Oral Questions / Question Period

Oral Questions, or Question Period as it has come to be unofficially called, is by far the most routinely watched and followed segment of the parliamentary day. It is during this daily 45 minute period that Members of Parliament are permitted to put oral questions to the government of the day and Ministers of the Crown are called upon to answer. Since Confederation, the period of time reserved for oral questions has evolved and now includes formal rules outlined in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons as well as through various Speaker Rulings throughout the history of the House of Commons. In this post we are going to examine the modern nature of oral questions, their historical significance and development over time.

Historical Development of Oral Questions

Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.
Leader of the Official Opposition, Rona Ambrose, asks a question to the PM during Question Period.

When Parliament first opened following Confederation, there were actually no provisions within the Standing Orders for oral questions. The only provisions for any sort of questions from MPs toward the government came in the form of written questions. Interestingly enough, the first recorded oral question took place without any formal guidance in place on 29 Nov 1867 (a full three weeks before any rules were formally written down, actually) when an oral question was posed to the Chairman of the Printing Committee. The inspiration for an oral question period came from the British House of Commons where the Prime Minister was subjected to questioning three times a week by MPs. It became a Canadianized practice during the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada and eventually in the United Province of Canada prior to Confederation. It was not uncommon for MPs to put forward oral questions to Ministers of the Crown for urgent matters that required an answer within a timeline tighter than that of written question requirements. It was under this sentiment that Speaker Timothy Anglin made the first of a series of historical Speaker’s Rulings on oral questions when he said in 1878:

It is customary for hon. members to ask the Government for any special information between the various calls from the Chair for the day, before Notices of Motion or the Orders of the Day. I am not aware that any hon. member has a positive right even to do that; but I think he must confine himself entirely to asking the information from the Government, and he must not proceed to descant on the conduct of the Government.

But the 1940s a period of oral questioning had become an accepted part of the parliamentary day. However, there remained no official rules or guidelines covering their use and conduct. In 1944, the House procedures committee reviewed the practice of oral questions and concluded that it was “neither possible not advisable to do away with [oral questions].” However, the report from the committee was not accepted by the House of Commons and therefore was not actioned. This did not mean that oral questions went by the wayside, simply that the practise continued with little or no formal guidance in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

In 1964, the Speaker of the House of Commons attempted to enforce what was later viewed to be outdated rules concerning the conduct of oral questions and the formation of specific questions. This led to the formal codification of oral questions into the House of Commons Standing Orders. Thus Standing Order 37 was born which established a period of time for questions of an urgent nature to be put before the government. Under this new order, the Speaker had the power to determine that a question was not urgent enough to warrant an oral answer and could order the question sent to written questions. By 1975, a set timeframe for oral questions was established when a complete overhaul of the House of Commons routine business was conducted by the procedures committee. Since that time oral questions happen for 45 minutes each day at 2:15 pm EST Monday-Thursday and 11:15 am EST on Fridays, immediately following Statements by Members.

In 1974, Speaker Jerome established guidelines for questions during oral questions which were expanded and articulated in 1986 by Speaker Bosley. Bosley’s directions on oral questions remain the standard today for the conduct of this segment of business in the House of Commons. Speaker Bosley established four principles for the conduct of oral questions:

  1. The time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible.
  2. The public in large numbers do watch, and the House, recognizing that Question Period is often an intense time, should be on its best possible behaviour.
  3. While there may be other purposes and ambitions involved in Question Period, its primary purpose must be the seeking of information from the Government and calling the Government to account for its actions.
  4. Members should be given the greatest possible freedom in the putting of questions that is consistent with the other principles.

And adding to the ruling made by previous Speakers of the House of Commons, Bosley went on to articulate the principles, saying:

Mr. Speaker Jerome, in his statement 11 years ago, put his view with regard to the first principle of brevity so well that I would merely quote it:

“There can be no doubt that the greatest enemy of the Question Period is the Member who offends this most important principle. In putting the original question on any subject, a Member may require an explanatory remark, but there is no reason for such a preamble to exceed one, carefully drawn sentence.

“It is my proposal to ask all Hon. Members to pay close attention to this admonition and to bring them to order if they fail to do so. It bears repeating that the long preamble or long question takes an unfair share of the time, and invariably, in provoking the same kind of response, only compounds the difficulty.”

