Andrew Scheer: master of the House

| April 12, 2012 | 0 Comments


Andrew Scheer

Andrew Scheer

Andrew Scheer is Canada’s youngest-ever speaker of the House. For a kid who grew up in Ottawa and skipped classes at Immaculata High School (formerly on Bronson Avenue) to watch Question Period on Parliament Hill, it almost seems like destiny. But for the member for Regina Qu’Appelle (his wife is from Saskatchewan), life is more complicated than it was in those days. He now has to travel between his hometown and his constituency and, for the time being, he and his school teacher wife, Jill, are dividing their time — and that of their four children under the age of six — between the two places. Here, he chats with Diplomat editor Jennifer Campbell.

Diplomat magazine: Congratulations on being elected speaker. Was it a surprise to be chosen by your parliamentary peers?
Andrew Scheer: I knew I had a good shot but you never know ’til the results come in. I wasn’t sure I was going to win but I thought I was well positioned. It was a very exciting day, that’s for sure. And obviously, I was very happy with the finish.

DM: At 34, you’re the youngest-ever House of Commons speaker in Canada. Are there advantages to that?
AS: I think there are some advantages but there are also some extra challenges. On the one hand, it gives me an opportunity to put a mark on the office of the speaker. It’s a very young parliament right now so I think I’ve been able to make a connection with some of the new MPs who are quite young, maybe in a way that someone who’s older might not. Being young poses a challenge in dealing with MPs who are senior both in age and years of service. But, so far, I think it’s gone very well. It’s a learning process.

DM: Can you talk about the incident [in February in which NDP MP Sana Hassainia brought her infant son, Skander-Jack, in the House of Commons and was asked to take him out of the chamber. The request came through a parliamentary page who told her that MPs had noticed the baby and that the speaker requested she remove him.]
AS: The complaint raised with me was that there were members taking pictures in the chamber — and that is something that has flared up over the past few years. My predecessor was very strict. No pictures [in the chamber]. How does the speaker say on a case-by-case basis that one picture is allowed and another isn’t? It was my intention to ask the members to take their seats and to stop taking pictures because a vote was about to start. I honestly don’t know how it turned into what it did.

DM: As a father of four, I would think you’d be sympathetic.
AS: Yes. My staff can tell you the kids have been here when my wife isn’t able to keep them — if she has a medical appointment, for example. I obviously [understand] the juggling. I’ve been asked to come back to the House with some kind of clarification so I’ll be doing that — trying to find the right balance of understanding when a member absolutely has to be in the House, and also trying to maintain integrity, decorum and order.

DM: Meaning that crying babies can be a problem?
AS: Well, you’ve got all kinds of questions. How old is a baby? I’ve got an 11-month-old and I wouldn’t want to have him on my lap in the chamber.

DM: But there are women who breast-feed up to two years.
AS: Yes. At any rate, I’ll be working on that. [In the end, he ruled that MPs with infants should be able to sort things out in advance of a vote so they don’t have to bring their children into the chamber, but he acknowledged it could be acceptable in emergencies.]

DM: You knew what you were getting into, having served as deputy speaker. How has the job changed now that you’ve been promoted?
AS: As deputy speaker, I wasn’t really involved in the House administration side — overseeing the precinct and working with the various department heads from security to printing and postal. That’s very interesting. There are a lot of talented, hard-working people who make this place operate and most of the members probably never know about that side of things. And of course, as deputy speaker, I didn’t do a lot with the diplomatic community, which is something I’m learning is a big part of this job.

DM: I’m guessing you didn’t have to
attend quite as many diplomatic functions as you now do.
AS: Yes. Between events held on the Hill and those of the diplomatic community, I wouldn’t have to make my own dinner ever.

DM: Describe your interaction with diplomats.
AS: It’s been very positive. I’ve had a number of courtesy calls. I’m a big history buff and a big political affairs buff and it’s kind of nice to get a one-on-one lesson on what’s going on in various countries and regions. It’s interesting to hear from different ambassadors and high commissioners who are telling me about their countries and it’s maybe different from what you might be getting in the media.
And then I get to attend their events and there’s always a cultural side — there might be musicians or a sampling of food. I think one thing that Speaker Milliken did was to take the parliamentary diplomacy side of things very seriously and gave members the opportunity to interact with other countries or heads-of-mission from other countries. The more lines of communication, the better. That’s good for our government and our system.

DM: Is there a lot of pressure to attend diplomatic functions?
AS: I would say it’s positive pressure. They’re very happy when I can attend but they are also understanding that my first duty is to the House, if there are votes, for example. And they are starting to realize that having a riding quite a bit further away than Kingston was (Peter Milliken was the member for Kingston and the Islands), and a spouse and four kids means that I have to be a bit more strategic with my time. Hopefully, I’ll get to do more of them.

