Ep. 08: Interview with the Honourable Ted Arnott, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario




August 26, 2021 29 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast. Where we help spread the word on parliament.



Stephanie: Today, we have a very special guest joining us on the podcast, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: As Presiding Officer of the House, the Speaker's role is at the heart of Ontario's parliamentary system. The Speaker serves the Legislature by overseeing its meetings, enforcing its rules, and maintaining order and decorum. The role requires the Speaker to be fair and impartial, and to make sure that debates are conducted respectfully.



Stephanie: In addition to their role in the Chamber, the Speaker is the head of the Office of the Legislative Assembly, a non-partisan office that supports the work of all MPPs. The Speaker also has a ceremonial and diplomatic role, welcoming visiting dignitaries to the legislative building and representing the Legislature across Canada and abroad. The Speaker also remains an MPP for the duration of their term and represents their constituents. We are very happy to be joined today by the Honourable Ted Arnott, the current Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Ted Arnott has been an MPP since 1990. Once the youngest MPP in his caucus, he is now one of the Legislature's longest serving Members, his career having spanned eight Parliaments. In that time, he's held parliamentary roles in Government and Opposition, including as Parliamentary Assistant and Critic. Born in Fergus, Ontario, and raised in nearby Arthur, he attended Wilfrid Laurier University before beginning his parliamentary career, and now lives in Fergus with his wife. On July 11, 2018, he became the 42nd Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us today, sir.



Speaker Ted Arnott: It's great to have you here.



Erin: So, you were first elected as an MPP in 1990. Do you remember your first day coming to Queen's Park and what that was like?



The Speaker: Oh yes, I do, quite vividly. After I was elected, I had to come to Queen's Park, I think a few days later, and just driving up University Avenue, of course you can see the building getting bigger and bigger and I felt my responsibilities getting larger and larger as I did. And then walking into the building for the first time, you feel a great sense of awe about being here as a, as a Member of the Provincial Parliament and, and again, a sense of the duty and responsibility that goes with it. But 31 years ago now, it's hard to believe.



Erin: Do you remember where your first office was in the building?



The Speaker: Oh, yes, I do. Yes. And I was, I was sharing an office initially with David Turnbull, who was the MPP for York Mills. And we really hadn't been allocated offices, we just had, we were both in there somehow and neither of us had staff, so we're kind of tripping over each other. And then, but we each had a desk. We each had a phone. Of course, there's no email there are no computers at Queen's Park in those days. Very, very different than today. But eventually we were allocated individual offices and I was able to get more settled. And but I, when I walk by the offices that I used to work in, it brings back a lot of memories.



Stephanie: You were an MPP for a long time, but when did you first become interested in running for the role of Speaker?



The Speaker: Well, that goes back a long way. I was first interested in becoming a Presiding Officer in 2003, after the Conservative Party was defeated. We were in Opposition and I, and I, I wanted to have another role over and above being an MPP. And I actually approached Ernie Eves, who was at that time Leader of the Opposition, had been Premier, and asked him if he would be in agreement with me becoming one of the Presiding Officers. And I don't know if he had a lot of confidence in me in that role at that point. But I do know that I was the only one in the caucus that asked for it. So, it was very easy. There was no choice. So, they gave me that chance. And then I served as one of the Assistant Speakers, Presiding Officers, for the next 13 years actually. And it was, it was a good apprenticeship really, and I got to know the Clerks and the table staff and many of the senior administration in those years, too. When Alvin Curling, who was the Speaker of the Legislature was appointed Canada's Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, you may recall, he resigned as Speaker and resigned his seat in the Legislature which necessitated an election of the next Speaker. And I was, again, one of the Presiding Officers at the time. And I thought that there should be a vote and a race and that that would compel whoever was going to be elected Speaker - I didn't believe it would be me - that there should at least be a discussion and the eventual winner should come into each caucus and look us in the eye. Promise to be fair. As it turned out, Mike Brown, who was the MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin I think at the time, he was the Deputy Speaker at the time, I think. And we were colleagues. We were friends. Both of us allowed our names to stand. It was interesting. There was only two of us that allowed our names to stand. Interesting in the sense that, I never said a harsh word about him. And he never said a harsh word about me in the, in the course of the campaign, which is somewhat unusual for any kind of a political race, as you may know. It was very collegial. I was pleased to see him elected. I didn't expect to be elected. I was pleased to see him get it. And then he served as Speaker for the duration of that Parliament. But I, then I allowed my name to stand a second time in 2007. When Steve Peters was running and that was a larger race, there were quite a number of candidates. I don't remember how many. But, and again, not expecting to win, but as a Presiding Officer thinking there needed to be a race so as to ensure there was a discussion of the issues and commitments on the part of the successful candidate to be fair. And so, Steve was elected and again, I continued to serve as a Presiding Officer for several years after that. In 2018, I was encouraged by a lot of people on all sides of the House to allow my name to stand as a candidate for Speaker. And there were three other candidates that ran. I was not certain of what the outcome would be, but I was certainly prepared once I was into it, to put my best foot forward. But to say that I actively campaigned for it, it would be a bit of a stretch. My wife and I went away for a planned holiday before, for a week beforehand. Just before Lisa said, "Should we cancel the holiday? You might have to campaign." I said, we're not canceling the holiday. Either people want me to serve in that chair or they don't, and I'm not going to campaign for it the way I would campaign for a general election. And again, as it turned out, I was elected on July the 11th - I'd forgotten the day. Thanks for reminding me.



