An interesting thing happened during British Columbia’s 41st general election– a distinguished professor turned Green Party leader became a politician. Once pushed from the womb of academia and into the wild and wacky world of British Columbia politics, it did not take Andrew Weaver very long to get on his feet and undermine the government and the established parliamentary system while holding a meagre three seats in the legislature. This one is going to grow to be big and strong no doubt.
Let me be clear; I am not for one moment suggesting that a coalition, or as they call it, a supported-government, is undemocratic or unparliamentary. Quite the opposite, I would indeed be among the first to stand here and explain the intricacies and realities of our parliamentary system which permits such occurrences. And I believe in the parliamentary system and one that is sustained with a first past the post electoral system with ridings distrusted across the state according to relative population. And this is how we ended up with a result where the incumbent BC Liberals hold 43 seats (one seat shy of a majority sustainment), the BC NDP holds 41 and the BC Greens hold 3 (together enough to maintain the confidence of the legislature, if they worked together).
But besides permitting the BC NDP and BC Greens to work together in the legislature to form government and sustain confidence in the legislature, the parliamentary system has a host of other conventions that inform conduct in periods such as these. For example, the incumbency convention holds that no matter the results, the government in power gets first crack in the legislature to form government. This is why you see when a Prime Minister or Premier fail to garner a plurality of seats in the legislature they publicly resign from their office. Otherwise, the GG or LG is compelled through the incumbency convention to allow the previous head of government first crack at getting confidence in the legislature. This is also why Premier Christy Clark is still the head of the BC government– and subsequently has the ability to deliver a Throne Speech regardless of the agreement came upon by the BC NDP and BC Greens.
When the results from the 41st general election in BC came down (and they took awhile to settle out and come down officially), it was clear that the BC Liberal Party did not have a majority of seats in the legislature, and thus would not be able to sustain their majority government. But they did have a plurality and because of the incumbency convention, they remained in power and Clark was invited to continue her ministry. Andrew Weaver proved his political stripes by undermining the incumbency convention and publicly siding with the BC NDP for four years. Without even hearing officially from the government via a Throne Speech in the legislature, Weaver and two of the Green Party MLAs decided that there was absolutely nothing the government could offer to gain their support. Andrew Weaver is now playing a political game, and very dangerous one at that. Tying himself to the NDP could surely prove to undermine an honest effort by the BC Greens to pitch themselves as not too extreme to form government, or in this case, at least hold the balance of power.
But what of backroom deals and talks? Dispense with them! They are not parliament and any idea that “ratifying” them by each caucus someone seals the deal is false, pure and simple. Those are not binding on the state, and rightfully so; parliament is the official forum of the electors. We saw that when Harper, Layton and Duceppe signed an agreement when they tried to undermine the Martin ministry– it meant nothing without parliamentary action to take down the government. And furthermore when Dion, Layton and Duceppe attempted to undermine the Harper ministry– it certainly did not withhold the authority of the PM to prorogue parliament to avoid actually sealing the deal. The NDP at least have the cover of their role as the Official Opposition to claim a reason to oppose the government at all turns– I concede that opposition is just as important as government in a parliamentary system. But the BC Greens ought to have sustained the Clark government, at least to the Throne Speech in order to sustain the incumbency convention and demonstrate their respect for parliament.
A true politician was born during this election. It will be interesting to see him fumble through his teenage years with his seemingly new best friend in John Horgan.
The final results of the 41st general election in British Columbia have been tallied and the parliament is hung. The incumbent BC Liberals hold a total of 43 seats (one seat short of a majority mandate), the BC NDP hold 41 and the BC Green Party holds 3 seats. As of yesterday, BC NDP leader John Horgan and BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver have reached an agreement that would see the BC NDP form a minority government while being propped by the Green Party for the next four years. I feel the need to be absolutely clear here, because the media at times has not, but this is not a government-in-waiting scenario. In fact, Christy Clark is still the Premier of the province, and will remain the Premier until her government falls or she resigns. However, with this new agreement there are several outcomes for this BC parliament. This post will examine those outcomes and the road to each with some commentary on the fallout from each potential scenario.
