Convivium: The first thing that strikes many people about you is that you are a very young executive. You look very young. Against a formidable opponent, you won an election and began serving at the age of 24 in 2004. Why did you decide to run?
Andrew Scheer: I remember being interested in politics from a very young age. An early memory of current events and international affairs was when I had a paper route, and I think it was the Boxing Day edition. The front-page story was the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. As I was bundling my papers to deliver them, I was very intrigued that a leader could be overthrown in a very violent way by his own army, his own people rising up against him. I remember asking my parents a lot of questions about what that meant, why that was happening there, could it happen here, that type of thing.
That led me down a path of being interested in governments and how people choose governments and how different countries govern themselves. It started me on a path of reading about political issues in the media. I remember the 1988 U.S. presidential elections. I would have been nine years old. I knew from a very young age it was something I wanted to do, and in high school I started volunteering with a local political party's riding association and that really was a great experience. You get to meet like-minded people who are all working towards the same goal and who believe in many of the same things. Politics in Canada, as I am sure in most places, is all about getting to know a group of people who share the same interests.
That is what led me to decide to run myself. I had worked for Stephen Harper when he was Leader of the Opposition. When I came out to Saskatchewan, I was working on a provincial election campaign that was unsuccessful, but the team we had put together got along very well. A candidate I had worked for said to me, "You seemed to enjoy the campaign and did very well at the doors.... Why don't you run and we'll all work for you?" He finally convinced me to take the plunge. That's how I ended up putting my name on the ballot.
C: Just to summarize, you got your start in democratic politics by reading about the assassination of Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day 1989?
AS: It prompted a lot of questions, and my parents explained why it likely wouldn't happen here. It taught me the value of having democratic institutions and the value of the Western, and especially the British, parliamentary system. Learning why we don't have to worry about things like that gave me an appreciation for the gift we have in Canada of a democratic, mature, functioning parliamentary system.
C: When you ran in 2004, you were running against the incumbent NDP MP Lorne Nystrom, who had been in Parliament 30 years or more. Did you think you would win?
AS: Yeah, I thought I would win. I knew I would work hard, and I knew I had a good team — a small but dedicated team. When I got the nomination, we had about $800 in the war chest and eight or nine volunteers. I really thought that my experience in Ottawa, working for a political party and knowing how to put a campaign together, would give me a good shot.
C: You were newly married at the time, right?
AS: Right. I was married in 2003.
C: Did your wife share your confidence or did she think this was sort of a two-month adventure for Andrew and then he'd settle down to do something more conventional?
AS: She was very supportive. We've had conversations since where she's acknowledged she didn't really realize what she might have signed up for. You present everything in stages. I went to her and said, "I am thinking about running for the nomination," so she had a few questions about what that would involve. When you win the nomination, it's only then that you turn your mind to what it would mean if you actually win the election.
C: There's no shortage of stories of MPs whose families break apart after election to Parliament because of the pressures of political life, including the travel especially from western Canada. How did you handle that particular issue and what might be done to make parliamentary service more compatible with family life?
AS: I have heard some of the stories. We always pray those types of situations won't arise in our lives. For us, the advantage was that I got elected so quickly after being married. I didn't have a young family and then become an MP and have to make huge adjustments. As we were having children, travelling back and forth to Ottawa was already kind of normal for us. We had children after establishing a household in Ottawa and a household in Regina. It wasn't that we had a set routine with expectations of dad being home at 5:30 every day and then were suddenly ripped out of that.
The other thing we've done is that we've really tried to minimize the number of week where we are apart. That might mean that Jill and the kids will come up for two to three weeks in a row or that I will be away from them just before a break and then home on the break week. That helps, especially since becoming Speaker, where it's a little bit tougher to get home on the weekends. Jill has become much more involved in the spouses' association, and they really do provide a lot of support for each other. When she is in Ottawa, she doesn't feel that she is taken away from her family and friends in Regina with no support network in Ottawa.
I think there is more that can be done with the parties if we could come together and identify extra pressures, maybe unnecessary pressures that are put on family life. That might mean having votes at more predictable times so that if members need to get away for an important family event, they know that a vote on legislation won't be held on that day. Right now, the voting can be unpredictable, so parties keep their MPs in Ottawa much more.
Sometimes families will come up to spend time with the member and then there's a vote at seven o'clock at night. Family suppers get disrupted and members can't spend time with their families even when they are in town. There are things Parliament could look at that are not unique to one caucus or another, or it's not an ideological thing. We are all in the same boat. We are all away from our families or have our families visiting. What can we all agree on not to give the government or the opposition an advantage tactically in the House but that makes it a little more humane on a group of people that have to travel twice a week?
C: At the age of 32, you were probably the second or third youngest Speaker in British parliamentary history. What is your experience as someone who had enough confidence to be elected Speaker at such a young age? And how do you respond to the person in the street who has disdain for what goes on in the House?
AS: The House always looks for a Speaker who has respect from all parties. I did serve as deputy speaker for a number of years, where I really focused on building relationships with members of other caucuses, not just my own. When you first get elected, you're in your caucus; that's your team and you go into battle every day, but I really saw the importance of the Speaker and deputy speakers and other chairs being able to bridge that divide and look not at the partisan differences but at how we can all share the same goal, which is to improve our government and make Canada the best country in the world. We agree on the what; we don't agree on the how. By focusing on what we do agree on, I found myself able to build relationships with members of the Liberal and NDP caucuses.