Erin: So, you never forget your first day in a role like that I don't think.



The Speaker: That's right. That's right.



Stephanie: A question we often get from visitors, a lot of people are very curious, is about the Speaker election process. We know that there are some very fun parliamentary traditions involved. Could you give us a quick summary?



The Speaker: Well, it's a secret ballot vote of all MPPs. Every MPP has the right to vote. There are multiple ballots sometimes to ensure that the eventual Speaker who was elected has the majority of the House has expressed their vote in support for that person. It's always the first day that the Parliament sits. So, it's the very first item of business requiring the attention of the House. There are, I would say there is a bit of a campaign that goes on - not withstanding what I said previously. Some, in fact, some Members will organize get-togethers, receptions, and so on. One did - it wasn't me. Others will be more low-key about their approach to it. But it's the first item of business of Provincial Parliaments and the Standing Orders. It's the very first thing that's done. Some of the fun traditions? I don't know... after, you mean after you're elected Speaker? Or in the process?



Stephanie: I guess once you win.



The Speaker: So, the Speaker is expected to immediately take the chair once the announcement has been made. The person who moved and seconded the nomination of the Speaker come down to where the Speaker-Elect, I guess you'd say, is sitting. And then, physically drag the person out of their chair into the chair at the front of the room. And it's again, based on the belief that, no one in their right mind would want to be Speaker. You have to twist their arm literally and figuratively. And that can be true too. And then of course I had a chance to give a brief speech. I was pleased that my wife was there and some close friends, including my friend Elizabeth Witmer, who was a colleague of mine for many years who had come down too. And then they whisk you out of the building or out of the Chamber, down to the Speaker's office and the Clerk's office where a lot of activity takes place. Including, there's a tailor there waiting for you to measure you for your, your Speaker's gear or garb, including the cape, the robe, whatever you call it. There was a Hatmaker there who measured my head, the dimensions of my head to then make a hat. Which I have. There was a sort of an introductory meeting with the Clerk to talk about the things that I needed to know immediately. And it was, it was very interesting. And then I received a call from the Premier's office asking that I come up to the Premier's office cause the Premier wanted to congratulate me. And I said to the Clerk, "How much time is this meeting going to take?" And he said, "It's going to take another half hour." And I said, "Okay. Tell the Premier that we'll be up there in about a half an hour." And we all had a bit of a joke about that, because that was my first sort of symbolic demonstration that we, the Speaker is independent of the Government. And so, we made the Premier wait a half an hour, and then I went up and I was glad, I was glad to talk to him and very much appreciated his good wishes.



Erin: Well, that's fun. As the Speaker, you're still the MPP for your riding. How do you balance your role as an active MPP and as the Speaker?