I agree with these comments and would add that such comments obviously also apply to answers by Ministers. I would also endorse Mr. Speaker Jerome’s view that supplementary questions should need no preambles; they should flow from the Minister’s response and be put in precise and direct terms without any prior statement or argument. It is the Chair’s view that it equally follows from the first principle, that time is scarce, that Members should seek to avoid merely repeating questions that have already been asked. I do not mean that other questions on the same subject should not be asked — as apparently I have been interpreted — just that subsequent questions should be other than ones already asked.

For similar reasons it has always been a fundamental rule of questioning Ministers that the subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the Government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions.

Beyond these few restrictions, there are a few other traditional restraints that flow from the principles above. Questions should relate to matters of some urgency and not be purely hypothetical. They should not seek a legal opinion or inquire as to what legal advice a Minister has received. They should not normally anticipate Orders of the Day. However, I hasten to add that there is normal exemption to that with regard to the budget process which I fully intend to honour. Members should be very careful with regard to questions or matters that are sub judice. Ministers should be questioned only in relation to their current portfolios and not in relation to any previously held responsibilities or Party responsibilities.

Since his ruling in 1986, Speaker Bosley remains the authority on determining the conduct of business during oral questions and has been cited by Speakers since as the foundation of our understanding of business during this segment of the parliamentary day.

Supplementary Questions

The development of oral questions over time also saw the introduction of supplementary questions– or follow-up questions. Today, the standard is that one question is asked and then the member who posed the original question has up to three supplementary questions to ask. There is very little formal guidance for these supplemental questions but in 1997, Speaker Parent articulated in a ruling that supplementary questions should be related to the topic of the original question. This has become somewhat outdated with the current practice of having a different member rise to ask a supplemental question, and little formal direction has come out as of late from the Speaker’s Chair. It is not uncommon to see the Leader of the Official Opposition and the leader of each respective opposition party to take advantage of all three supplementary questions following their initial line of questioning on the government, and occasionally we see backbench members following up on their original questions.

Adjournment Proceedings or The Late Show

In 1964, the procedures committee implemented a new practice each day called Adjournment Proceedings. Essentially, it became a half hour period at the end of each day initiated by a motion to adjourn the House for the day under Standing Order 37(3). The idea was that members who were not completely satisfied with answers on a given topic would have a chance to bring up the issue one more time at the end of the day. Since that time, three topics are given notice during the day to the Speaker that will be brought up during the Adjournment Proceedings– or Late Show. These topics are typically follow up items from issues that have arisen during the day or week. Ministers of the Crown typically do not attend the Late Show, however it is not uncommon for Parliamentary Secretaries to spar and follow-up with MPs on issues that arose during oral questions earlier in the day. This proceeding coupled with question period and the odd opposition day are essential the only periods of House business that the opposition can control away from the government. They are therefore even more important in majority government situations (such as the current parliament) as they give the opposition a forum to bring issues of the day to light. Most Canadians are not aware of the connection between Oral Questions and Adjournment Proceedings and almost every major media outlet does not give the Adjournment Proceedings the same level of attention and coverage as Oral Questions.

Answers During Oral Questions

The old parliamentary adage goes that oral questions are called “question period and not answer period for a reason.” And there is a lot of truth to this statement. When answering questions a Minister of the Crown has a handful of options available to them:

  • answer the question;
  • defer their answer;
  • take the question as notice;
  • make a short explanation as to why they cannot furnish an answer at that time; or
  • say nothing.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.
Since the introduction of televised debated in the House, Question Period has become theatrical with the tone and body language of questions playing a big role.

