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Don Martin: Greg Fergus risks becoming the shortest serving Speaker in our history

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It takes considerable effort to botch the job of Speaker in the House of Commons.

For an hour a day they preside over question period to scold MPs when they can’t hear answers over the heckling. If that fails, they simply stand at their chair to silence the microphones until the hubbub subsides. And it almost goes without saying that keeping the Speaker job means avoiding the introduction of a Nazi seated in the viewing gallery.

For performing these less-than-onerous duties, the lucky MP gets a Parliament Hill suite, a historic farm residence a short drive away, a car allowance, a lavish hospitality budget, fawning support staff, a $93,000 pay boost and a special Speaker-labelled Scotch.

It’s a dream job on so many levels.

Yet for reasons not easily deciphered, current Speaker Greg Fergus seems not to want the job after only two months, the shortest length of service for any Speaker in our history.

He could face a parliamentary committee inquisition next week with his fate hanging on a few supportive NDP votes, party support which might be shaky given how one possible replacement is assistant deputy speaker and NDP MP Carol Hughes, who could become the first Dipper to take the chair.

NDP MP Carol Hughes rises during Statements in the House of Commons Wednesday April 14, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

What caused the Speaker’s latest rendezvous with controversy is a lapse in judgement so serious it has created the odd coupling of Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois to declare lost confidence in Fergus continuing in the role.

By posing in Speaker regalia while recording a tribute video to the outgoing interim leader of the Ontario Liberal Party for its leadership convention last weekend, Fergus painted a partisan stripe on the neutral robes of the office.

He then compounded his misstep by jetting off to Washington D.C. for a highly questionable junket on the same day his conduct was being sullied and shamed on the Commons floor, leaving his deputy to handle the awkward fallout.

Now, let us pause here for a moment to question why any Speaker is given the VIP travel treatment to the U.S. capital at any time.

It’s hard to imagine any MP contributing less to high-level international discussions on trade, economic or cultural cross-border enhancements than the one MP elected to impartiality and cut off from any political decision-making.

The justification for Fergus to attend an embassy Christmas tree lighting, deliver a nostalgic speech about his young Liberal days and hobnob with U.S. counterparts who, unlike him, have actual political power is a mystery that has even the NDP raising their eyebrows.

He compounded the lousy optics by defiantly declaring he had no intention of resigning and vowing to “demonstrate fairness and impartiality in getting the job done,” a pledge he had used after an earlier political mistake.

Look, there’s no doubt Greg Fergus is a class-act Liberal MP.

But right from the starting gate he’s been self-sabotaging his stellar reputation.

Days after being elected the first Black Canadian as Speaker, his honeymoon hit a speedbump.

Fergus was poised to rule on the misleading answer given to MPs on the actual cost of a holiday for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but he had personally approved the questionable response as Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary prior to becoming Speaker.

Only under pressure did he quietly recuse himself, but reputational damage was done.

Then Fergus needlessly intruded on question period’s allotted hour with a long statement outlining his intentions to enforce House decorum. It was a procedural quibble to be sure, but one which infuriated the Conservatives.

All this suggests Fergus is suddenly at risk of becoming a fire spreading to a dumpster.

It’s politically difficult for a Speaker to rule with impartial credibility when two of the three major parties believe his neutrality has been compromised.

And for the fourth-place NDP, a golden opportunity presents itself as MPs consider voting whether to probe into the Speaker's conduct.

By voting out Fergus to put one of their own MPs in the chair, if indeed Hughes is the likely replacement, it would represent a much-needed declaration of independence from their toxic tagalong pact with Trudeau, who backs Fergus unconditionally.

As the abrupt ouster of former Speaker Anthony Rota shows, coming just days after he unknowingly sponsored the introduction of a Nazi to parliamentary applause, MPs can react quickly and without mercy to dump a Speaker displaying poor judgement.

In a cranky Parliament anxious to adjourn for its six-week holiday break, his overt partisanship and arrogant defiance beamed in from a Christmas party south of the border could trigger enough MP backlash to cost Fergus his cushy Speaker title and all those perks.

That’s the bottom line.

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