The Speaker: As the MPP for Wellington-Halton Hills, I am kept very busy by 120,000 constituents who I am proud and pleased to represent. I want to do a good job for my riding. And that's always been my focus as an MPP. And that continues even though I'm Speaker. On Fridays, I'm in my riding office, as I always have been, and I deal with constituency matters and I also am in touch with my constituency office frequently through the week when the House is in session Monday to Thursday. I read the emails that come in to my constituency office. I'm involved in the responses. Trying to keep, you know, a good sense of what people are thinking. Before the pandemic, I continued to attend community events on the weekends, in my riding. And then I spend a lot of time trying to advance the issues that are important to my riding - in particular, the infrastructure needs - by working with Members on both sides of the House, actually. So as to ensure that our interests and our needs are understood and hopefully addressed by the Government. If I need to speak to a Minister, for example, when the House is in session. I will often send the Minister a note in the House and ask that the Minister speak with me for a few minutes in the side office or the Speaker's office just off the Chamber. Never had a Minister say no to the request for an immediate meeting, right after Question Period. Never, not once. So, I appreciate that. The Premier the same - when we've had to reach out to them for their assistance or their involvement in an issue involving my riding. So that's good. And I think to some degree advantageous to my constituency. What I can't do as Speaker is vote in the Legislature. Unless I'm in the Chair and there's a tie vote. And of course, there's tradition and convention surrounding that, which I could talk about for hours or days. So, I don't vote. And I can't speak out on a public issue in a public way that is likely to be debated before the House, or is being debated before the House. And, but I tell my constituents: "I've been here for a long time. I'm privileged to be here. I've worked hard for my constituency over the years. I'm still doing it behind the scenes. Don't worry about that." And most, most accept and agree and understand.



Stephanie: It makes sense.



Erin: It does.



Stephanie: I can't imagine a Minister refusing to meet the Speaker after Question Period.


[00:13:19] [All laugh]



Erin: I feel like that's a request I would definitely listen to.



The Speaker: Well, the Speaker has some authority, but I think you have more authority if you exercise that authority responsibly and consistently so, and fairly and impartially. So, I, you know, we're consciously trying to do that. And the advice I receive from the staff in the Speaker's office, as well as the Clerks is indispensable to ensure that I, you know, stay on that track. That's where I want to be. And I don't want the perception that I'm, that I'm being unfair or impartial. And I certainly don't want it to be true. So, we consciously, deliberately every day talk about this and try to make sure that I am in fact being impartial in the things that I do in the House.



Stephanie: And what was that transition like from, from just being an MPP to then being the Speaker and having to think about all of these things a little bit more?



The Speaker: Well, the day I was elected Speaker, it was quite overwhelming. The next day, the House was sitting, I had the robe, I had the hat. It was all there. I didn't have the hat, I guess it took a week to come, but I had the full authority of the Speaker. And it was right after the election, as you'll recall, that the House was called back into session. The election had taken place in June. The House was sitting literally a month later. Dozens of new Members who hadn't in many cases even been elected to any public office. The Premier new; new to the role of Premier, new to the Legislature as an MPP as well. Right after the election, some of the, some of the emotions of the election still pretty raw in the minds of some. And it was, it was loud in there. It was at times - it was Bedlam. And I didn't know what, I didn't know what to do. I, and as much as I tried, nothing I was doing was working to try and calm it down. And so that, that was my first recollection that comes to mind that it was Bedlam is the word that I would use. And then it got a little better. I think I became a little more accustomed to what I needed to do. Again, good coaching from the Speaker's office staff, as well as the Clerks, which helped me to develop the skills that I needed, the skillset that I needed, that I didn't have in order to bring some more civility to the House. And then we've tried a number of different things over the years, and occasionally reminding them in a public way, how important it is that we, that we behave in a professional manner to, so as to ensure that the people of Ontario are proud of their MPPs and proud of their Legislature. So, the transition was very difficult, but it's, it did get better. And it has, I mean now I feel quite comfortable in the role in most respects and the best part of being Speaker is the wonderful people that I work with, the staff of the Legislature. And I, you know, I work with the Clerks very closely on a daily basis. It's just a real pleasure to see everyone, to come in in the morning, just to see them and to know that we're going to confront the challenges of the day together. And then all the staff at the Legislature, all of you who have embraced the culture that was given to us by our predecessors of creating a democratic provincial parliament that all of us can be proud of. And it is a real, a real privilege and honour to be Speaker of the House right now. Thanks to you.



Erin: Well, that's, that's great to hear, and it sounds like you're, you're really passionate about the role and everything that comes along with it, which is, which is great. And sort of in that vein, is there one thing, or maybe a couple things that you think that the public or that people in general should know about what it is like being the Speaker? Like things that they wouldn't necessarily know. You know, we give a definition at the beginning and on paper it's you know, you're maintaining order, but is there something specific about the role that you think that people should know sort of from behind the scenes?



