James Jerome was Speaker of the House of
Commons from 1974 to 1980. The following excerpt is from his forthcoming book,
Mr. Speaker to be published by McClelland and Stewart in October 1985.
Election day was July 8, 1974, and Prime
Minister Trudeau was returned to a majority position of 141 seats. During the
August 1 civic holiday, I came home on Saturday afternoon to learn of an urgent
call from The Hon. Mitchell Sharp in Ottawa. When the Secretary of State for
External Affairs is contacting Members of Parliament in August, one thinks in
terms of an invitation to dinner in honour of a visiting Head of State. But
when I returned the call, his opening words were: "Make sure You're
sitting down, because I have to first tell you what the Prime Minister has
asked me to take on before you will understand this call." We shared some
banter about his choice as Government House Leader, a responsibility for which
he felt entirely unprepared, emotionally or technically – but which he
discharged with his customary excellence through 1974 and 1975. In that
capacity, of course, the purpose of his call was less of a surprise: it was a
preliminary exploration of my reaction to a possible nomination as Speaker.
We gathered everyone immediately – family,
friends, key members of our election team – and we talked it over well into the
night. Finally, my wife Barry, as she had done so many times before, injected
some common sense into the frenetic political merry-go-round: "This is not
a decision that can be made in comparison with something else. It is an
absolutely singular responsibility, not something anyone outside the House of
Commons fully understands. Jim, you have to decide in a positive way if it's
something you want to do." Indeed, our focus had been completely on the
negative side. We were worried that our voters would see it as a muzzle, tying
my hands behind my back – and maybe it would be so. Personally, it would mean
abandonment forever of ambition for upward mobility in politics, which went
directly against every instinct that got me into politics in the first place.
At the same time, however, I had been greatly impressed with the way The Hon.
Lucien Lamoureux had discharged his responsibilities as Speaker, and with the
respect all Members had for him and for the Chair. I was always more at ease
when partisan hostility gave way to intelligent compromise, and I felt sure I
would be comfortable protecting and balancing the rights of all Members in that
kind of process. .. More and more, I became fascinated with the idea, excited
by the challenge. When the last guest left, I think we knew that if the Prime
Minister could case our concerns, I would do it!
The next day, I called Mitchell, and later
the call came through from the Prime Minister: When he made the offer, I had
the impression he expected me to accept over the phone. Once assured that I was
not asking for a meeting just to say no, he quickly agreed to meet for lunch at
24 Sussex after a Cabinet meeting arranged for Tuesday morning. If you have
never been in Ottawa in August, you don't know what heat and humidity really
mean. Of course, I was in shirt, tie, and suit and, of course, the Prime
Minister emerged from Cabinet in T-shirt and sandals. As he jumped behind the
wheel of his treasured convertible Mercedes, my jacket and tie were in the back
seat before we were in gear. We stopped at Parliament's Wellington exit, and he
cursed at not being able to make a left turn! Before I even had time to smile, the
two secret service cars had traffic stopped in both directions; not a
photographer in sight!
During lunch, the Prime Minister's answers
were direct and thorough. In terms of individual constituents, he confirmed
that the Speaker has extra staff to ensure the best possible service. In terms
of the constituency as a whole, obviously no Member, Minister or otherwise,
sees much to be gained by, antagonizing the one who presides over every meeting
of the House. But more than that, it was his view that no Member should be
embarrassed in front of his constituents by virtue of his service as Speaker,
so Cabinet should always meet the Speaker's reasonable requests. Obviously, the
emphasis had to be on 'reasonable," but he backed it with his personal
commitment to intervene if I felt that Sudbury's needs were not being fairly,
met by any of his Ministers. In terms of my own future, he did not disagree
that this probably was a step that would lead me out of political life but
neither did he think that any Prime Minister should be expected to write a
blank cheque so that even the most disgraceful performance in office might call
for some reward negotiated in advance. On the other band, he had responded
fully to the requests of my predecessor who had been appointed to the
Diplomatic Corps in Brussels only weeks earlier: Moreover, and perhaps more
significantly, he was then in the process of considering a judicial appointment
in Nova Scotia for The Hon. Robert McCleave, a Conservative Member who had
served for two years as Deputy Speaker. How much more so then, should he be
expected to be forthcoming in respect to an appointment for a retiring Speaker.