Clark Resigns as Premier
In this scenario, Premier Clark looks at the seat-count in the legislature and the agreement between the BC NDP and BC Greens and decides that she won’t present a Throne Speech in the opening of parliament and resigns as Premier. She would have to go to the Lieutenant-Governor of BC, the Hon. Judith Guichon, and request that her ministry be dissolved (but not the legislature, thus not leading to an immediate election). In this scenario the L-G would have the option of asking Mr. Horgan to form the government as per the agreement between the BC Greens (being the party and leader that seemingly are able to establish the confidence of the legislature) or she could ask another MLA from the BC Liberal Party to form government (unlikely). Additionally, in this scenario could also decide to dissolve the legislature and trigger an election but this is the most unlikely course as it would be unconventional for her to dissolve the legislature without the advice of the Premier (and a legitimate question of constitutional law would arise as to whether or not she actually has the authority to do it without said advice). It is also important to note that in this scenario, Horgan would still need to prove that he has the confidence of the legislature through the passing of a Throne Speech.
Clark Dissolves the Legislature
In this scenario, Premier Clark still heads to Government House to speak with the L-G but in this case she asks that the entire legislature be dissolved. This would trigger a new election. The downside to this approach is that the L-G could decide that Clark’s request is not in the interest of the province and undermines her responsibility to ensure a democratic government is in place in BC, and could ask the BC NDP to attempt to form government. We are getting into Byng-King territory here and so it rapidly becomes a constitutional minefield. I personally, cannot see Clark going this route for two reasons: (1) having to overcome the whole “you brought us into another election merely a month apart” will be hard to overcome on the campaign trail and (2) there is too much uncertainty in what the L-G could do (there will be a lot of egg all over Clark’s face if she requests an election only to see the L-G ask the BC NDP to form government and go on to have a successful mandate).
Clark Presses Onward
In this scenario, Premier Clark maintains power as the incumbant government under a party with a plurality of seats in the legislature. This would allow her to open parliament and bring down a Speech from the Throne that outlines her plan for the next session of parliament. If she was shewrd (and she is), this speech would include a laundry list of “goodies” for the BC NDP and BC Greens, which would put them in the awkward position of voting down something that has a policy plan in their own favour. It would bring to light the power-grab nature of the opposition’s approach leading up to the opening of parliament. If the chips fall as the seat-count shows in light of the agreement, than the Clark government would fall but she would have some ground to stand on in presenting a plan that accomodated the opposition, and it would leave the onus on them to explain why they voted down the plan.
The Speaker Issue
The last scenario with Clark pressing onward as Premier and presenting a Throne Speech also has another aspect to it; the election of the Speaker. The first act of any parliament is the election of the Speaker. Because the BC NDP and BC Greens would be holding on to power with a slim majority in the legislature between them, chances are they will turn to the BC Liberals to supply the Speaker (standard in a minority government situation for the opposition to attempt to pick off another seat from the government by sending a member to the Chair). However, the individual elected as Speaker in BC must agree to actually take the job. A scenario could very well play out where the legislature is unable to elect a Speaker because no BC Liberal MLA will accept the job. The BC NDP and the BC Greens could offer up one of their own to be the Speaker, but in a tie between the government and the opposition following a vote on the Throne Speech, conventionally the Speaker would be compelled to vote in favour of the government. So it would break up the agreement regardless. If the legislature cannot elect a Speaker and thus cannot offer confidence to a ministry, the L-G would be compelled to dissolve the legislature and a new election would be called.