The Speaker: That's a tough question. Because most people aren't aware of the administrative responsibilities of the Speaker, which is maybe an important thing that people could know and wouldn't hurt if they knew. They told me at the start that I was the Chief Executive Officer of the Legislature. That's not so. The Speaker's role, in my opinion, it's more like a Chairman of the Board of the Legislature or more like if our Legislature was a village, more like the Mayor of the, of the village. The Clerk, in my opinion, is the Chief Administrative Officer of the Legislature, without question. And that's an important part of the Clerk's responsibility over and above what the Clerk has to do in the House. And most, I think the staff of the Legislature understand that, but, and that's why, that's why the Clerk has the, has the status of a Deputy Minister in the Government and should. That's an important part of it too. But the Speaker, as I say, has sort of a Chairman of the Board role. And the Board of Internal Economy, chairs the Board of Internal Economy, which is the decision-making body for how the money is spent here, which is a very important role too. And that involves of course, a great deal of responsibility. But it's not just the Speaker. It's again, part of a team. I would like to say that I've tried very hard to inculcate and create a team environment amongst our, our staff and the people that I work with. I don't see my role as superior to them. I see it as, that we're, that we're partners and we work together on everything. I said to the Clerks at the start, we, if we're faced with a significant decision, we should try to be like the Beatles. And the Beatles, if it wasn't unanimous, it didn't get done. And you try to create that. Now we haven't always been able to achieve unanimity behind the scenes. And there's a lot of, you know, discussion and negotiation, give and take. And sometimes it's hard to get a consensus. Even amongst the people that we all work together where, you know, we share the same broad goals, but trying to get there, sometimes isn't as easy. But we do try to work. I certainly want my staff to know that I want to hear what they really think. I need to hear that I need to hear their frank advice. And then, you know, we, we hash it out as a team and hopefully come, we're looking for the right thing to do on everything. And sometimes you know, it takes a while to find it, but then, then we try to do that. And I hope in most cases, we have.



Stephanie: It's true that the public, I don't think is aware of the administrative side of the Speaker role. I also don't think they're aware that you get measured for a hat.



Erin: No.



Stephanie: That's a fun fact that we learned today.



The Speaker: Well, and in fairness, I haven't worn the hat every day. I was wearing it every day for a while. There of course the Clerks that were expected to wear the hats as well. I didn't really like wearing the hat either. I still have it and I plan to wear it. If there's a Throne Speech or special ceremonial days still have it, but I didn't feel I needed to wear it every day.



Erin: I mean, it's quite, it's quite a hat. I will say.



Stephanie: It's a look.



Erin: Yeah. Many, many children who come to visit often liken it to a pirate hat. So that's pretty much the description we get most often. It's pirate hats.



Stephanie: If you ask, what do you notice about the Speaker? Why are they wearing a pirate hat? But speaking about that administrative aspect of the role, balancing, you know, the day-to-day in the Chamber and then the administration, how do you accomplish that? How do you master that balance?



The Speaker: We don't really set a rigid daily schedule in the Speaker's office. We anticipate that things will come up, that we don't necessarily anticipate first thing in the morning. I still have lots of organizations who are approaching me when they have a lobby day, they're approaching all the MPPs. We set up meetings, we try to as much as possible accommodate everybody. But our door is open and we have, we have Members who, not so much lately because of the pandemic, but we, our door has always been open since I was elected Speaker. Unless nobody's there - and then we close it. And lock it. But if, if someone's there, we keep the door open to invite people to drop in. If they have concerns, if they have issues. So, we have to maintain a fair amount of flexibility in our schedule in that sense. But there are specific times when I have to be in the House. And of course, that, that comes first.



Erin: I don't know if you can narrow it down to one, but is there one or maybe a couple of the things that you would consider to be the most rewarding aspects of being Speaker, but also just having been an MPP for so long?