Most of the time the Minister chooses to answer the question, or if you were to ask the opposition, they chose to speak to the question, rather than give an answer. It has come up often times throughout any discussion on oral questions that there are virtually no mechanisms available to the Speaker to ensure that questions are answered. This was put on a fantastic show during the previous session of parliament when the Parliamentary Secretary to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Paul Calandra, refused to answer a direct question from the NDP and instead spoke about issues in the middle east. The NDP was out of line for pleading for the Parliamentary Secretary to answer the question at hand, and the Speaker was left powerless to watch the House devolve into a circus as a result of Calandra’s poor answers. In the end, he apologized to the House and all was made well but not before an attempt was made by the opposition to have the Speaker rule that answers should have substance. In his ruling, Speaker Scheer outlined the guidelines handed down since 1867 and explained to the House the limits that the Speaker had in holding the government to account in answering questions to the satisfaction of the opposition. And with that statement he hit the crux of the issue on the head; by what metric would a Speaker determine that a question has been adequately answered? If the opposition is the benchmark, in other words a question if answered only when the opposition is happy with it, than we are entering into the realm of political and the debate of facts, which is not the place of the Speaker to determine but of the whole House.

There is little in the way of guidance for answers however the following three principles have arisen out of Speaker’s Rulings on the subject:

  • no particular Minister is compelled to answer a particular question, even if that question was directed to a particular Minister in the statement,
  • no MP can insist on the answer and no point of order can be raised on the grounds that a question was not answered satisfactorily
  • the content of answers is considered a debate about facts and thus within the realm of the entire House and not the Speaker to rule when is in order and out of order

Questions and answers in the House of Commons are subject to all other Standing Orders and Speaker’s Rulings, meaning that language must always be parliamentary in nature (cannot call someone a liar, for example) and questions must be directed to the Speaker and not individual members. Additionally, the following guidelines on what questions should not be asked have been established over time based on existing Standing Orders and past Speaker’s Rulings:

  • be a statement, representation, argument, or an expression of opinion;
  • be hypothetical;
  • seek an opinion, either legal or otherwise;
  • seek information which is secretive in its nature, such as Cabinet proceedings or advice given to the Crown by law officers;
  • reflect on the character or conduct of Chair Occupants, members of the House and of the Senate or members of the judiciary;
  • reflect on the Governor General;
  • refer to proceedings in the Senate;
  • refer to public statements by Ministers on matters not directly related to their departmental duties;
  • address a Minister’s former portfolio or any other presumed functions, such as party or regional political responsibilities;
  • be on a matter that is sub judice;
  • deal with the subject matter of a question of privilege previously raised, on which the Speaker reserved his decision;
  • create disorder;
  • make a charge by way of a preamble to a question;
  • be a question from a constituent;
  • seek information from a Minister of a purely personal nature;
  • request a detailed response which could be dealt with more appropriately as a written question placed on the Order Paper; or
  • concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses.

Conclusion

The inspiration of this post came from comments made by a Liberal Minister concerning questions related to the Liberal cash for access scandal currently before the government. There were significant questions on the subject during question period, and the Minister was commenting on the fact that the way she understood the guidelines, such questions were not in line (see: concern internal party matters, or party or election expenses, above). It could be argued however that the questions concerned the conduct of government, and not the Liberal party specifically.

As mentioned earlier, question period is the most watched and most engaging aspect of the parliamentary day. It’s importance within the Canadian political culture cannot be understated, however given it’s importance it is alarming how little the average Canadian knows about the conduct of question period. Opposition leaders are often measured in their capability within the job against their performance in the House of Commons, Ministers of the Crown conversely are measured in their capability through their answering and performance during question period. It is an essential element of our democracy in Canada.

Electoral Reform and Electoral Systems

The Library of Parliament has published a wonderful primer on electoral reform in Canada and around the world that scratches the surface of the various options before Canadians. I’ve decided to cut some snippets from the publication to share here with links to the original document so that you may follow-up on your own.

You can access the document here or a PDF copy here.

Plurality or Majority Systems

Description: In plurality or majority electoral systems, the winning candidate is the individual who garners the most votes in an electoral district. Depending on the particular rules of the system, the winner may need to receive a plurality (or more votes than the other candidates) or a majority (over 50% of the votes cast).

First Past the Post (FPTP): Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides. Candidates must gain a plurality of votes to be elected.

Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides.
Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides.

Alternative Vote (AV): Also used to elect a single candidate per electoral district, this system is often called preferential voting. On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast. Should no candidate garner a majority on the first count, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate receives the necessary majority.

Two-Round: Also known as the run-off system, the two-round system has elections with not one but two election days, generally weeks apart. The system used for the first round of voting is largely similar to FPTP, except to win, a candidate must take a majority of the votes cast and not simply a plurality. Should no candidate garner a majority after the first round of voting, a second election is held with only the top two candidates from the first election results. The candidate with the higher number of votes in the second round is elected.

