The Speakership has been described as the heart of the parliamentary system, and (poetically) "the linch–pin of the whole chariot." Apart from reflecting the prestige and authority of the position, these descriptions point to the key role the Speaker plays in the healthy functioning of parliamentary democracy. This purpose is woven into the tenets of the Speakership, and is evident in the Speaker's role as Presiding Officer of the House.
In Ontario's system of government, with its roots in British parliamentary tradition, the Speaker is the Servant of the House (rather than the servant of the Crown, the Government, or a particular Party). A dramatic incident in 1642 crystallized this allegiance: King Charles I, accompanied by armed guards, entered the House of Commons, took the Speaker's chair, and demanded the surrender of five Members on charges of treason. The House remained silent, refusing to give them up; the King then "pressed the Speaker to tell him." Although angering the Crown had cost more than one previous Speaker his life, William Lenthall dropped to his knees, and declared where his allegiance lay:
May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg Your Majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.
The Speaker's duty to the House is highlighted in the procedures for electing the Speaker in Ontario, where, since 1990, it has been the Members themselves who nominate and, by secret ballot, elect one of their number to the position. Before that time, the Government proposed its choice for Speaker, and the House ratified the Government's selection. As the Members' chosen representative and the embodiment of the Assembly’s authority and prestige, the Speaker conducts him or herself with absolute impartiality in the Chair, and considers it to be his or her duty to make decisions that are in the best interests of all Members, and that elevate the House as a whole. The Speaker is also the guardian of the rights and privileges of the House, and plays a leading role in ensuring that they are upheld. These underpinnings inform the Speaker's role as Presiding Officer of the House.
The Speaker presides over proceedings in the Assembly; in recognition of the judicial character of the Presiding Officer's duties, the Speaker is sometimes described as "the arbiter of the House." As Presiding Officer, the Speaker enforces and interprets the rules of the House, decides matters of order, delivers rulings, and maintains order and decorum. Should a situation arise that is not covered by the Standing Orders (the rules of the House), the Speaker bases a decision on applicable precedents, customs and traditions, with a view to doing what is fair for all Members and to elevating the Assembly as an institution.
The impartiality of the Speaker is a deeply entrenched feature of parliamentary democracy. Although at present in the Ontario Legislative Assembly, the Speaker is not required to give up his or her Party membership, the Speaker remains impartial in the Chair. Outside the House, the Speaker refrains from participating in partisan activities, and does not attend Caucus meetings. Inside the Chamber, to underscore the Speaker's non–partisan position, the Speaker does not participate in debates. For similar reasons, the Speaker does not vote, except in the case of a tie (this is referred to as the Speaker's "casting vote").
When it appears that the rights and privileges of the House may have been infringed, as guardian of these rights and privileges, the Speaker takes steps to see they are protected. For example, when a matter of privilege is brought to the Speaker's attention (by way of a Member's "point of privilege" in the House), should the Speaker consider there to be sufficient grounds, he or she rules that a prima facie (i.e., "at first sight") breach of privilege, or a prima facie case of contempt, exists. Once the Speaker delivers such a ruling, it is up to the House to decide whether or not a breach or contempt actually occurred (the power to make this final determination rests with the Legislative Assembly, rather than with the Speaker, or any individual Member; the Speaker's duty is to make the preliminary determination as to whether at first sight it appears that a breach exists).
Since 1989 in the Ontario Legislature (1965, in the Canadian House of Commons), Speakers' rulings have not been subject to appeal; this strengthens the independence and authority of the position, and reinforces the Speaker's ability to make impartial decisions based on procedural merits. As noted in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, "the Speaker best serves the House if his rulings cannot be reversed, and the House best serves its own interest by controlling its procedure through the deliberate amendment of the rules when necessary, and not through the determination by majority vote of the application of the rules to particular cases".
As Presiding Officer, the Speaker also maintains order and decorum in the House. In addition to enabling the House to perform its functions, conducting proceedings with order and decorum elevates the calibre of debate, and preserves the dignity of the House. Personal attacks on other Members, and unparliamentary language, for example, are not permitted. If a Member, having been called to order for such a transgression by the Speaker — the representative of the dignity and authority of the Legislative Assembly — persists in disregarding the Speaker's authority, the Speaker may "name" the Member, requiring him or her to withdraw from the Chamber for the remainder of the sessional day.
In addition to serving as the Presiding Officer of the House, and in a ceremonial and diplomatic capacity as the Legislature’s representative, the Speaker is the head of the Office of the Legislative Assembly, and the Chair of the Board of Internal Economy (the former provides Members with professional and administrative support and services, the latter controls its finances).
While at first glance, the description of the Speaker as the "linch–pin of the whole chariot" may sound idealized, the Speaker — particularly as the Presiding Officer of the House — plays a pivotal role in achieving and sustaining a vigorous and healthy system of parliamentary democracy (it could even be said that the Speaker properly is in the business of promoting and actualizing parliamentary ideals). The position's high status is reflected in the fact that, on ceremonial occasions, the Speaker is sixth in the Order of Precedence for Ontario (the Lieutenant Governor is first, followed by the Premier, the Chief Justice of Ontario, former Lieutenant Governors, and former Premiers). Over time, the Speakership has come to be inextricably identified with the Legislative Assembly, and the Legislative Assembly, with the Speaker; by recognizing and respecting the dignity and authority of the Speaker, Members (and others) can tangibly contribute to upholding the dignity and authority of the Assembly as a whole (enhancing the image of every Member). Such esteem may contribute to an appreciation of the role of relevant, thoughtful debate, the considered exercise of authority, and parliamentarians, in parliamentary democracy.