The Speaker: When I think of my role as an MPP, and I tell my staff, you know, every day we come to work, we help people. We don't normally keep a list of everything we've done. We have things that we've done to support our communities large and small. And when you start, when you drive through a community, you can see something that's there. That wouldn't be there perhaps, without your best efforts. And it's not just me, it's my staff. And we work like, again, we work together on all of these things and, and those, those sorts of things are what make being an MPP worthwhile. And knowing that because of your efforts, something good happened that perhaps might not have happened without your ongoing efforts over a period of time. And then as Speaker, I think that's still a work in progress let's say. And I don't want to, I don't want to brag or boast. I feel, you know, every day is, is a new challenge. I hope again, I hope that we demonstrate that we're non-partisan as people would expect us to be. I hope that when I'm finished as Speaker, that I can look back with some degree of satisfaction that I've made a difference. I don't know that I'll have any specific one thing to point to necessarily. I think I'd leave that to others. And the media will occasionally judge whether or not a Speaker is doing a good job. We, I hear from Members from time to time who don't think that I'm up to scratch on any given day or something that I've done or said that they feel was wrong. So, it's, I mean, it's a subjective thing. It's not something that I can control. But when it's all said and done, I hope that people will see that I did the best job I could. And hopefully there'll be something there that will give people a sense of the effort that we all put into it.



Erin: I know you said that you're going to wait to see how people perhaps look back and perceive what you did in your role as Speaker. Is there a particular initiative or project that you've helped start while in the role of Speaker that you're proud of?



The Speaker: Well, this is going to sound like I'm bragging. I don't want it to sound that way. So, when I was the Chair of the Legislative Assembly Committee in 1995-1996, we were asked to do a review of the security arrangements in the Legislature. And we did a fairly comprehensive review of what was, what we were doing and what we needed to do. And that resulted in a report that was, came back to the Legislature which led to some changes in the security posture. Again, I'm the Chairman of this Committee, I recommend, or I present this report in the House, but the, one of the things that I had pushed for as part of the committee process and felt very strongly about was that there needed to be a single door for the visitors to come in with airport-type security. And that, that was, that was needed. And that was in place in Ottawa. It was in place in the National Assembly in Quebec. It wasn't like it was something brand new or visionary. It was just, we didn't have that. And we had access at multiple doors by the general public and again, I felt that this was something that was needed. And so, the security report was accepted and many of the recommendations were implemented over, implemented over a period of time, but then you fast forward to 2018 and we're still working on this. And the visitor center idea has started to gain some momentum and then it was built. And so, it, and now it is operating. And I think there's some irony there. I can't, it maybe speaks to how long it takes to get some things done around here. But I was the Chair of that Committee that recommended it. Now, here I am the Speaker that someday, hopefully will be able to cut the ribbon as we celebrate an official opening of some sort. So, I'm pleased.



Erin: It's a lot of perseverance to get there.



The Speaker: Yeah. Yeah.



Erin: But you did it!



The Speaker: And it's, and it's not just about me. The building is safer for all of us, including our visitors with this new visitor center, visitor screening center as we call it. So, I'm very pleased that it's there.



Erin: I mean it was also the first piece of new construction, technically or new addition to the building in over a hundred years. So that in and of itself, is just...



Stephanie: An accomplishment.



Erin: Yeah.



The Speaker: And they've done a great job with it. I mean, universally everybody that I've talked to about it is very pleased with how it was designed, how it looks, how it's set up, and how efficient our LPS staff are in operating it. So hopefully in the fall, let's hope we'll be back to some kind of normal with more people in the building again. And hopefully when we can safely invite visitors back in, then the general public will see it too.



Erin: Then maybe you'll finally get to cut the ribbon on it. And officially open it for real.



Stephanie: It's such a full circle story. So, if you had to think back to starting at the Assembly in, you know, 1990, if someone had come up and told you that you would one day be Speaker, what would your reaction have been?



Erin: Would you have believed them?



The Speaker: I didn't aspire to be Speaker. When I was first elected, it was survival. My first five years, it was just trying to get through every day and deal with the issues to the best of my ability. And I had no aspirations at that point to be Speaker. But then it, I guess it speaks to the fact that you might have a career path planned, but it might not work out exactly as you had first expected or, or dreamed. And day-to-day, we have opportunities to make a difference we should all - and I know that the staff of the Legislature agree - we should all continue to work together towards that objective. And we do.



Erin: Thank you so much for joining us today, Speaker. We're really glad to have you on the podcast.



The Speaker: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.



Stephanie: Thanks for listening to ON Parliament. Where we help spread the word on parliament.



Erin: Gotta go. I think I hear the bells.



Stephanie: The ON Parliament Podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Stephanie: Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Thanks for listening! If you enjoyed today's episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing.



Stephanie: For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter (external link) and Instagram (external link): @onparleducation. Et en français sur Twitter (external link): @parloneducation.



Erin: Thanks again, and see you next time.