Block Vote: In essence, this system is FPTP but with multi-member constituencies. In each electoral district, voters may cast as many votes as there are seats. For example, if three seats are available in an electoral district, the three candidates with the most votes will be awarded seats.

On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast.
On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast.

Origins: Plurality or majority systems can be traced back to historical British parliamentary practice. FPTP continues to be employed to elect members to the United Kingdom (U.K.) House of Commons, and is also the system used today in most countries that were once part of the British Empire or have historical connections to England.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Plurality or majority systems are easy to use and understand, favour the formation of stable majority governments, maintain a geographic link between constituents and members, and encourage broad-based parties. Critiques of plurality or majority systems include that the seat allocation is disproportionate to the popular vote, and the system exaggerates regionalism and wastes votes. Further critiques of the two-round system are that it is the most expensive electoral system, and voter turnout may decrease between the first and second rounds.

Current Use: Australia – Lower house (AV), Canada (FPTP), France (Two-Round), U.K. (FPTP) and the United States (FPTP).

Proportional Representation Systems

Description: As the name suggests, proportional representation (PR) systems seek to closely match a political party’s vote share with its seat allocation in the legislature. Unlike in most plurality systems, in PR systems, voters elect more than one representative per constituency or geographic area. PR tends to be varied and flexible, and the method for calculating seat distribution can be quite complex, with some systems requiring that a minimum threshold of vote share be earned in order for any seats to be allocated. Citizens generally vote for several candidates, or a party, and the results determine which individual members will sit in the legislature, as well as the overall distribution of seats belonging to each party.

List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.
List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.

List Proportional Representation (List PR): There are two main forms of List PR: closed-list and open-list. Both forms use a regional or national list of candidates in each constituency drawn up by each party before election day.

In closed-list PR, the party ranks the names on the list, and citizens vote for a party, not a specific candidate. Once all votes have been counted, each party is awarded seats in proportion to its share of the national vote. Individual seats are then allocated to candidates of each party in the order in which they are ranked on the party list.

In open-list PR, voters choose a preferred candidate (or candidates) from the list of the party for which they wish to vote. This means that voters effectively determine the order in which the candidates on the list will be awarded seats.

List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.

Single Transferable Vote (STV): Citizens in multi-member electoral districts rank candidates on the ballot. They may rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.

In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected.
In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected.

In most variations of this system, winners are declared by first determining the total number of valid votes cast, and then establishing a minimum number of votes that must be garnered based on the number of seats to be filled (the “vote quota”). Candidates who receive the number of first-preference votes needed to reach the quota are elected.

If there are still seats to be filled, a two-step count occurs. In the first step, any votes in excess of the quota for elected candidates are redistributed to the second choices indicated on the ballots of the elected candidates, using a weighted formula (this is called “excess transfer”). Candidates who then reach the quota are elected.

If no candidates reach the quota in this way, a second step takes place in which the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates.

Such extra counts continue until enough candidates reach the quota to fill all available seats.

Some variations do not involve excess transfer, but only the elimination of the lowest-ranked candidate and the reassigning of the second preferences on the ballots for that candidate. Nonetheless, the counting process still fits the definition of a single, transferable vote.

Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV): In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected. For example, in a constituency where 20 candidates are vying for five available seats, the five candidates with the most votes will all be elected.

Compared to FPTP or block vote, SNTV can facilitate the representation of minority parties and independents, because the minimum number of votes needed to be elected decreases as the number of seats in the constituency increases, giving parties that normally receive a lower percentage of votes a better chance of electing a candidate.

Origins: Discussion of proportional representation can be traced back to the late 1700s. Its first public use was in 1840 during an election held in Adelaide, Australia.16 Some observers have suggested that the implementation of PR systems, especially throughout Europe, was a response to unrepresentative electoral results, with others suggesting economic transformations and the growth of social democratic parties were driving forces.

Advantages and Disadvantages: PR systems produce results most closely matching the actual proportion of votes garnered by parties, permit greater representation of smaller parties, provide for greater choice, and can encourage power-sharing within a Parliament. Critiques of PR systems include that they can be difficult to understand, they tend to create coalition governments, the geographic link between constituent and member is less prominent, they increase the possibility of electing parties with extreme views, the ballots can be long and complicated, and the counting of results time consuming.