DM: On the domestic front, you and your family (children Thomas, Grace, Madeline, and Henry) are back and forth at this point. How’s that working out?
AS: So far so good. We’ve got a rhythm established. Around every break week, Jill and the kids stay out west for the week before and after. Then they come to Ottawa for two or three weeks. Then we repeat [the schedule] depending on when the break weeks are. It gets difficult but there really is no perfect solution. Jill is very close to her family in Regina and I have to go back to the riding to do constituency work, anyway.
This is the rhythm for year one but we might have to tweak it a bit for next year. One of [the children] is in school but Jill’s a teacher, so when he comes here for two weeks, his teacher sends lesson plans. So far, knock-on-wood, that hasn’t seemed to be too disruptive to him. I always joke that the tough thing about kids is that you don’t find out you screwed them up ’til 10 years later.

The Scheer family. From left, Jill (holding Henry), Thomas, Grace, Andrew and Madeline.

The Scheer family. From left, Jill (holding Henry), Thomas, Grace, Andrew and Madeline.

DM: Is it your hope that Regina remains home base?
AS: I think it’ll be half-and-half or 60/40 for as long as I’m speaker. When I’m finished doing that, Regina will be 100 percent home. My family is from Ottawa so it’s great — grandmas in both cities. My parents are here. Jill and I met in university and moved to Regina and that’s where we got married. My sister is still here.

DM: You’re a Conservative politician who obviously has a point of view. How do you remain neutral?
AS: Before this, I was deputy and prior to that, I was assistant deputy — I think I’ve developed a good handle on being impartial and non-partisan in the House. I think every human being has certain beliefs and you’ve got to work on that. What I’m always focused on, especially when I’m in the chamber, is the procedure. It’s up to other members of my caucus to make arguments and it’s up to the members of the NDP to make counter-arguments. Let them do their job and my job is just this. That’s served me well so far.

DM: What kind of travel demands come with this job?
AS: The speaker is invited to do many parliamentary visits and to attend many conferences. My first was in Paris, the G8 speakers’ conference in September, and then in January, we had the Commonwealth speakers’ conference. That was in Trinidad. Those were very worthwhile conferences but it is an extra demand on your time. Usually when you’re a backbencher, you see a break week and you think you’ll be home doing constituency work, and being with your family. Now I’m starting to realize that there really are not as many (break weeks at home) for the speaker. That’s another area where I imagine I’ll do less than my predecessor.
The G8 is obviously a very high-level meeting. And the Commonwealth, too. Canada has a dynamic relationship with a lot of Commonwealth countries and assists them in developing their parliamentary institutions.
Sometimes we get requests from Foreign Affairs saying it would be helpful if a delegation could meet here or there because we have consular or trade issues or security issues.

DM: What’s the best part of your job?
AS: That’s a tough question. There are so many neat parts. But I think just being in the House when great moments happen, either a great exchange between two members, or when serious issues are being discussed — being in the House when there’s that kind of electricity in the air. When parliamentarians are dealing with a serious issue, it’s exciting to be in that spot with that perspective.

DM: Do you have any new strategies to keep Parliament civil?
AS: Well, there obviously have been a few moments in the House where there’s been a breakdown of civility and decorum but when I compare it to my first year, I think here’s been an improvement. My strategy is just to intervene when needed. When it’s not appropriate for me to call someone on the carpet, [I will say] one-on-one to a member, without embarrassing them, ‘We can’t have that.’ I’ll do it after the fact. In those cases, it is better than doing it in the House. Every day is a little different. As my counterpart in the Senate says, it’s not an exact science because today’s unparliamentary word may not be [so regarded] the next — because of context.

Andrew Scheer stands in front of world-renowned photographer Youssef Karsh's famous portait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Andrew Scheer stands in front of world-renowned photographer Youssef Karsh's famous portait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

DM: Could you detail a typical day when the House is sitting?
AS: The first thing I do is meet with my chief of staff and get an update on what the day will look like. If there are any issues from the previous day, like media, we’ll discuss how to deal with those. Then we have a meeting with the clerks, 15 minutes before the House starts sitting, and they go over the day’s agenda and [note] if there’s any expectation of motions that might be moved or issues that might come up.
Then I open the House and hand it over to one of the deputies. I might then deal with some constituency files or maybe attend a function, such as an unveiling, for example. Then I might have lunch with a delegation or visitors. That takes us to the briefing, just before Question Period. I preside over Question Period. After that, I usually have a couple of hours before votes so I might go over briefings from the board of internal economy or meet with my chief of staff or with the clerks, if there are rulings that need to be delivered. And then I preside over the votes. Evenings, I either go home and have supper with the kids and Jill or I attend, very often, diplomatic functions or events being hosted by non-profit organizations or NGOs.

DM: You were born in Ottawa. Growing up, did you ever imagine you’d end up with this job?
AS: I had a really good history teacher and he also taught a politics class. That would have been Grade 11. I kind of thought after that class I’d like to be an MP. I thought that would be a really rewarding vocation. He was very encouraging. He always said: “We’ve got this beautiful gift in Canada. If we don’t like something, our ancestors set it up so we could participate and do something about it.” He said if you look at the world, very few people get to do that. He told us to take advantage of what was given to you, whether it’s voting, or joining a group or organization. I took it to heart and [thought] “Why not go right to the source?”

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