Fair enough: my objections were fully
answered. I am sure lie was surprised when I asked for time to think about it.
His reasons were plausible: he was in the process of selecting his Cabinet for
the new Parliament and, as a matter of propriety felt that the selection of his
candidate for Speaker should be announced first. Furthermore, by, doing it that
way, he avoided any impression that his candidate for Speaker had been chosen
only among those he had rejected as Cabinet Ministers. We agreed to meet again
at 4 o'clock, at which time I thought I could probably give him a final answer.
One more call home and that was it.
At 4 o'clock, when I went back to tell the
Prime Minister of my decision, he began to gather the people who would normally
be involved in handling the matter from then on. But about half his staff had
taken off the only days likely to be available to them for a bit of summer
vacation. In particular, Joyce Fairbairn, Special Assistant to the Prime
Minister in matters relating to Parliament, was away on holiday. The result was
that a press officer came in, and we simply ran over whether the announcement
could be released right away. Of course, as far as I was concerned it was fine.
In fact, I had one eye on the clock because the small airline I had come down
on during the holiday weekend had a flight going back in about an hour's time,
and I was anxious to be in Sudbury as soon after the announcement as possible.
I left almost immediately, ran to my office to tell my staff the news, and then
dashed to the airport. On the plane, I was a jumble of emotions. I had a great
sense of relief that all of the discussion and hand-wringing had finally ended,
that the decision had been made but more than that, I had a sense of pure
exhilaration that I can only remember two or three times in my entire life. It
was the right choice!
We expected a stir, but I don't think anyone
was ready for a volcano. Every representative of the news media was at the
airport in teams of twos and threes. This time they were not just there for the
usual 30second interview for local consumption; they all had national or
international assignments. From that moment on, our lives were catapulted into
national prominence that stayed with us until 1980. The next few days were
absolute bedlam. Everybody at both my constituency and Ottawa offices, and at
our home, hardly did anything else except deal with requests for photo
sessions, interviews, background material, and so on.
In politics, the higher you fly, the harder
you hit when you come down and, in this case, it didn't take long. Within a
couple of days of the announcement from the Prime Minister's office, one came
in turn from the office of The Hon. Robert Stanfield, Leader of the Opposition.
He deeply. regretted the Prime Minister's failure to consult him in the
selection of the candidate for Speaker, which he considered to be an
impropriety of considerable dimension. Normally, he would have been pleased to
have seconded the nomination on the opening day of Parliament and therefore to
encourage all Opposition Members to join in making the vote unanimous. Under
the circumstances, he would have to discuss the matter with his caucus to find
out what course they should follow. His announcement also pointed out that the
question of principle had nothing to do with the particular choice in this
instance, with which he could find no fault.
In fairness to The Hon. Mr. Stanfield, there
was more than simple courtesy at stake. The Speaker is not appointed, of
course, he is elected by all Members of Parliament on opening day. Section 44
of The British North America Act provides that the House of Common on its first
assembling after a general election shall proceed with all practical speed to
elect one of its Members to be Speaker." Without that election, it is an
unwarranted assumption to consider anyone as Speaker-elect. He was emphasizing
the point that the Speaker's role, as guardian of the rights of all Members on
an equal basis, should be emphasized through the seconding of the nomination by
the Leader of the Opposition. As well, he felt that there should have been not
only formal advance consultation, but possibly a joint press announcement.
Incidentally, the British avoid this problem by having the nominating Member
and the seconder from the backbenches on opposite sides of the House.
In fairness to The Right Hon. Mr. Trudeau, I
don't think these parliamentary niceties crossed his mind on the day, that he
and I discussed the Speakership. Normally, it would have been something on
which he would have taken direction from senior staff (who were away on
holidays). In addition, there had been considerable talk around Parliament and
in the press about my possible appointment, and there was some justification
for the Prime Minister in simply, considering the announcement as confirmation
of something that had been expected for some time.
For my part, it was typical of political
life: give you the world in the morning and take it away, in the afternoon. The
whole thing was nom. plunged into great uncertainty, and was not resolved until
the opening of Parliament almost two months later. Right up until the very,
last moment, I thought there was every possibility, that during the actual
election something might be said or done which would lead me to feel that the
choice was not unanimous and that as a matter of honour I might be required to
reject the nomination. Thank God it didn't happen!