Current Use: Australia – Upper House (STV), Austria (Modified Closed-List PR), Belgium (Modified Closed-List PR), Denmark (Open-List PR), Finland (Open-List PR), Ireland (STV), Netherlands (Modified Closed-List PR), Norway (Modified Closed-List PR), Russia (Closed-List PR), South Africa (Closed-List PR), Sweden (Modified Closed-List PR) and Switzerland (Open-List PR).

The modified closed-list PR systems listed above essentially give electors some ability to influence which candidates on party lists are elected by stating preferences on the ballot. The countries use different methods and set different thresholds of vote share needed for election.

Mixed Electoral Systems

Description: Mixed electoral systems combine elements of a plurality or majority system with proportional representation. Citizens in a constituency cast two votes: one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a party or parties to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive.

Mixed Member Majority (MMM): Citizens in single-member electoral districts cast two votes: one for a candidate to represent their constituency according to the FPTP system, and one for a party. Each party presents a previously established list of candidates, similar to the List PR system. A predetermined portion of the legislature’s seats are filled using the plurality vote, while the remaining seats are filled by the party list vote.

The two votes under MMM are fully independent of one another; the party seats will not compensate for any disproportionate result in the constituency elections.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP): This system operates in the same way as MMM, except that a citizen’s second vote, which allocates seats to parties according to List PR, is used to attempt to compensate for any disproportionate results in the FPTP constituency part of the election.

There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.
There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.

Additional seats are awarded to qualifying parties18 where the number of constituency seats that they won fails to reflect voter support shown in both components of the election.

There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.

Origins: Mixed electoral systems can be traced back to Germany’s adoption of an MMP system following the Second World War. Observers have noted that the system represents a compromise, or third way, between plurality or majority systems, and proportional representation.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Mixed electoral systems provide for fairly proportional outcomes, maintain the geographic link between constituents and members, provide for greater choice, and allow the opportunity for smaller parties to be represented in Parliament. Critiques of mixed electoral systems include that they may be difficult to use and understand, and they create two classes of members (electoral district versus list).

Current Use: Germany (MMP), Japan (MMM), Mexico (MMP), New Zealand (MMP), Philippines (MMM), Scotland (MMP), South Korea (MMM) and Wales (MMP).

Order Paper and Notice Paper

The Order Paper and Notice Paper is the most important published document from a legislative standpoint (see the first image). Both the Senate and the House of Commons produce the Order Paper and Notice Paper daily (we are just going to focus on the House of Commons right now). You can find the Order Paper and Notice Paper for the House of Commons here. This document contains two sections; the Order Paper and the Notice Paper. The Order Paper concerns the order in which the House will hear business (all per the Standing Orders, unless otherwise ordered) and presents an outline for business which the government intends to introduce (under the headings Business of Supply, Ways and Means, Government Bills (House and Senate) and Government Business (the specific of these headings are not important yet, we will deal with that in a later post). The Notice Paper is the bulk of the document as it contains the order in which Private Members’ Business, motions, written questions and government bills are presented (basically how the House decides what is going to be debated).

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Let’s take a look at Order Paper and Notice Paper No. 3 for the 1st Session of the 42nd Parliament of Canada. From this document we see that the House of Commons will be sitting a normal Monday routine. Further on in the document under Order of the Day we see that the government intends to debate the Reply In Address to the Speech from the Throne. We also get a little piece of information in that the Standing Orders grant six days of debate on this particular piece of business. You can also see a projection for the remainder of the week regarding the debate on this business. Government Orders has an interesting notice for the opposition concerning a Supply Day (otherwise known as an Opposition Day). The Standing Orders allocate a certain number of days broken down into three periods of the year for the opposition to present motions and control the flow of business in the House of Commons (see Standing Order 81). Because parliament has not been sitting for the full period ending 10 Dec 15, the President of the Treasury Board is indicating that the opposition will have one day this period (as per the Standing Orders) and it will be on 10 Dec 15, meaning we can expect an opposition motion of some sort on that day (or whatever else the opposition would like to focus the attention of the House on for that short period of time).

