View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – Eric Grenier’s Piece on S31’s – September 25, 2012

CFN – Eric Grenier has tabulated that Members Statements in the House of Commons under Standing Order 31 or simply SO 31s as we normally refer to them are considerably more partisan than in the past. Eric put together an interesting piece that highlights this and points the finger at the Harper Tories as the main culprits.  His analysis and conclusions are dead on. However, originally there was no command decision to go this way; it was something that evolved over time.

The one minute SO 31 was designed to give MPs an opportunity to highlight something of importance in their riding. It could be recognition for an individual, community group or simply highlight an event taking place in their riding. In other words an excellent opportunity for an MP to stand in the House and recognize the individuals he or she represented.

So how did this change from quiet recognition to attack piece come about?

Based on the number of seats the parties had in the House each party was awarded a number of SO 31s. MPs can stand and talk for one minute on an item of their choice. The guidelines have always been pretty flexible.

While in opposition from 2003 to 2006, we found that quite often our very last MP’s statement (the one just before Question Period started) was quoted in the media the next day.  Simply put the media had arrived in the House for Question Period and they were paying attention to comments from the MPs.  SO 31s delivered earlier in the sequence were largely ignored by the press.

Opposition parties are always looking for ways to get into the media and this became one way to do it. The added bonus was that the then Liberal Prime Minister had no way to respond to what was said. By putting a slight edge to the attack in the SO 31, you could unsettle the PM and distract him just before the Leader of the Opposition stood to ask the first of a series of 3 to 5 questions. Over time we began to use the last of our SO 31s as the equivalent to a question in Question Period especially when it was delivered by one of our attack dogs. The SO 31 allowed one minute of time to stand, while a question only allowed 34 seconds. That one minute statement also allowed more time to drive home our message than any question could. The added advantage for us was the Prime Minister had no way to reply but had to sit and take it.

The decision as to what the last SO 31 was to be about and who was to deliver it was usually taken at the morning senior staff meeting and was based on the issues of the day and where we would be going in Question Period. From time to time there would be more than one major issue and we would use the last two SO 31s as attack pieces. However, recognizing that our MPs wanted to stand and speak about issues that were important to their riding we always tried to leave the remaining SO 31s to be used in the traditional manner.

Very few backbench MPs have the opportunity to stand and ask a question in Question Period, that role is undertaken by the party’s critics. These attack style SO 31s became an opportunity for all of the MPs to get a quote into the media or at the very least allowed them to use their statement to earn local media coverage in their riding. In some cases, MPs wrote their own SO 31 and these were vetted by our office, in other cases we wrote them for the MPs.

Once we formed the government in 2006, we continued along the same line the only change being the last SO 31s highlighted our overall theme and how we were trying to paint the Leader of the Opposition.

By 2008 there was increasing pressure to use more of the SO 31s as attack pieces (sometimes all of them) to get the government talk points out. Today, this has become pretty much standard practice. The down side to this is that the more you lead off the day with a series of attacks, many of them personal, the other parties tend to respond in kind. In my opinion this has been one of the contributing factors to the caustic atmosphere you now see on a daily basis in the House of Commons.

An obvious solution would be for the Speaker, working with the various parties, to formulate new, stricter guidelines on what can be said in an SO 31. Either that or do away with them all together. In an age where MPs have access to social media, there are plenty of other tools that MPs can use to get their message out to their constituents. The SO 31 has become a relic of the past and its present use where MPs stand and read partisan attack lines is not only over-used, but contributes to a dysfunctional House.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.


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