I am probably going to pen an editorial on the topic shortly, but since we are going down the path of scenarios I will mention my thought-process briefly here. There is certainly nothing immediately wrong with the politicking that we are seeing right now in BC between the BC Liberals, BC Greens and BC NDP. This is how parliament works. But there are many other principles at play here. For example, a fundamental principle of parliament is stability and the continuance of the ministry. This is a strong aspect of parliamentary democracy, the fact that it is designed to withhold extreme changes back and forth in how government’s get formed and how the legislature props up or takes down said ministry. This is evident in the incumbency convention which dictates that the incument ministry remains in power until actually defeated in the legislature or upon resignation of the Premier. It is also evident in the convention that the Speaker sides with the government or more specifically the status quo. Nothing changing things quickly and limited dramatic moments are the centerpiece of the parliamentary system. What Andrew Weaver did by playing king-maker with a meagre three seats in the legislature is unparliamentary and unstatesmen-like. It is a power grab and an attempt to subvert the legitimate government in British Columbia. This is not to say that Weaver had to support the government, he didn’t, but he could have at least heard the Throne Speech, could have at least given Clark an honest go at governing in accordance with our conventions and the formation of parliament. Instead we get backroom deals and a king-maker who essentially lost the last election. I am the last person in line to call what is happening right now undemocratic, but I am first to label Weaver what he is: a power-hungry partisan politician.
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
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:
The time is scarce and should, therefore, be used as profitably as possible by as many as possible.
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.
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.
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.
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
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;
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;
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.
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.
Parliament Hill is one of the most beautiful seats of government in the world. The transformation of Ottawa from a back-water logging town, miles away from anything of any importance in early Canada, has been carefully crafted to create a city that reflects the diverse and unique culture and history of Canada. In particular, icons in and around the Parliament Buildings, including within the House of Commons and Senate chambers, present to Canadians a stunning visual history of their roots and aspirations in the formation of a country forged out of distant New World colonies and vast wilderness. In this post we will explore Parliament Hill and learn about the history and intent of icons which have been crafted around the Parliament Buildings.
The Centennial Flame was lit on 1 January 1967 to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation at the start of the year. It was lit in the presence of then Prime Minister Leaster B. Pearson. The monument is in the form of a flame that burns above a fountain that is lined with the coat of arms of all 10 provinces in Canada. It was envisioned by the federal government and contracted as a joint venture with the provinces in order to honour the provinces uniquely during the centennial celebrations. It has become tradition in Canada for Canadians visiting Parliament Hill to toss coin change into the fountain for good luck. The money collected through this is deposited in a government account and funds the Centennial Flame Research Award which is given “to a person with a disability to enable him or her to conduct research and prepare a report on the contributions of one or more Canadians with disabilities to the public life of Canada or the activities of Parliament.” The Centennial Flame is often mistakenly called the eternal flame. The flame however is not eternal and is often extinguished in bad weather (common in Ottawa) or for routine maintenance– interestingly, however, the fountain does not freeze during winter because of the heating from the flame slightly above the waterline.
The Peace Tower that dominates Centre Block is probably one of the most recognizable features of Parliament Hill and Ottawa as a whole. The tower is 92.2 m tall and features approximately 370 gargoyles, grotesques, and friezes which are common in the Victorian High Gothic style of the Parliamentary precent. After the fire that took the original Centre Block in 1916, the creation of a memorial at the end of World War I coincided, and a tower for the facade of the new Centre Block was conceived. It was officially unveiled in 1922. Within the tower, above the porte-cochere, there is a memorial to all who died during the First World War called the Memorial Chamber. It is a valued 7.3 by 7.3 metre space with tall stained glass windows and the floor is made up of brass plates from shells used during the war. Near the peak of the Peace Tower is a 53-bell carillon that was dedicated to the commemoration of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I and was inaugurated on 1 July 1927, the 60th anniversary of Confederation. The Peace Tower was the first location that the new maple leaf Canadian Flag was flown above Parliament Hill on 15 February 1965.
The Library of Parliament is the oldest part of the Centre Block as a result of a quick thinking clerk closing the giant bronze doors that separate it from the rest of the building during the fire in 1916. The design of the library was inspired by the British Museum Reading Room and is formed circular in the form of a chapter house. It is separated from Centre Block via the Hall of Honour. The roots of the Library go back to the 1790s when the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada established libraries along the lines of the UK parliament. With the uniting of the two regions under the United Province of Canada the libraries were merged and continued through Confederation in 1867. The Library features Hansard records from almost every legislative assembly in Canada, periodicals for MPs and Senators and significant state reports and publications. Since 1870 there have been only eight Parliamentary Librarians.