Cross-posted from Consumervoter.ca.

http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-politics/mps-in-glass-houses-shouldnt-throw-stones-at-senators-former-red-chamber-ethics-officer

Disagreements between the Senate and House of Commons

In light of my recent post on the subject of the legislative process in contrast to the democratic process in Canada, I thought it would be appropriate for a post on the procedure for dealing with conflicts between the two houses of parliament. Most Canadians, I am sure, would be surprised to learn that there is in fact little formal procedure in the way of dealing with a conflict between the elected House of Commons and the appointed Senate, especially considering the fact that our large cultural influence to the South, the United States of America, actually has constitutional provisions to ease a deadlock between their two houses and executive branch (the President). Let’s examine the process in Canada more in depth.

There are no provisions within any Constitutional document to deal with a deadlock between the Senate and the House of Commons. Within the legislative process, bills which originate in the House of Commons (which can be either public or private in nature) are sent to the Senate for concurrence and approval prior to receiving Royal Assent. Conversely, bills that originate in the Senate are sent to the House of Commons for approval, again, prior to receiving Royal Assent. This process of having each house propose, debate, and approve legislation opens up the possibility for either house to propose amendments to legislation that could reasonably be opposed by one house or the other, by the government of the day or sponsor of the bill itself. All of these situations would create a scenario where each house could be seen to be in conflict with one another and thus create a legislative deadlock. The question then becomes who would “win” between each House and how would the bill proceed to becoming law in Canada?

When a disagreement arises between the House of Commons and the Senate as to the amendments to be made to a bill, there are two possible ways of proceeding: the disagreement may be communicated in a message (this is normally the first step taken), or a conference may take place. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed)

Messages can be passed between the houses of parliament between the Speakers of each house. Individual rules within each house govern the conduct of these messages, the crux is that they must be read in a timely manner to the members/Senators by the Speaker. It is interesting to note that the conference method cited in the Procedure and Practice manual has fallen into disuse in parliament. In fact, it has not been used since 1947 and only 16 times since 1903. The exact procedure around these conferences has changed since they were formalized in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons in 1903. Prior to 1903, these conferences were considered “closed” in that the House of Commons and the Senate each sent specific delegates who could only voice the concerns of each house without debate or discussion. In 1903, provisions were put into place within the Standing Orders (and Rules of the Senate) which permitted “open” conferences where delegates (referred to formally as managers) would be sent to a conference between the two houses and were allowed to discuss the issues and were empowered to come to a solution. There have been 13 “free” conferences since the provision was introduced but again none since 1947.

Turning to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, Rule 77 under the heading of Senate amendments, there exists provisions for the Commons side of arrangements for the messaging and a potential conference between the two houses.

In cases in which the Senate disagrees to any amendments made by the House of Commons, or insists upon any amendments to which the House has disagreed, the House is willing to receive the reasons of the Senate for their disagreeing or insisting (as the case may be) by message, without a conference, unless at any time the Senate should desire to communicate the same at a conference. (Standing Orders of the House of Commons, Order 77)

The pre-text of this particular provisions describes a situation where the House of Commons and Senate disagree. However, it could be argued that this provisions does not exactly settle a dispute between the Commons and the Senate but merely provides two avenues for further recourse. The rule goes on the state that any conference between the two houses shall be “free” (as explained above) and that reasons for a conference shall be provided to the Senate (and visa versa in accordance with protocol).

The Rules of the Senate certainly do not offer any additional helpful guidance. Under rule 16 which is reserved for instructions pertaining to messages to and from the Senate, there is a provision regarding the messaging between the House of Commons and the Senate regarding disagreement and protocols regarding the formation of a conference.

When the House of Commons disagrees with amendments proposed by the Senate to a bill that originated in the Commons, and the Senate insists on any of its amendments, the message accompanying the bill to the Commons shall state the reasons. The Senate shall receive by message the reasons for the House of Commons either disagreeing with Senate amendments to bills or insisting on Commons amendments, unless the House of Commons at any time wishes to communicate these reasons at a conference. (Rules of the Senate, Rule 16-3(1)(4))

The Rules of the Senate also contain the same clause as the Standing Orders of the House of Commons which require that any conference between the two houses be conducted in a “free” manner.

