Parliamentary Procedure | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Parliamentary Procedure

Parliamentary Procedure

There are 5 basic principles of parliamentary procedure: first, the HOUSE OF COMMONS is master of its own proceedings; second, all discussion must be relevant to a motion and directed at a decision by the House; third, if possible, the House should not be taken by surprise (the usual required notice for debates is 48 hours); fourth, a majority of those voting, not a majority of the membership, is required to carry a motion; and fifth, the entire session, and not just one sitting, is used as the basic time unit for procedural purposes.

The House of Commons has adopted a large number of standing orders to govern its work but it is guided also by law, by the SPEAKER'S rulings, and by practice. If there is no applicable Canadian rule, the House looks to the British House of Commons. All orders of the House are recorded in its minutes - the daily Votes and Proceedings and the sessional Journals - and from time to time consolidations of the standing orders are prepared for the convenience of members. The last major changes in the standing orders were made on 20 Dec 1968, 24 July 1969, 12 Dec 1975, 29 Nov 1982, 27 June 1985 and 13 Feb 1986. When points of order are being discussed members refer frequently to Rules and Forms of the House of Commons of Canada, by Arthur Beauchesne, and to Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice, a British work (1844), kept up to date by the clerks at Westminster.

The House expresses its opinions in resolutions and its will by orders. Most orders relate to its own conduct, eg, the decision that a bill be read a second (or third) time is in effect an order to the clerk to have the bill read. Most orders are particular, eg, "That Bill C-27 be now read a third time." Standing orders are those that remain in effect until altered by the House.

The House communicates by messages, addresses and bills. Messages are often sent to and received from the SENATE. The most famous address was that sent jointly with the Senate to Her Majesty in 1981 requesting the patriation of the CONSTITUTION. Abill is a request to the Queen that she assent to the text of the bill, making it a statute. No bill may go forward for royal assent unless it has passed the Senate and the House of Commons.

Decisions by the House are initiated by motions, most of which must be preceded by a printed notice, which is sent to all members in the daily Notice Paper. The decision of the majority of the members voting on a question is taken as the decision of the House. Many votes are unanimous. Recorded divisions are very formal - each member rises in his place and his vote is recorded in the minutes. The expression "on division" is often used to show there is opposition but that those opposed see no point in using time for a recorded division. Since the Speaker and 19 other members constitute a quorum, a bill may pass the House even if the vote at every stage is only 10 Yeas and 9 Nays.

The many different kinds of business are dealt with in an exact program, the basic distinction being between items taking little time - often called routine proceedings - and the rest. Oral questions and routine proceedings take up a little more than an hour at the beginning of each sitting. Under routine proceedings, public bills are introduced and given first reading, standing COMMITTEES and special committees report to the House, written questions are answered and motions are made for concurrence mostly in committee reports. At the end of routine proceedings the House turns to the orders of the day. The second distinction is between private members' business and government business. Under the standing orders most of the House's time after routine proceedings is at the government's disposal (16 hours weekly); at best, the private members have 4 hours a week.

Private members' business comprises motions (for proposed orders or resolutions), private members' bills (to change the general law) and private bills, and motions for the production of papers. Under rules established in 1986, 20 items of private members' business, selected at random, receive priority in debate and 6 items, chosen by a committee, must come to a vote. Previous to this almost all private members' bills and motions were "talked out" with almost no prospect of being passed; now a small number receive extensive debate in the House and have a real possibility of becoming law. In contrast, all government orders go on one mixed list, Government Orders. The government House Leader may have items of government business dealt with in any priority and may have the House return to the same item day after day. Government items are never talked out, although they may be delayed by FILIBUSTER.

The 5 lists, together with written questions, are printed in the Order Paper, which grows thicker as a session progresses. Private bills are now used mainly to incorporate certain kinds of federal companies. Private members' motions are almost always talked out. Motions for the ministers to bring forth letters, documents and reports are relatively unimportant unless the government is in a minority; if the government has no objection they carry without debate, and debated motions will be defeated if the government has a majority.

The expression orders of the day originated with the House at Westminster which planned its work by ordering that particular items come up on specified days, even at specified hours. After a first reading the Speaker at Ottawa still asks, "When shall the said bill be read a second time?" and after the report stage, "When shall the said bill be read a third time?" Each item is really an order, and at the end of routine proceedings the Speaker announces, "Orders of the day." An item of business taken after routine proceedings is in the form of an order, and the order may be that the motion is to be moved that a particular bill be read a second (or third) time. Orders, motions and bills are often confused in the news. Government motions are intended not to change the law, but to produce an order or resolution of the House; they parallel private members' motions. Government legislative business is composed of nonfinancial bills, Ways and Means business which results in taxation bills, and Supply business which results in appropriation bills (seeBUDGETARY PROCESS).