When entering Centre Block from the main entrance and walking through the porte-cochere of the Peace Tower one immediately enters Confederation Hall. The entire Centre Block is arranged symmetrically around Confederation Hall and the columns and stone work that dominates the walls and vaulted ceiling present a bold and confident entrance for the seat of government. The arcaded arches are topped by gables sculpted to commemorate the confederated nature of Canada and they support one side of the hall’s fan vaulted ceiling with carved bosses, while the other side rests on a single column in the centre of the room. This column is borne on a stone carved with an image of Neptune amongst sea lions and fish in a mythical sea. It was placed at noon on 2 July 1917, to mark the 50th anniversary of Confederation, and above it was carved the words:
1867 JULY 1917 ON THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CONFEDERATION OF BRITISH COLONIES IN NORTH AMERICA AS THE DOMINION OF CANADA THE PARLIAMENT AND PEOPLE DEDICATE THIS BUILDING IN PROCESS OF RECONSTRUCTION AFTER DAMAGE BY FIRE AS A MEMORIAL OF THE DEEDS OF THEIR FOREFATHERS AND OF THE VALOUR OF THOSE CANADIANS WHO IN THE GREAT WAR FOUGHT FOR THE LIBERTIES OF CANADA, OF THE EMPIRE AND OF HUMANITY.
Running along a north-south axis from Confederation Hall to the Library of Parliament is the Hall of Honour. This passageway serves as the corridors where the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament traverse during the Opening of Parliament and the start of each new sitting of Parliament. It is also the location of laying persons receiving state honours for funerals. The hall is bisected by small, vaulted corridors, the east one leading to a committee room, and the west to the old reading room; the latter is known as the Correspondents’ Entrance, as it is lined with bosses and label stops sculpted by Cléophas Soucy between 1949 and 1950 into the visages of ten notable parliamentary correspondents: Charles Bishop, Henri Bourassa, John Wesley Dafoe, Joseph Howe, Grattan O’Leary, Frank Oliver, John Ross Robertson, Philip Dansken Ross, Joseph Israël Tarte, and Robert S. White. he Hall of Honour was intended to be a gallery where statues of notable Canadians would be arranged in the niches along each side. That plan was later abandoned in favour of a more general purpose of commemorating the 1916 fire, as well as honouring those who participated in the Great War. The sculptures remain incomplete; only the north end, closest to the Library of Parliament, has completed carvings.
House of Commons
Centre Block houses both Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons is located in the west side of the building and the Senate is located in the east. The foyer of the House of Commons is accessed via the South Corridor of Confederation Hall. The threshold of the House of Commons features a large ornately carved wooden double door. This is one of the most public spaces within parliament (aside from the House of Commons chamber itself) and is a common feature of news broadcasts across Canada during scrums following significant events within the Commons chamber. It was also a personal favourite location for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to conduct official government announcements. On either side of the entrance are wooden coat lockers for Members of Parliament.
The building’s western wing contains the House of Commons chamber, along with its antechamber and lobbies for the government and opposition, on the east and west sides of the main commons space. The doors to all are of white oak trimmed with hand-wrought iron.
The chamber is 21 metres long, 16 metres wide, and has seats for 320 members of parliament and 580 persons in the upper gallery that runs around the room’s second level. The overall colour scheme is in green—visible in the carpeting, bench upholstery, draperies, paint within the gilded honeycomb cork plaster work of the cove, and the stretched linen canvas over the ceiling—and is reflective of the colour used in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom since at least 1663. That canvas, sitting 14.7 m above the commons floor and designed in 1920 by the New York decorating firm Mack, Jenney and Tyler, is painted with the heraldic symbols of the Canadian, provincial, and territorial coats of arms, with medallions at the intersections of diagonal stencilled bands in an argyle pattern. Running below this, and above the cove, is a continuous gold leafcornicecreated in 1919 by Ferdinand Anthony Leonard Cerracchio (1888-1964), which displays a row of gilt figures, broken at the peak of each pointed arch by cherubs holding a cartouche, and behind all of which runs a painted grapevine with Tudor roses.