The Senate of Canada amends a surprising amount of legislation that originates from the House of Commons. In this role they are fulfilling their mandate articulated by Sir John A. MacDonald in being the “sober second thought” of parliament. The vast majority of amendments are technical in nature (amending legal wording, uniform formatting of the bill, etc) and are accepted without hesitation from the House of Commons. However, there have been historical moments when the House of Commons and the Senate have been at odds over the pith and substance of a particular bill. When Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney attempted to introduce the Government Sales Tax, it was blocked by the Senate until he took extreme measures granted to him within the constitution to appoint additional Senators (thus allowing him to overcome the partisan deadlock within the Senate Chamber). Recently, we saw an empowered Senate review and propose amendments on the pith and substance of bill C-14 which sought to extend the right of assisted dying to Canadians. It is during these moments that the procedures and processes surrounding the deadlock between houses of parliament become even more important.

Amendments proposed by the Senate on legislation originating in the House of Commons are sent back for debate and approval (or rejection). The debate concerning these amendments is restricted to the scope of the amendment question itself, meaning MPs cannot begin a new debate on the merits of the bill as a whole, for example. Each amendment is voted on individually in the order that it would appear in the bill (reasonably presenting the bill in a logical fashion). The House of Commons can reject or accept all amendments, or can approve and reject some but not all amendments from the Senate. If all amendments are accepted, a message is sent to the Senate to this effect and the bill is scheduled for Royal Assent. If some of the amendments are accepted, but not all, the same message communicating this fact is sent to the Senate, but the Senate is given a chance to reply to this message. If the Senate cannot agree to the provisions than a conference may be formed between the two houses. In the case of C-14, after the bill was read and approved at Third Reading in the House of Commons, the Senate sent amendments back which were then rejected by the House of Commons (being controlled by the majority Liberal government). However, after the rejection of their amended version of the bill, the Senate then approved the final text of the bill, from the House of Commons, essentially backing down and avoiding a  protracted deadlock.

If the conference fails, the matter is closed and the bill simply remains on the Order Paper where it dies at the end of the session. During that time, no new bill may be introduced in the House in respect of the same subject matter and containing similar provisions. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed)

At the end of the day, if the House of Commons and the Senate cannot agree and no movement is made through the options available in a conference, than the bill sits on the Notice Paper for the remainder of the session and is, for all purposes, dead. Furthermore, a legislative void is created because no bill on the same subject can be presented during the session until the similar bill on the Notice Paper is resolved. This was the case during the GST debate for a short period of time prior to the Prime Minister appointing additional Senators and reviving the legislative life of his taxation bill.

On a final note, and related to my last entry, the Senate understands it’s inherent democratic deficit. Because Senators are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day by the Governor-General collectively they do not possess the same democratic mandate as the government or the House of Commons as a whole. This does not impact their legal authority within the legislative process (as I have alluded to in my opinion piece) but it does inflict soft power over the Senate by the House of Commons. Often during debate, Senators who support the government can be heard calling on fellow Senators to speedily approve matters originating from the Other Place because they have no democratic right to hold up priorities of the duly elected government. And to some extent there is some truth to this statement, however, the Senate does have a legitimate role in the legislative process to review and scrutinize legislation, including government legislation. This is a key component of what little exists to resolved a dispute between the two houses of parliament. It is important to note, that no House can have authority over the other as they are each sovereign entities within parliament in union with the Crown. The executive, being embedded in the House of Commons, does not enjoy a carte blanche over legislation proposed within parliament and therefore the role of the Senate in being that sober second thought often becomes more powerful during periods of majority government rule in the Commons. It is therefore dishonest to simply cast the Senate away as an undemocratic institution with little or no value in the legislative process. On the same token, it could be argued that there exists a statutory nadir with regard to provisions for dealing with a deadlock between the Houses of Parliament which lends itself to relying on the false assumption that the House of Commons has authority over the Senate through their democratic legitimacy.