The first 2 motions of the ordinary legislative process - that permission be given to introduce the bill and that the bill be read a first time - are treated as routine proceedings without debate, but perhaps with a division. The motion that the bill be read a second time is debatable, so it is moved pursuant to an order of the day. If that motion carries, one of the Table Officers "reads" the bill. Nowadays the reading is symbolic; he simply says, "Second reading of this bill." Next the bill is sent to a committee, where it is studied closely, clause by clause, with or without amendments. It is then reported back to the House. If the bill has been to a committee other than a Committee of the Whole House, any member may move amendments to it after written notice. But if the bill has been to a Committee of the Whole House the report stage is only a formality. The last stage concerns the motion that the bill "be now read a third time and do pass." If this motion carries, the bill is sent to the Senate for passage there, or, if it has already passed there, it returns there to await royal assent. Bills introduced in the House of Commons are numbered C-1, C-2, etc, and Senate bills are numbered, S-1, S-2, etc. Royal assents, like SPEECHES FROM THE THRONE, are given in the Senate chamber.

Appropriation bills - allotting money for particular purposes - follow a similar process but normally take only a few minutes because the members have had time to examine the Crown's request (estimates) for supply in the standing committees. The standing orders set aside 25 days a year in the House as Opposition Days, to allow the Opposition to criticize the government before the House is asked to appropriate money.

Taxation bills, too, are advanced through a variation of the ordinary legislative process. The minister of finance usually announces major tax changes in a budget speech, moves a standard motion, "that this House approves in general the budgetary policy of the government," and the budget debate, limited to 6 days, then begins. Often the Official Opposition will move an amendment and a third party a subamendment.

On 8 May 1974, the TRUDEAU government was defeated on a New Democratic Party subamendment to the budget motion, and on 13 Dec 1979, the CLARK government was defeated in the same way. During his speech the minister tables notices of Ways and Means motions outlining his proposed tax changes in some detail; these are intended to elicit comments on the practicality of the proposed changes from tax lawyers, accountants and others. Later, perhaps months later, he brings in his taxation bills, one for each Ways and Means motion. Taxation bills, which are considered in Committees of the Whole House, generally move slowly through the second-reading, the committee and the third-reading stages. The debate initiated by the Speech from the Throne is now limited to 8 days and attracts little attention unless the government is in a minority.

Debating takes place in the House, an unsuitable mode for some matters which are better considered in committees. In Committees of the Whole House the proceedings are far more flexible than they are in the House. Almost all nonfinancial bills are considered in committees specifically established for individual bills which disband once their work is completed.

The defeat of the government in a division does not necessarily bring its resignation or an election - it may be prepared to carry on without the lost bill, as was the PEARSON government in Feb 1968, and the House itself may not regard the defeat as demonstrating a lack of confidence. The rules provide regular opportunities for explicit nonconfidence motions by the Opposition; they can be moved as amendments to the Address-in-Reply motion, as amendments to the budget motion and as motions on 6 of the 25 Opposition Days. Even an explicit nonconfidence vote does not impose a legal obligation to resign or bring on an election, but a government that ignored such a vote would be mad.

The House can force a government out of office by refusing to appropriate money. The rules permit members to address oral questions to the CABINET daily. In Canada no written notices of the questions are required as they are in Britain; consequently, the Canadian question period is more timely, turbulent and, some observers claim, trivial. The daily period for oral questions is the source of much of the news from Ottawa. A minister is not required to answer any or every question candidly; indeed the House would often regard completely truthful answers as contrary to the national interest.

Sometimes the House agrees to debate a matter not included among the orders of the day. Once the notice time has elapsed any government order of the day can be activated, even if it is the last one on the list, so normally the government has no need for emergency debates. Standing Order 43 enables private members to request an emergency debate. A motion to adjourn under SO 26 is debatable but may not be moved without special permission. The member must apply to the Speaker following routine proceedings; if the application is found valid it needs the support of only 19 others. These debates generally begin after dinner (3 pm on Fridays) when the House does not usually sit. The Speaker can terminate them when they become repetitious but in practice they continue until all members who wish to speak have done so. Because of differences in size and in practices established over the years, many of the specific procedures followed in provincial legislatures differ substantially from those of the House of Commons (for example, in the recourse to committees, rules for private members' business and in practices relating to financial matters). The underlying principles, though, remain the same.

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