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The speaker

Cover story
|Written By Elizabeth Thompson
The speaker
Photo: Colin Rowe

It''s hard to imagine a more natural setting for Peter Milliken. Sir Winston Churchill stares over his shoulder from a portrait on the wall. Row upon row of bound copies of Hansard line the wood-panelled walls of his elegant, now former, Centre Block office in Ottawa. Everywhere you look are mementos of his years as Canada''s longest-serving Speaker of the House of Commons. Yet, Milliken appears serene as he discusses his decision to trade the pomp, circumstance, and power of his job as speaker for a life of semi-retirement, part-time academe, and occasionally consulting with his former law practice. “I’m not anxious for another full-time job at all,” he says with a grin and a slight twinkle in his eye. “I would rather have a more relaxed afterlife, if I can call it that.”

Writing his memoirs is a distinct possibility. Catching up on his reading and indulging in one of his favourite activities, whitewater canoeing, are also among the orders of the day. However, Milliken, 64, doesn’t see himself returning to a full-time law practice. “I’ve been out of it too long. I haven’t done a will in 22 years. I think I would have trouble drafting one now.”

While Milliken is no longer on Parliament Hill, he has left an impressive legacy behind. His landmark rulings on Parliament’s right to information have ensured his place in the annals of parliamentary precedent — both in Canada and throughout the Commonwealth. In addition to being Canada’s longest-serving speaker, he was called upon to break more tie votes than any other speaker in Canadian parliamentary history — five of the 10 tie votes since Confederation. His encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedures and precedents helped diffuse conflicts between parties as did his legendary dinners and Scotch-tasting parties where MPs gathered to determine which Scotch would earn the label of “Speaker’s Select.”

Even some of Milliken’s most partisan political opponents are quick to pay tribute to him. “I think he will go down as, if not one of the best, the best speaker,” says former Conservative House leader and now Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, whose first encounter with Milliken as a student protester ended with the 19-year-old Baird being arrested.

In many ways, being Speaker of the House of Commons was a job that Milliken was born to do. Born in Kingston, Ont., on Nov. 12, 1946, the eldest of seven children, Peter Andrew Stewart Milliken spent his early years in west-end Ottawa only a few kilometres from Parliament Hill. His father, John Andrew (Jack) Milliken, was a cardiologist from Saskatchewan. His mother, Catherine Margaret (Peggy) Milliken, hailed from Kingston. Milliken started his education at Ottawa’s D. Roy Kennedy Public School but when he was in Grade 6, the large and spirited Milliken clan moved back to Kingston. There, Milliken attended the Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, one of Canada’s oldest schools whose graduates range from Sir John A. Macdonald to members of the band the Tragically Hip. Strong academically, Milliken was voted head boy at KCVI.

It was also during that period that some of the character traits that would later serve Milliken as a lawyer and the speaker began to emerge, recalls his brother Bill Milliken. “He was very fastidious and neat. And, he has a photographic memory. I used to get into trouble for touching his things. He could tell I’d touched them because they would be moved and not where he left them, and, of course, he would remember where he left them.”

When Milliken was first elected speaker and arrived in his new office, he quickly noticed the copies of Hansard lining the office walls weren’t organized by date, prompting staff to scurry to arrange them in meticulous order. As speaker, his photographic memory, which he inherited from his father, allowed him to impress fellow MPs and Commons officials by instantly recalling parliamentary rules and precedents. When they checked, they invariably discovered he was right. As a child growing up in what Bill describes as a family of “baiters and teasers,” those talents sometimes found other outlets. Bill says his brother would sometimes bait one of his sisters by breaking into her diary then regaling their siblings by citing passages verbatim.

Ned Franks, professor emeritus of political studies at Queen’s University and a longtime friend, says Milliken has a sense of mischief — especially when it comes to his sisters. However, he says growing up in a spirited family of strong characters prepared Milliken well for his role as speaker. “I have no doubt that his family experience gave him an enormous background in dealing with quite unusual people with very different temperaments. That is a perfect training for a speaker of the House of Commons.” Growing up with five sisters may also explain why Milliken has never married, jokes Franks.

It was in school that Milliken first became interested in politics. “I came and watched the House I think for the first time when I was in Grade 7, Grade 7 or 8 — I’m not sure which it was — and found it very interesting. Then my cousin John Matheson got elected as the member of Parliament for Leeds in 1961 so once that happened I could come up here and sit in the gallery whenever I wanted and once I got my driver’s licence — I think that was in the fall of ’62, I could drive myself up so it made it a lot easier to get here so I tended to come more often.” While fellow teenagers were reading comic books, Milliken began reading Hansard — the transcripts of debates in the House of Commons. “I realized I could subscribe to Hansard for $3 a session so I signed up and started getting Hansard, I think in ’62. I don’t claim to have read the whole thing but I certainly looked through it and examined a lot of the questions in question period and the responses until I finished at Queen’s and then I let the subscription lapse. There was no point in shipping it over to England.”

