The Speaker: How Canada and various legislatures select their presiding officer

Michael Dewing
Legal and Social Affairs Division

Lara Trehearne
Reference and Strategic Analysis Division

As the presiding officer of the House of Commons, the Speaker is the key to ensuring that the institution operates smoothly. So the first item of business for MPs, at the outset of the first session of each new Parliament, is always to elect one of their own as Speaker.

The Speaker of the Senate, on the other hand, is appointed.

At the opening of Canada’s 42nd Parliament on 3 December 2015, it is worthwhile to compare how we select our presiding officers with methods in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and France.

While election practices and procedures have evolved over time in these nations, it is still a general principle that legislators in lower houses choose their presiding officer. In upper houses, however, practices vary from country to country.

CANADA

House of Commons        

The Constitution Act, 1867 (s. 44) requires that the election of the Speaker of the House of Commons be the first order of business at the opening of the House following a general election. The election is run by the “Dean of the House”, the member with the longest unbroken record of service who is not a cabinet minister, party leader, House leader or whip.

From Confederation to 1986, the ritual for choosing Speakers changed little.  The prime minister usually nominated the Speaker, and the motion was put to a vote. This changed in 1985 when the election of the Speaker by secret ballot was added to the Standing Orders. In 1986, it took 11 ballots and some 11 hours for MPs to elect John Fraser, the first Speaker to be chosen by secret ballot.

In 1987, the Standing Orders were amended to streamline the process. The candidate receiving the fewest votes and those receiving fewer than 5% of the votes were eliminated from subsequent ballots. Voting then continued until someone received a majority.

In 2015, the House adopted further changes to the Standing Orders under which the election of the Speaker will be by preferential ballot. MPs will rank their choices by order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority, the one with the fewest first preferences will be eliminated; the second preferences will be re-allocated until one candidate has achieved a majority of the vote.

Senate

Section 34 of the Constitution Act, 1867, establishes that the Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the prime minister. The Governor General also has the power to remove the Speaker.

At the beginning of each session, a committee made up of nine senators nominates a senator to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore to preside in the absence of the Speaker.

UNITED KINGDOM

House of Commons

The Standing Orders for electing the Speaker of the British House of Commons were adopted in 2001. They provide that if the incumbent Speaker wishes to stand for re-election, the motion is put before the House immediately. If there are dissenting voices, the motion is put to a vote. In 2015, a proposal to conduct this vote by secret ballot was defeated.

If there is no returning Speaker, or if the House votes against the returning Speaker, then a vote by secret ballot is held.

A unique U.K. convention allows that the incumbent Speaker runs not for a political party, but “stands in the General Election as ‘the Speaker seeking re-election’”. As such, they are typically unopposed by candidates from the main parties.

House of Lords

In the House of Lords, the first Lord Speaker was elected by its members in 2006. Previously, the Lord Chancellor, a government appointee, chaired the debates.

AUSTRALIA

House of Representatives

In Australia, the election of the Speaker is constitutionally entrenched as the first order of business for the House of Representatives following a general election.  The rules for electing a Speaker are set out in the Standing Orders. The office is traditionally filled by the nominee of the governing party, or parties. A secret ballot is used only if the election is contested.

Senate

The President of the Australian Senate is elected by its members. By convention, a senator from the governing party is chosen. Where more than one senator is nominated, however, the Standing Orders provide for an election by secret ballot.

UNITED STATES

House of Representatives

Under the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives must choose a Speaker at the beginning of each new Congress. The House typically elects the Speaker before it adopts its rules of procedure; as a result, the election of the Speaker relies on precedent rather than on formal rules.

In the years following Declaration of Independence in 1776, Speakers were chosen by ballot. In 1839, this was changed to election by vive voce, with each member naming their choice for Speaker. Today, the practice is that each party nominates a single candidate for the position.

Senate

Under the U.S. Constitution, the vice president of the United States is the president of the Senate. The Senate also chooses a President Pro Tempore to preside over the chamber in his or her absence – traditionally, the majority party senator with the longest continuous service.

FRANCE

 National Assembly

Under Article 32 of the French Constitution, the President of the National Assembly is elected for the life of a Parliament. The Rules of Procedure provide for an election using a secret ballot. On the first two ballots, an absolute majority is needed to win. On a third ballot, a relative majority is sufficient. In the event of a tie, the oldest candidate wins.

Senate

The French Constitution establishes that a new President of the Senate is elected each time mid-term elections are held. Under the Rules of the Senate, the election uses the same process as in the National Assembly.

In the event of the death or resignation of the President of the Republic, the Speaker of the Senate replaces him or her.