Why Rota Had To Go

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(or, Ministerial Accountability Part 2)

A public relations catastrophe has unfolded internationally over House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota’s decision to ask Members of Parliament to recognize a constituent in the Gallery of the House, whom he had invited to attend the speech of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  This unfortunate incident provides us with a classic case study of the concept of ministerial accountability, and one well worth exploring in detail given Canadians’ general lack of knowledge of this principle. This is especially true given the conflicting and often misleading coverage of this issue provided by opposition parties and the media, as well as the huge political significance of this event.  

As an earlier piece on ministerial accountability outlined (see “Doug Ford, the Greenbelt Fiasco and Ministerial Accountability in the 21st Century” 9/20/23), there are basically two aspects to this fundamental principle of ministerial accountability, and two reasons why a minister might be obliged to resign. The first is for personal misconduct, (almost always a hanging offence) and the second is for the errors committed by staff in the department for which the minister is responsible. (Often in this second case a sincere apology by the minister and a firm commitment to rectify a problem has been considered sufficient. Sometimes, but much less often and only in truly egregious cases, this too is a hanging offence.) In the case of Mr. Rota, it is the second reason that applies. He was personally unaware of the issues at play, but arguably his staff should have been. Although an apology might have sufficed for lesser errors, the implications of this mistake are so grave as to leave no doubt that a resignation is the required remedy.  

Based on what has been publicly reported to date, the following points need to be considered:

  • This was the sole decision of the Speaker. Neither the prime minister nor any members of the Liberal cabinet and caucus, nor any members of the opposition parties, (and obviously not Mr. Zelensky), were aware that the Speaker intended to do this.
  • This is a crucial point. Despite the shameless and misleading attempts by Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre to attach some responsibility or blame to the prime minister and his government, it is a well-established principle of Westminster parliaments that the House is independent of the government and master of its own affairs. (The separation of the legislature and the executive is, in fact, a fundamental principle of this parliamentary system.) As a result, the government (the executive) would neverbe informed in advance of any visitors to the gallery who would be invited by individual Members of Parliament (the legislature.) Normally these names would be provided in advance to the Speaker. Ironically in this case, it was in his capacity as MP for Nipissing-Timiskaming that Speaker Rota himself invited Mr. Hunka, who is a constituent. 
  • Often visitors in the Gallery are there because they were already planning a trip to Ottawa and wanted to see the House of Commons in action. It is standard procedure for the office of an MP to arrange a seat in the public gallery for a constituent who contacts them and makes such a request. No “vetting” is required or expected of them. However, in this case it appears that Speaker Rota actually invited Mr. Hunka to attend the speech, and he was not in the general public gallery. This would automatically lead to the question of how he would have been aware of Mr. Hunka’s existence. To date no public explanation has been offered. It may simply be that Mr. Hunka made such a request. It may also be that he is well known in his constituency for his ardent support of Ukrainian nationalism. (Several reports have noted, for example, that the 98-year-old Mr. Hunka  recently travelled to Sudbury from his home in North Bay to attend a rally supporting the Ukraine in its war with Russia.)
  • Regardless of how the invitation came to be issued, it would – or ought to have been — the responsibility of Speaker Rota’s staff to “vet” Mr. Hunka, given not only the importance of the event but the fact that the Speaker also decided to draw attention to the presence of Mr. Hunka and invite legislators to express their appreciation in a standing ovation. Assuming that his staff actually did so, this vetting in hindsight was either superficial or flawed, as many accounts have suggested. (More on this aspect of the issue below.)
  • By his own account, Mr.Rota’s office followed standard procedure and informed both the Protocol and Security offices of the House of Commons of Mr. Hunka’s invitation. Although no details have been made public, it would appear that this was a pro forma gesture intended primarily to ensure that Mr. Hunka was granted access, rather than for him to become the subject of an intensive vetting. In short, it may be that one outcome of this embarrassing event will be a revised procedure of the internal House administration for handling invitees at state visits and other important parliamentary functions.

Taken together, however, these facts make it abundantly clear that the responsibility for this debacle is Mr. Rota’s and Mr. Rota’s alone. By all accounts Mr. Rota has been a popular and effective Speaker, and he has been described by several colleagues on both sides of the House as a profoundly decent human being. Virtually no one has challenged his explanation that he did not know about Yaroslav Hunka’s controversial past. Nor have they doubted the sincerity of the Speaker’s apology for his mistake. Nevertheless, under the principle of ministerial responsibility Mr. Rota was left with no choice but to resign. The fact that he attempted to avoid this fate for several days by issuing an apology is unfortunate to say the least.