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The Legislative Process

Recent events within parliament surrounding bill C-14 have cast a light on the possibilities of the two houses of parliament stuck at a deadlock. In actuality, any theorizing was dubbed moot because the House of Commons rejected the proposals from the Senate on bill C-14 and the Senate duly accepted the rejection from the Lower Chamber. Democracy, as the pundit would say, was saved for the day. But there is something inherently wrong in claiming that having an Upper Chamber capable of overriding the Lower Chamber on legislative affairs is an outright offence of democracy and democratic values in Canada. It is certainly worth taking a closer look at the legislative process in Canada in comparison to the democratic process– most people, I wager, would be surprised to understand a difference between the two.

There is no question that if you are reading a blog such as this, and a post such as this, that you have a basic understanding of how laws are made within parliament in Canada. Bills are proposed as Acts of Parliament in either the House of Commons or the Senate. Some bills are “special” compared to others because they originate from the government (which resides in the House of Commons). The Senate is composed of Senators who are appointed by the elected Prime Minister of the day (or more technically by the Governor-General on advice from the Prime Minister of the day). Bills are read a certain number of times in each house and are sent to committee for a clause-by-clause review. Each reading stage of the legislative process (there are three in total within each house), have a specific purpose and scope of debate. At the end of the reading stages, each house puts the bill to question (that is to say, votes) and it is moved on the to next step in the process. The final step being Royal Assent, where the Governor-General signs the bill which thus becomes an Act of Parliament and the law-of-the-land. Where things get murky in the process, however, is when legislation in moved between the House of Commons and the Senate. Obviously, all government bills will originate in the House of Commons and be sent to the Senate for further review and eventual approval. But what happens if the Senate rejects a bill proposed by the House of Commons, and more specifically, generated by the government of the day?

Canadians saw this process somewhat unfold between the House of Commons and the Senate recently on bill C-14. The House of Commons passed the bill on Third Reading and sent it to the Senate for further review (never minding the deadline issue at this moment). The debate in the House of Commons on the bill was substantial and focused on the constitutional nature of the bill. In the Senate, the Senators heard testimony from constitutional experts that the bill would have violated Canadian law. The Senators proposed amendments similar to what was proposed by the opposition in the House of Commons in order to avoid a conflict with the Charter. Surely, however, the Senate would be out of line for proposing such amendments over the government and the House of Commons because unlike the Lower Chamber, they are unelected! This is where the debate gets sidetracked by the introduction of the democratic process. The problem is that both processes are separate from one another, and should not mix as closely as it being attempted in this sort of debate.

The democratic process in Canada serves one purpose: the composition of the House of Commons. About every four years (a maximum of five as mandated in the constitution), Canadians participate in a general federal election. Which more accurately should be called federal general elections, because in reality there are over three hundred elections happening across the country. The purpose of the election is to select an individual Member of Parliament to serve in Ottawa on behalf of a geographical boundary drawn up based on population (and mandated representation requirements). Once the MPs are selected across the country, they are sent to Ottawa and a government is formed from among their ranks by appointed of the Governor-General. Note, that Canadians play no part in the formation of their government aside from the indirect manner of electing Members of Parliament. A key component of responsible government is that members of the cabinet, the executive body, are appointed from among a pool of elected MPs. This is exactly where the democratic process ends and the legislative process begins. Once a parliament is formed, and more specifically once the House of Commons is formed, the democratic process ends and the legislative process kicks in to full swing. From the basis of responsible government, which sustains a particular ministry through the maintenance of the confidence of the entire House of Commons, the government can participate and dominate the legislative process. This dominance is scalable based on the size of their influence within the House of Commons (the formation of majority or minority governments, for example). The continuance of responsible government permits the appointment of agents of the state such as Senators, who are empowered through the constitution to participate in the legislative process alongside the duly elected government. And while mandates will shift between ministries, generally those agents of state remain empowered within the legislative process, intentionally made to be immune from the democratic process. This is an essential balance between the elite and the populist, and is a key feature of any Westminster parliamentary system.

It is therefore not undemocratic for the Senate to reject any piece of legislation coming from the House of Commons, especially legislation coming from the government benches, because there is nothing that should permit the democratic process from interfering with the legislative process. While principles of democracy are inherent in the system (MPs for example vote by majority, as do Senators), the process itself, the democracy-in-Canada (to fancy a label on it), is not a part of the legislative process. That process exists when the people elect their individual Member of Parliament. The rest is the entire system working as it ought to and churning out lawful decisions of the state.

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