That early interest in question period contributed to a thesis Milliken wrote while at Queen’s University, which Franks still refers to as “the best thing written on question period up until that time.” Milliken was one of Franks’ first students at Queen’s, one of four in a class on parliamentary government that also included the late Jerry Yanover, a childhood friend of Milliken’s and a legend on Parliament Hill for his knowledge of parliamentary procedure rivalled only by Milliken’s own. “It was almost a dream to teach,” recalls Franks. “Partly because those two students knew more about some aspects of Canadian Parliament than I did.”

From Queen’s, Milliken headed to Oxford University where he studied at Wadham College and surprised his family by joining the rowing team. “Peter was always what you would probably have referred to as a nerd or a suck in high school,” says brother Bill. “He wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses and was pretty bookish. One of the things that we found really miraculous is that when he went away to Oxford after his career at Queen’s, he actually rowed and he was a member of the first eights for Wadham College. For him to be doing something athletic was actually unimaginable for us.”

From there it was back to Halifax to Dalhousie University where he studied law. However, before he had even graduated, he was offered a job with a local Kingston law firm, known at the time as Cunningham Little.

Once again, Milliken’s photographic memory proved to be an asset, although it sometimes irritated his law partners, says his brother. “He drove his law partners crazy too because he never seemed to be around or working very hard. He would drive in from a canoe trip with shorts on and shaving himself with an electric razor while he was driving the car, slip on a pair of pants and legal robes over the top of a T-shirt, and walk into court and deliver a case. Because he had it all in his head. He only had to read the file once.”

Milliken’s memory also comes to the fore in canoe trips, says Franks, who shares Milliken’s love of whitewater canoeing. As well, he has an unlimited repertoire of limericks — some of which aren’t printable — has memorized the psalms from The Book of Common Prayer and the lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan operas, notes Franks. “Sometimes we get regaled with psalms on canoe trips, sometimes with limericks, and sometimes with Gilbert & Sullivan.” In an April fundraiser, Milliken even took to the stage, singing the role of Ko-Ko in The Mikado.

In 1988, Milliken’s budding interest in politics, nurtured by volunteering on election campaigns, flowered when he won first the Liberal nomination for the riding of Kingston and the Islands then scored an upset win over Conservative cabinet minister Flora MacDonald. “I ended up running almost by accident in 1988,” recalls Milliken. “I won the nomination, then a bit to my surprise won the election.”

From his maiden speech in the House, which he chose to deliver on the procedure of closure, Milliken appeared destined for the speaker’s chair. As a backbencher, his roles often revolved around House procedure — whether it was serving as deputy speaker or as parliamentary secretary to the government House leader. In 2001, Milliken was elected speaker — a job he would go on to hold through both Liberal and Conservative governments, until he announced this spring that after 22 years as an MP he wasn’t going to run again.

While much of the speaker’s role revolves around the proceedings in the House of Commons, the job entails much more than most Canadians realize. In addition to welcoming dignitaries to Parliament — including Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President Barack Obama — Milliken represents the Commons abroad as the head of parliamentary delegations. He’s also in charge of the parliamentary precinct, overseeing spending of $441 million and discreetly dealing with problems involving MPs, their staff, or House of Commons personnel.

Milliken says his training as a lawyer contributed to his success as speaker. “You learn something about how to act as a judge and be neutral in matters, I think, when you are working as a lawyer or being trained as a lawyer. I think that is very important for this job. You have to stay out of the battles that go on and appear to be neutral even if you have fairly strong views on some of the things that are being debated, you shut up and all that sort of thing. I think training as a lawyer helps very significantly in that regard.”

His legal training also contributed to his ability to draft rulings. “You read them through in advance and if the language appears to be one-sided or casting aspersions on somebody, you get that out of there and make sure it is worded in a way that is perceived as fair and impartial by the warring factions on the issue. Even if somebody is quite wrong you’re careful not to condemn them. You make the point that the argument is incorrect but that’s it.”

Audrey O’Brien, clerk of the House of Commons and co-author of the latest edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, says Milliken “was almost uniquely gifted in terms of handling the times over which he presided in the House. It was a particular pleasure for those of us who are the procedural professionals, if you will, at the House to have him at the helm, not least of all because he brought to our discussions and to our deliberations a depth of knowledge and a perspective that was very valuable in addressing the issues that came up.” She says Milliken was “masterful” in the chair, avoided becoming a dupe of the opposition and saw himself as a servant of the House, which contributed to his success.

While Milliken can be affable and amiable with a good sense of humour, O’Brien says he can also be a shy, unassuming, and somewhat private person. “He has the same demeanour whether he is dealing with the chairman of the Russian Duma, [former U.S. Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, or the security guy at the desk when you come into the House of Commons.”