On the floor, the opposing members’ benches are spaced 3.96 m apart on either side of the room, a measurement said to be equivalent to two swords’ length, harkening back to when English members of parliament carried swords into the chamber. Directly between, directly opposite the main door, on the chamber’s axis, is the speaker‘s chair, made in 1921 by the English firm of Harry Hems as an exact replica of that in the British House of Commons. It is topped by a carved wood canopy bearing a rendition of the royal coat of arms of Canada sculpted in wood from the roof of the Westminster Hall, which was built in 1397; the whole was a gift from the British branch of what is today the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The chair has since been augmented with a hydraulic lift, lighting, writing surfaces, and, at the foot of the chair, a television screen and computer screen to aid the speaker in monitoring the process of the house. Behind the chair is a door that gives the speaker access to the speaker’s corridor, which links the commons chamber to the speaker’s chambers, and which is lined with portraits of past speakers of the House of Commons.
In the commons chamber’s east and west walls are 12 windows topped by pointed arches with hood moulds terminated by pendant drops. The glazing within is stained glass, commissioned as a Centennial Project in 1967 by then Speaker of the House of Commons Lucien Lamoureux. Each window contains approximately 2,000 pieces of hand-blown glass—created in Ottawa by Russell C. Goodman using medieval techniques—arranged in a Decorated Gothic style pattern designed by R. Eleanor Milne. Divided into four sections by stone mullions, the upper parts contain geometrical tracery and provincial and territorial floral emblems amongst ferns; in the tracery at the head of the windows are symbols extracted from the coats of arms of the provinces and territories.
As with other areas of the Centre Block, the commons walls are enriched with shafts, blind tracery, friezes, and a sculpture programme. The room was the last space in the building to be carved, with sculptural work only beginning in the late 1950s and continuing intermittently for the following two decades; approximately 225 blocks of varying sizes still remain uncarved. Amongst the work done are three series of stone works: The British North America Act, a set of 12 high reliefs on the east and west walls of the chamber, carved between 1978 and 1985, and illustrating through symbols and narrative themes associated with the federal and provincial responsibilities laid out in the British North America Act; Evolution of Life, a series of 14 sculptures within the spandrels of the pier-arches at the north and south ends of the House of Commons, depicting Canada’s palaeontological past and the evolution of humanity through philosophy, science, and the imagination; and Speakers and Clerks, comprising four heads carved on the jambs of the two doors on either side of the Speaker’s chair, depicting the speakers and clerks of the House of Commons at the time of the opening of both parliament buildings in 1867 and 1920, respectively.
To the Senate’s immediate south is the Senate foyer, a double height space surrounded by a double layered colonnade, the inside ring of attached shaft columns rising to the ceiling and the outside ring of rose coloured limestone columns supporting a second floor gallery. Within the stonework are sculpted depictions of important figures in pre-Confederation Canada, as well as self-portraits of the sculptors who fashioned the stone. A number are dedicated as the Sovereigns’ Arches, with corbels sculpted into depictions of Canada’s monarchs; the latest addition being that of Queen Elizabeth II, unveiled on 9 December 2010. The entire ceiling is of a Tudor style stone tracery filled with stained glass depicting royal emblems, such as provincial coats of arms, as well as symbols of First Nations and the names of all the speakers of the Senate up until the ceiling’s installation in 1920. Above the exterior entrance into the foyer is a stained glass window commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Designed by Christopher Goodman and Angela Zissoff of Kelowna, British Columbia, with input from the Speaker of the Senate, Noël A. Kinsella, and the Canadian Secretary to the Queen and Usher of the Black Rod, Kevin MacLeod, and approved by the Queen, the window shows Elizabeth and Queen Victoria with their respective royal cyphers and renditions of the Centre Block during the reign of each monarch. A gift to the monarch from the Senate, it was constructed over six weeks from 500 pieces of machine made and mouth-blown glass from France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. The Queen unveiled a model at Rideau Hall on 30 June 2011 and, after the finished piece’s installation, the window was dedicated by Governor GeneralDavid Johnston on 7 February 2012.
