The fiftieth Conference of
the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association will take place in Canada from August 30 to September 9, 2004. The current Chairman of the Executive
Committee of CPA is a Canadian, Robert Speller. He was interviewed about
his political career and specifically his involvement with CPA by the Editor on
November 25, 2003. On December 12, 2003 Mr. Speller was sworn in as
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
What was your background before being elected to the House of Commons
As a student I studied
political science and Canadian Studies at York University. I subsequently
obtained an internship at the Ontario Legislative Assembly in a programme
sponsored by the Canadian Political Science Association and the Ontario
Legislature. I was not active in the Liberal Party at the time. Each of the six
interns has to spend half a year with one government and one opposition member.
The other five interns were all women and were all lobbying to work for one
dynamic young female member of the Ontario legislature, Sheila Copps. The
Director of the Programme, Dr. Graham White, decided to resolve this problem by
assigning me to Ms Copps. As a result I met many people in the Liberal Party
and eventually worked on her campaign. From 1986-87 I travelled extensively and
returned home a few months before the 1998 federal election. The Progressive
Conservatives were in office at that time and the individual holding the seat
in my home town had won a large majority in 1984. There was not much
competition for the Liberal nomination but after being approached by a few
people I decided to let my name stand. I won the nomination easily and in the
General Election I wiped out an 18,000 vote majority and won the seat by less
than 200 votes even though the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was
easily returned to power.
When you arrived at the House of Commons was it different from what you expected?
Not really. My intern
experience at Queens Park gave me a very good understanding of what the job
entailed. Being in opposition is relatively easy and enjoyable. You can pick
out the areas you are interested in and which are important to your
constituents. In my case it was agriculture and international trade. I had no
trouble getting the floor during Question Period or serving on committees that
interested me. You get excellent training in opposition but of course being on
the government side, after the 1993 election, was much better.
How did you get involved
in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association?
New members are advised of
all the parliamentary associations they can join and I went to the annual
meetings of the Canadian Branch of CPA. I applied to go to some
conferences but was never selected. Most places were taken by members on the
Conservative side or by senior Liberal members or Senators. When the
Liberals came to office in 1993 I decided to run for the position of Chair of
the Canadian Branch. There were several candidates including Beryl Gaffney who
had been a member for several years. I lobbied for support from all members of
all parties in both the House and the Senate and after an election by secret
ballot I became Chair of the Canadian Branch.
What is the role of
Chairman of the Canadian Branch?
The main responsibility is
to lead the Canadian delegation to CPA international Conferences and to the
Canadian Regional Conferences. Over the next ten years I missed only one
international conference, in Australia, and I attended all the Regional
Conferences which are held in different provinces on a rotating basis. At both
international and Regional Conferences the Chair co-ordinates the participation
of the federal delegation. I would usually seek volunteers to speak on the
various topics or if necessary designate specific individuals to speak. Since
members speak as individuals rather than as party members there is no need to
come up with a federal or a Canadian position on every issue.
Internationally members do recognize that what they say will be taken as the
Canadian position and they tend to take that into account when making comments.
Are there any CPA
conferences or experiences that stand out in your mind?
My very first CPA conference
was in 1994 when Canada hosted the international Conference at Banff. As Chairman of the Canadian Branch I immediately met the senior
parliamentarians from around the world and this was a fascinating experience.
The Conference was memorable
in another respect in that my wife, who was expecting, had to be rushed to the
hospital and for a while it looked like our son might be born in Banff but it turned out to be a false alarm.
I hesitate to single out
other conferences as all are memorable and one learns something from each and
every one. I do recall one meeting in Africa where I met a legislator from Zimbabwe who told me that his town was unable to come up with $12,000 to drill a new well
to provide drinking water to the inhabitants. I told him about some of Canada’s foreign aid programmes and helped to put him in touch with the appropriate
person in the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). A few months
later he sent me a very nice letter thanking me for my help and advising me
that the town now had a new well thanks to my intervention. That is a minor
example of what can be done but it stands out in my mind. Of course there are
also many discussion about how things are done in various parliaments around
the world and it is useful to compare our practices with others.
How did you become Chair of the Executive Committee of CPA?
This is an elected position.
All the members who are present at the annual meeting, usually about 300, have
a right to vote. There are usually candidates from several of the eight CPA Regions.
I actually ran for this position twice. The first time, in Trinidad and Tobago in 1999 I lost to an African candidate by a very few votes. I ran again
at the Namibia Conference in 2002 and this time I was successful.
The process is similar to a
nomination meeting. Candidates make a formal speech and try to meet and
convince as many of the voting delegates as possible. In my speech I spoke
about the need to make the Association more transparent, to communicate more
with the local branches, to support the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians and
to partner with other international associations interested with trade and
other areas of importance to our members. Because of my many years involvement
with the Association I probably knew personally about half of the voting
delegates and that was a great advantage. My Canadian colleagues helped my
election, particularly my “organizer” Sarmite Bulte MP who is very
well known in CPA circles.
How does the CPA
Executive Committee work and have you accomplished what you set out to do?
The day to day operation of
the Association is done by a Secretariat in London. The Executive Committee
considers and Reviews issues raised by staff. We consider and approve the
budget of the Association. We meet twice a year, usually for two or three
days. Meetings used to be spread over four days but I have tried to
consolidate the committee meetings and to keep the Executive focused on large
issues while leaving our Secretariat to deal with routine matters. At the
request of the Executive Committee the Secretariat has devised a Strategic Plan
for the Association which was sent out to every branch in order to receive
The Executive Committee
consists of about 30 persons from all over the Commonwealth. We usually decide
matters by consensus although I sometimes ask for a vote in order to see where
What arguments would you
use to convince a newly elected member that he or she should get involved in
First of all it depends on
the Member and his or her interests. There are other very important
parliamentary groups such as Canada-US, the NATO Parliamentary Group for
persons with an interest in defence, Canada-Europe, and a couple of
organizations of particular interest to francophone members. As for the CPA it
offers a variety of experiences. Aside from the large conferences there are
smaller seminar, bilateral activities, election monitoring, publications and
research for members. I would also suggest three very specific reasons.
First I think it is very
important to take part in an organization who members represent half the
population of the world. Second I like the format where we discuss issues as
individual parliamentarians and do not spend a lot of time drafting resolutions
or arguing about motions or amendments to motions. Thirdly, the Canadian
Regional in particular offers the only opportunity for federal and
provincial/territorial legislators to come together to discuss matters of
common interest. The practice of holding these meetings at a time and in way
that spouses and children are not excluded is a way to help alleviate strains
that are all too familiar to everyone in public life.
Has the time you spent on
CPA caused you any problems either in the media or with constituents?
The amount of time I spend
on duties related to being Chair of the Executive Committee varies but it is
not nearly as demanding as some of the other offices I have held such as Chair
of a parliamentary committee, head of a prime ministerial task force on Agriculture
or parliamentary secretary. I am usually on the phone to London a couple of times a week about CPA business and of course before the meetings there
is considerable time devoted to preparation.
In ten years I remember only
one very negative story that had to do with a bilateral visit to Barbados in the winter. In general the press does not seem interested in our conferences or
seminars. As for constituents I am sure that my involvement in CPA is neither a
plus or a minus insofar as them voting for me again. I hope that at least some
of them recognize and appreciate possible advantages for themselves and for Canada in being represented by a Member of Parliament who has gone to considerable efforts
to build up contacts in so many countries around the world.