Franks sees parallels with Milliken’s approach to whitewater canoeing. “Peter, for what it’s worth, shows the same qualities in his whitewater canoeing as he does in his speakership: ability to read what’s ahead, to tame the unruly waters, to be decisive in times of urgency, and a great deal of confidence, experience, and knowledge to bring to bear on whatever might await around the next bend in the river.”

Probably the chief criticism of Milliken has been the way the atmosphere in the House of Commons has deteriorated into partisan gamesmanship in recent years, with heckling and insults sometimes all but drowning out those trying to speak. The principal problem, says Milliken, is the power wielded by parties and party leaders who decide who will be allowed to speak. “When I first watched it, the speaker chose who the person to ask questions was going to be. Now, the parties provide lists and the speaker follows the lists assiduously.”

Keeping order in a minority government is even harder, says Milliken. “A minority Parliament is likely to be that way because everybody is trying to score at the expense of everyone else. So, the fact that we have had a string of minorities I’m sure has altered things a little in that respect.”

Ironically, it was the existence of a minority government that gave birth to one of Milliken’s most lasting legacies — his rulings on the right of Parliament to demand information or documents from the government. In his April 2010 decision on Parliament’s right to obtain documents related to the handling of Afghan detainees, Milliken ruled the government’s refusal to provide uncensored documents constituted a prima facie breach of privilege but gave Parliament two weeks to resolve the impasse between Parliament’s right to know and the government’s concerns over security. The result was a panel of MPs from different parties to go over the documents aided by a group of retired judges.

More recently, in a ruling that set the stage for the defeat of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority government and the May 2 election that saw him returned to power with a majority, Milliken ruled there was a breach of parliamentary privilege after the government refused to table documents related to the estimated cost of its crime bills and the F-35 fighter jets it wants to purchase. While the rulings are considered by others to be Milliken’s lasting legacy both in Canada and around the world, he downplays the achievement, saying he was just acting according to parliamentary precedent. “I don’t think the rulings were earth-shattering. The only thing is that in a majority Parliament you wouldn’t normally have the speaker making the decision. There would be a vote and the vote would be to say no to the production of the documents or to the portions of the documents that had not been produced and that the government said were not ones that should be made public.”

However, experts in parliamentary procedure and parliamentary law like Franks disagree. “The Afghan detainees and the cost of programs, I think are landmark decisions and they were very well written and very nicely delivered.” Franks says the rulings could also have an impact beyond Parliament. “They could be used in evidence in a court of law. For example, in this majority government if the government refuses to reveal information that the opposition thinks it is entitled to, it could take a case to the courts. Those rulings could be used for a writ of mandamus to compel the government to produce the documents.”

Stephen Scott, professor emeritus of law at McGill University, who describes Milliken as “a superstar of speakers,” says Milliken’s rulings serve as important precedents on Parliament’s right to information and will be invoked outside of Canada as well. “The right of the House to demand and have documents in the possession of government, that’s an important precedent because usually it is assumed in parliamentary systems that if the House demands a document the government will give it.”

Baird goes even further. “He made a number of landmark rulings. In Canadian history nobody had ever asked for cabinet documents through a motion in the House. That is unprecedented even in the Commonwealth. Future governments are all going to have to live under new jurisprudence.”

But while parliamentary and constitutional scholars see his rulings as his legacy, Milliken himself hopes to leave another legacy as well — the tradition of hosting social events to break down the partisan barriers between MPs. Whether it is small dinners in the dining room of the speaker’s Centre Block apartment or huge garden parties on the grounds of The Farm at Kingsmere, the former home of William Lyon Mackenzie King that comes with the job of speaker, Milliken has made a concerted effort to help MPs bridge partisan divides. “The old system that was in place when I was first elected has changed — I would call it broken down — and has made it really difficult for members from different parties to mix and mingle with others,” explains Milliken. “They just don’t do it nearly as much as was the case before, so it has made the atmosphere a little more hostile.” Milliken believes those gatherings have made a difference in the way Parliament functions. “These dinners are useful in the sense that the members who come end up sitting with people they wouldn’t otherwise sit with and chat. So I think they tend to be helpful and I would hope that’s something that might continue. I know it’s not part of the procedural or formal part of the job but I think that it does help to have members work together a little more.”

But while those gatherings take place behind closed doors, Canadians may one day know more about those dinners and the other secrets of life behind the scenes that Milliken takes with him as he leaves Parliament Hill. Franks says for years Milliken has kept a journal of his daily life as well as accounts of their canoe trips. The canoe trip entries, which he shares with fellow paddlers, are full of human perception, nice twists of phrase, ironical comments, and astute observations of the events of the day. “Somewhere, hidden away are Peter’s diaries and it might well be that after Peter’s dead and these things come out that they are one of the famous diary resources in Canadian literature — like Mackenzie King’s or Samuel Pepys’ in England.

“Who knows what indiscretions are revealed there.”

Click here to see a video of our interview with Peter Milliken.


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