November 23, 2021 11 minutes (audio)
Erin: Welcome to a very special Bonus Episode of the ON Parliament Podcast! After our last episode on the roles of the Clerk and Sergeant-at-Arms, we received a lot of questions and feedback about both roles. I was able to get some answers and wanted to share them with you today. So, without further ado…. here is the Clerk part deux! Oh wow. Okay now I hear how cheesy some of those jokes are. Note to self: try to break the habit of speaking in terrible puns. But I digress.
As we said last time, the Clerk is the Chief Procedural Officer to the Speaker and the Members of Provincial Parliament. They are also the Chief Permanent Officer of the Legislative Assembly. We explored what both of these roles mean last time but we wanted to know more about what it actually feels like and is like being the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. So, we decided to find out! I was lucky enough to get some of our questions answered by the Clerk himself, and today I’m going to be sharing some of his more memorable moments with all of you.
Todd Decker is the current Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. He has been in the role since 2016. Before becoming our head Clerk, he worked his way up through - what I like to think of as - our hierarchy of Clerks. He began as a co-op student at the Assembly back in the 80s. After finishing University, he was hired as a Committee Clerk. He worked in that role for over 13 years before progressing to being one of the Table Officers. The Table Officers are the Clerks that you see during a session that are sitting at the table in the middle of the Chamber with the Clerk. They assist in the Chamber and keep track of all of the votes and the timing of all of the debates too. After being in that role, Mr. Decker became the Deputy Clerk, before finally becoming the head Clerk just over 5 years ago. Now, if you had asked him back in 1984 when he started full-time at the Assembly if he thought that one day, he would be the head Clerk, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.
Fun fact: the Clerk is appointed to their role, but there is no set term limit for them to be in office. Typically, Clerks stay in the role until they retire. The longevity of the position is what makes it so unique and also so crucial. The Clerk embodies the continuity of the Legislature, without them, the Members and Speaker wouldn’t be able to do their jobs properly in the Chamber. Fun fact: since the time of Confederation, we have only had 8 permanent Clerks in our provincial Parliament! Now if you were listening closely to our last episode, you might be thinking: “But Erin, last time you said that there have been 9 Clerks since 1867!” And you know what, that’s actually also true. So how is that possible? Well, there have only been 8 permanent Clerks in the last 150 years or so, but there has also been one person to serve as an acting Clerk for a brief period of time. So, when asked if he felt like he was Clerk number 8 or Clerk number 9, our current Clerk pulled out a very special object to prove his point.
Since 1867, every person who has served as the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, has been sworn-in using the same Bible. Once they’re sworn-in, they each signed the inside of the Bible that indicated what number Clerk they were. Despite there being no number 8 recorded, Todd Decker wanted to recognize the Clerk pro tem that served previously and so he signed the book as Clerk number 9. Pretty neat right?
And speaking of being sworn-in, you may remember that we said last time that one of the Clerk’s bigger jobs right after an election is to swear-in all of the Members. And following the last election, we had a new first related to that as well. Because the House resumed sitting quite soon after our last provincial election, the Clerk, for the first time ever had to do a couple of group swearing-in sessions because there wasn't enough time to do them all individually! Fun fact: after the House resumed, they allowed any Member who wanted to still have an individual ceremony, so they still got the full experience, to do so. But with all of this talk about being sworn-in, it made me wonder: who is responsible for swearing-in the Clerk if he’s the official swearer-inner? And that job apparently falls to the Speaker. Showing yet again how important and interconnected all of the Parliamentary Officer roles really are.
And speaking of the Speaker, another neat job that the Clerk has is overseeing the Speaker’s election at the beginning of every new Parliament. Now we call it the Speaker “election” but it wasn’t exactly a real balloted election that we would think of today until 1990. Before that, the Premier of the day would nominate someone and the Leader of the Official Opposition would second the nomination. No other names would be put forward and so that person would automatically be acclaimed Speaker. This whole process changed in the 90s. That’s when we introduced a secret ballot vote which allowed MPPs from all parties to be potentially nominated and for a real election race to be run for Speaker. Fun fact: Mr. Decker has been at the Assembly for all of the secret-ballot Speaker elections thus far. According to him, there have been some memorable ballots. He has experienced a Speaker being elected on just one ballot and he’s also seen the opposite; where it took 6 ballots to elect a Speaker. Why such a difference? Well, the way it works is that there needs to be a majority vote towards one candidate. So, the Clerk will tally all of the ballots and if there isn’t a majority vote, the candidate with the lowest number of votes will be removed from the ballot and then they vote again. And this process continues until they’ve achieved that majority vote.
After the Speaker is elected and Parliament is sitting, the Clerk’s days tend to follow a fairly similar pattern – even if there is no typical day in Parliament. The mornings are the most structured and Chamber-heavy part of the day – that’s when Question Period is which tends to be the busiest and liveliest part of the day in the Chamber. Our Question Period happens every day that the House is sitting around 10:30 in the morning and it’s when questions are posed to the Premier and Cabinet Ministers by all of the Private Members – including Members from the governing party. Fun fact: Question Period in Ontario’s Legislature lasts for an entire 60 minutes – one of the longest and most frequent Question Periods allotted in any Westminster-style Parliament in the world.
Following the morning routine in the Chamber, the Clerk may have other meetings outside of the House – but they all must fit around the parliamentary calendar which, as you can imagine, can be challenging at times. Although, once the House has risen, the Clerk is able to work on other projects that may have taken a back seat because of timing when the House was actually sitting. For example, this past summer, the Clerk was already starting to look at election and post-election planning in advance of the upcoming provincial election next year – talk about planning ahead!
Now, one of the things that I learned that I thought was the most interesting, is the current Clerk’s relationship with the Standing Orders. The Standing Orders are essentially the procedural rule book that dictates how our Parliament runs. I was curious to know whether or not Todd Decker had the entire thing memorized by this point – having been a Clerk for so long – and the answer that I got did not disappoint! He claims to have them almost completely memorized! Which really shouldn’t be surprising since by this point, he has helped write a large number of them. That being said, the Standing Orders are subject to change based on the needs of the House and there have been some changes in recent years – so he doesn’t have all of the changes memorized quite as well, especially the newer ones. But he’s getting there. It’s still super impressive though! Especially if you’ve ever seen the Standing Orders – they’re not exactly what you would call light reading. And if you don’t believe me, check them out for yourself. They’re available on our website.
Fun fact: contrary to how some American Legislatures work, the Standing Orders in Ontario’s Parliament are kept across Parliaments. In some American Legislative Bodies, upon the dissolution of the House, the Standing Orders die with it. Once sessions begin again, their first order of business must be to adopt rules for how their sessions will work. That’s not the same in Ontario’s Parliament. Upon the beginning of a new parliamentary session, the Standing Orders are grandfathered in – in essence, they continue to “stand” across Parliaments. This makes them a true living testament to the traditions and procedures of our democratic process here in Ontario.
And unfortunately, that brings me to the end of my list of questions. I hope that I was able to shed some more light on the fascinating role of the Clerk. Speaking of which, I have it on good authority that our Clerk is a fan himself of our fun facts in every episode so of course I did have to sneak a couple into today’s bonus episode too. So, just for the Clerk, today’s fun fact count is… 6! Honestly? Sometimes, I even impress myself with the number of fun facts I manage to fit in. Tune in next time to learn more fun facts and see what new adventures we get up to next.
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Gotta go, I think I hear the bells.
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