Unfair as this may seem given his good intentions, Mr. Rota’s resignation was clearly the price that had to be paid for such a massively important error. Although he is not a minister in the government’s cabinet, the Speaker holds a post of equivalent importance in terms of democratic institutions in a parliamentary democracy. And, as he is both an elected MP as well as having been elected Speaker by his colleagues in the legislature, his resignation is the only appropriate mechanism to ensure the ongoing credibility of that institution. No resignation by staff in his office, or officials in the administration of the House of Commons, could accomplish that objective. Moreover it would not be appropriate, as Mr. Poilievre has misleadingly argued, for the prime minister to call for Mr. Rota’s resignation. As the Speaker is an officer of parliament, elected by all Members of the House, that is the role of the House Leaders of the various political parties represented in the legislature, not the role of the separate Executive. Mr Rota knew that, and it was for that reason that he arranged to meet with all of the House Leaders before announcing his resignation. As Mr. Rota himself said in his resignation remarks, he clearly lacked the confidence of the House.

All of this being said, it is instructive to note that this incident also provides further confirmation of the truism that policy issues and political debates are almost never clearcut. Instead they are often both complex and nonlinear, and in addition positions on issues can change over time.

Take, for example, the case of Mr. Hunka’s background and whether Mr. Rota’s staff should have recognized a potential problem. To begin with, Mr. Hunka is described as having served in the First Ukrainian Division during World War II. This is technically correct. However it is also true that this division was called the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division for much of the war before changing its name. Although Germans and other nationals were also part of the division it was largely comprised of Ukrainian volunteers from the region of Galicia that fought under German command. The creation of a Ukrainian division was perceived by many in Ukraine as a step towards the attainment of Ukrainian independence and the majority of those who joined this division specifically claimed that they did so to defend Ukrainians from Russian oppression – the classic “enemy of my enemy” thinking also employed by many Irish nationals during the war. This is particularly significant since the Holodomor, (the Soviet state-sponsored genocide by starvation of between 4 and 7 million Ukrainians) had occurred only ten years previously.

At the same time, some components of the Waffen division were accused of having participated in various atrocities and war crimes, and the division as a whole was condemned  by the Nuremberg trials. But not by Canada or several other countries, who examined the issue in detail. Anyone looking up the Waffen division here would find this specific quote from the Canadian Commission of Inquiry on War Crimes, led by the Honourable Justice Jules Deschenes, whose report concluded with respect to the Galicia Division:

The Galicia Division (14. Waffen grenadier division der SS [gal. #1]) should not be indicted as a group. The members of Galicia Division were individually screened for security purposes before admission to Canada. Charges of war crimes of Galicia Division have never been substantiated, either in 1950 when they were first preferred, or in 1984 when they were renewed, or before this Commission. Further, in the absence of evidence of participation or knowledge of specific war crimes, mere membership in the Galicia Division is insufficient to justify prosecution.[i]

Perhaps even more complicating is the fact that on 23 September 2020, the Ukrainian Supreme Court ruled that symbols of SS Division Galicia are not connected with Nazism and therefore cannot be banned in the country. The same claim was made by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.[ii]

While it is unlikely that anyone other than an academic expert or military historian would have been aware of all of these aspects of the issue, it is surely the case that the Speaker’s staff would have come across sufficient evidence in even a cursory search in Wikipedia to suggest that this was a controversial topic and that inviting Mr. Hunka would not be a good idea. Better to avoid any potential political problem, the proverbial “when in doubt don’t” approach promoted by so many successful politicians.  

Failing to do this has unquestionably resulted in an embarrassing moment for the legislature, the government and the country. It has revived bitter memories for many victims of the Holocaust, and handed Vladimir Putin priceless ammunition to defend his false rationale for launching an invasion of an independent democratic state.

At the same time, it is encouraging to note that public reaction to this unintentional gaffe has been swift and categorical. This is especially noteworthy since Mr. Hunka is clearly an insignificant actor who would have been 16 to 18 years old during his participation in the division between 1941-43, has never been accused personally of misconduct and has always been forthright about his volunteer role in the division. This is in striking contrast to the initial muted international, and Canadian, reaction to revelations in the mid-1980’s that Kurt Waldheim, a former Secretary General of the United Nations and President of Austria, had actually joined the Nazi Party and held significant command positions within SS counter-intelligence, all of which he had deliberately concealed. In that case it took the concerted research efforts of the American Justice Department to force Waldheim’s placement on the U.S. persona non grata list in 1987, after which the disgraced president was “uninvited” from state visits to numerous western democracies. Meanwhile the British government declared there was insufficient evidence to justify such action, while Canada’s prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, finally declared (after much internal deliberation on the cancellation of a planned state visit) that Waldheim would be “unwelcome” but not refused entry to this country. [iii] In the end this incident will undoubtedly convince many that knowledge of history is indeed a crucial factor in politics and in avoiding the repetition of mistakes. Hopefully it will also showcase the important role of the independent Speaker of the legislature and guide the deliberations of all parliamentarians as they prepare to elect Mr. Rota’s successor on October 3.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/14th_Waffen_Grenadier_Division_of_the_SS_(1st_Galician)

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/14th_Waffen_Grenadier_Division_of_the_SS_(1st_Galician)

[iii] https://www.jta.org/archive/britain-claims-there-is-not-enough-proof-of-waldheims-wartime-activities-to-bar-him-from-visiting-t