the same feeling because sometimes just the expressions, the body [language] or the facial expressions that appear from person to person – you can gauge where you are and if you need to go back or if it’s good to move on. So yeah, I’m very worried about us losing that human touch because actually when we meet in person, it’s a lot easier to talk to each other – when we don’t just see a guy on screen or someone on screen across the floor with which you never sat down. One of the initiatives I’ve taken since I became a speaker is that I tried to have as many dinners as possible with the deputies. We have one a week and we try to have deputies from different parties sitting side by side. So you are not allowed to sit next to someone at the same party. And we pick people at random and bring them in. And what ends up happening is that when dinner is over, people 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’ll talk to her and see what we can do.

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