In terms of the public's perspective of Parliament, some of that is probably deserved when bad things happen, when people lose their cool or things are said that shouldn't be said. I do think that sometimes there's an emphasis on the negative and that you can have several weeks go by where the debate is intelligent, where the points made in Question Period are substantial, good questions and good answers, and none of that will get reported.
When a member loses his temper or uses unparliamentary language or makes an outrageous accusation, that's the thing that gets attention. Weeks of smooth sailing can be undone by one or two more volatile days in the House. The impression at the top of the public mind is that this is normal. My experience is that most members, whether at the committee level or even in the House, have a lot of respect for each other and for the process. Outside of Question Period, the debate is often on point, on substance, and the questions back and forth to each other are much less personal.
We always use the expression the media don't report on all the planes that land. They just report on the ones that don't land. That is true in politics as well. The controversies are the things that get the most attention; that is unfortunate. It has been a wonderfully positive place to work most of the time. I find that I get a lot of cooperation with different members and with each caucus trying to improve the tone of debate.
C: If you want to put it provocatively, we say that as a Christian you should desire to put yourself in positions to bring out your virtues and not your vices, right? Does the House of Commons bring out MPs' virtues or does it tempt them to acknowledge their vices?
AS: By entering in the public life....
C: The Chamber, not public life.
AS: The Chamber is a dynamic place. No two days are the same; and even throughout the day, the place changes. Yes, there are times when you can see the temptation to take the bait on an accusation that may have been thrown at you, but it is a place where a lot of good can be done and where people who are virtuous and have passionate beliefs on important issues can stand as an example for others.
More than a place where it might draw people's vices [laughter], it is an opportunity for members to be an example of a good citizen. They come to Ottawa to participate in a democratic process at the highest level and to advocate for their riding or for their beliefs.
C: Most of the time that you've been in politics, there has been a sense that people who seek to enter into the public life, or advance in public life, might have to trim or even hide their faith. You would be a counter-example, but are you the exception that proves the rule or do you think there are lessons from your experience that might encourage others in public life to be public about their faith?
AS: I don't know. I really cannot speak to anybody else's experience. I know there are pressures in just about every walk of life on matters of faith and how that fits in with any number of careers, any number of personal situations. I have never seen it as a problem. I've never had it viewed in any negative way. It is something I identified with early on in my life and didn't make any changes when I decided to enter into elected office, and it certainly hasn't been an issue for me at all. In fact, in my case it has been a positive. As you know, I started the St. Thomas More Society on the Hill and that was very well received. We've had participation from every caucus at one point or another.
C: More is famous for many things, but he was actually Speaker of the House of Commons. Are there any insights that you have from his life as Speaker? Are there things about his speakership in Westminster that have attracted your attention?
AS: Not just as Speaker, but as a person in political life. I think what St. Thomas did was identify a line he could not cross; he knew the boundary of his flexibility and his pragmatism. He knew very early on that there was a certain point he could not go past. Ahead of that, he was very willing to try to find a way of carrying out the king's wishes. In fact, he was willing to taken certain oaths but not other oaths, depending on what the oath said.
He wasn't looking for the fight. He wasn't looking to become a martyr. He was looking for a way out that would satisfy his conscience but also get him through the quagmire he was in. That is the important part. It didn't end well on this earth for St. Thomas. For any politician, whatever the situation you find yourself in, if you define early on what your conscience can accommodate, make that decision early and just stick to that, any politician on any issue will be well served on those matters of profound personal importance. St. Thomas had a very good understanding of the matter and what the Church taught about it, and he was willing to go a long way, but he just couldn't go past a certain point.
C: Would you say then that the earlier you decide in politics, the better off you are?
AS: I would. There are different kinds of situations, and politics is the art of compromise. The entire dynamic in a parliamentary system is finding consensus on issues and finding solutions that satisfy a large number of people. You are bound to find yourself in positions where you're asked to compromise or to accept something that you may not normally want to advance. It is important to know the difference between policies you might support, policies you might not support, and matters that define who you are as a person, what you believe in and what you might have to answer for when you face the ultimate test. I think Canadians have respect for that; I think your colleagues have respect for that.
C: One final question. What part of being Speaker do you enjoy the most?
AS: I have to say the dynamic of the Chamber in Question Period. The Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the third party, the Prime Minister, since they're all talking to me, they all say "Mr. Speaker." That's part of our tradition — to maintain that degree of separation so it is a little more civil and a little bit less personal. It is a very unique perspective, as the major issues of the day are being discussed and debated, to be the focal point as Speaker.
I also really enjoy meeting a wide range of interesting people, whether it's foreign Speakers, foreign heads of government or parliamentary delegations, and getting to meet with my counterparts from around the world and seeing how each system is a little bit different.
Although we come from very different histories, politically and culturally, you can see that human bond between all of us because we're all answerable to our populations. Human beings generally want the same things. We all just have different approaches on how to do that.
C: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.