It is extremely rare for a Speaker of the House of Commons to be ousted from the job; up until two weeks ago, the last time it had occurred was in 1986. In the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives had, until last week, never been booted out of office.
So it is remarkable that Anthony Rota’s forced resignation in Ottawa on Sept. 27 and Kevin McCarthy’s ouster in Washington on Oct. 3 happened barely a week apart. Is there something in the air?
Sniffing the winds for a common odour coming from two events that may only be nominally related can be risky. But given the growing polarization in Canadian and (especially) American politics, and the erosion of civility in our public discourse, it’s hard to ignore that the confluence of two such rare events is symptomatic of a larger trend.
In Canada, it was dispiriting – but also all too familiar – to watch MPs of all stripes, along with their party leaders, jostle to clear themselves of any responsibility after they gave a standing ovation to a former Nazi soldier during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the House of Commons on Sept. 22.
That, of course, includes Mr. Rota, who accepted personal responsibility for the terrible misjudgment that led to an embarrassing international debacle, but failed to see the need to resign over it. It took four days of intense public and internal pressure for him to do the right thing and finally announce he would step down the next day.
In the meantime, the Conservative opposition tried to pin the entire blame for the incident on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while Mr. Trudeau insisted that it was Mr. Rota who was “solely” responsible. Individual MPs – Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre included – were happy to rationalize in the days that followed that they were the innocent victims of someone else’s error.
In the end, Mr. Trudeau apologized to the world on behalf of Parliament. But at no time did one single MP rise above party lines and admit that they had made a terrible error that had shamed the entire country, and for which they needed to accept responsibility.
Nor was Mr. Trudeau big enough to apologize on behalf of his government, preferring to play the victim like his fellow Parliamentarians.
The mechanics of Mr. Rota’s removal were very different from those of Mr. McCarthy. The U.S. House Speaker was forced out by a motion to vacate put forward by the preening member of a hyperpartisan subset of far-right Donald Trump acolytes.
His crime? Daring to co-operate with Democrat House members on a measure to prevent a government shutdown.
The ouster threw the U.S. government into chaos and raised doubts about how quickly the fractured Republicans, who hold a slim plurality in the House, would be able to find an acceptable replacement. The Democrats, some of whom voted for Mr. McCarthy’s removal in concert with the far-right House rump, are meanwhile hoping voters will blame the Republicans for a mess they helped bring about.
So what, in the end, do these two dramas have in common? Simple: They are both workplace imbroglios whose mismanagement caused them to spill over into the lives of voters and shine a light on just how far up their own bubbles elected officials have lodged themselves.
Politicians on both sides of the border have become so focused on scoring partisan points on social media, on television panels and in their respective legislatures that they have lost sight of the reason they exist – which is to use the tools of civil debate and bipartisan compromise to fix the many problems facing their countries.
Instead of tackling real issues, they are making themselves the story by remaining in permanent campaign mode, never deigning to stop for a moment and come together in the interests of the common good.
Where in both embarrassments was the public interest? Where was the Canadian or American politician in each case who, instead of seizing the moment for political advantage, stepped back and tried to see themselves through the eyes of the public?
There can be no doubt that many Canadians and Americans are looking at their legislators this fall and wondering if they are capable of governing responsibly. Two Speakers lost their jobs, while millions of voters lost a little more faith in politics.