The Senate chamber’s overall colour is red, seen in the upholstery, carpeting, and draperies, and reflecting the colour scheme of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom; red was a more royal colour, associated with the Crown and hereditary peers. Capping the room is a gilt ceiling with deep octagonal coffers, each filled with heraldic symbols, including maple leaves, fleurs-de-lis, lions rampant, clàrsach, Welsh Dragons, and lions passant. This plane rests on six pairs and four single pilasters, each of which is capped by a caryatid, and between which are clerestory windows. Below the windows is a continuous architrave, broken only by baldachins at the base of each of the above pilasters.
On the chamber’s east and west walls are eight murals depicting scenes from the First World War. Painted in between 1916 and 1920, they were originally part of the more than 1,000 piece Canadian War Memorials Fund, founded by the Lord Beaverbrook, and were intended to hang in a specific memorial structure. But the project was never completed, and the works were stored at the National Gallery of Canada until, in 1921, parliament requested some of the collection’s oil paintings on loan for display in the Centre Block. The murals have remained in the Senate chamber ever since.
Edgar Bundy‘s Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915, depicts the first landing of Canadian troops in France, at Saint-Nazaire, led off the Novian by the pipe band of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, and watched by officers, troops, and townspeople. Algernon Talmage painted A Mobile Veterinary Unit in France, showing a scene on the Cambrai front, where a Canadian Mobile Veterinary Unit is taking wounded horses to an evacuating station. Railway Construction in France was painted by Leonard Richmond to show the construction of a railway by the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps, in the deepest trench in France. James Kerr-Lawson was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to create both Arras, the Dead City—which depicts the ruins of Arras Cathedral as they were in 1917—and The Cloth Hall, Ypres, a painting of the destroyed, 600-year-old Cloth Hall in Ypres. Claire Atwood‘s On Leave documents (as battlefield scenes were thought inappropriate subject matter for female artists) the home front activities of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at a YMCA canteen in one of London‘s train stations as they await their train to the battlefront. The Watch on the Rhine (The Last Phase) was painted by Sir William Rothenstein to symbolically represent the defeat of Germany, with a British howitzer facing across the Rhine, and old and new Germany embodied in the ancient hills and factory chimney. And Sir George Clausen‘s Returning to the Reconquered Land was painted to illustrate agricultural land behind the front lines in France and shows people returning to their destroyed homes following the armistice.
During consideration on a particular bill or motion, it may be prudent for the House of Commons to resolve itself into a committee composed of all of the members of the House. These committees are known as Committees of the Whole and they have a unique purpose in the body of parliamentary procedure. Each time the House sits as a Committee of the Whole, a new committee of that particular session is formed, thus, over the span of a session many ad hoc Committees of the Whole can be formed.
A Historical Perspective
Committees of the Whole were borne out of the British parliamentary tradition of grand committees that started prior to the reign of King James I. These committees considered legislation that was brought before the House and it became practice to allow any member who was in attendance of these meetings to speak and be heard. It was during the reign of James I and Charles I in the mid-1600s that these grand committees became known as Committees of the Whole and procedures similar to what we have today in Canada were formalized in our parliamentary tradition. In their early days, Committees of the Whole were forums that were struck to debate bills of great interest. By forming a committee outside of the sitting of the House of Commons itself, ordinary members were afforded a greater chance of getting their questions heard and answered. More importantly, the removal of the Speaker and all officers of parliament who were viewed to have the interest of the King at heart, meant that members were given more latitude to discuss controversial subjects.
There is as little sense of reality in appointing a committee of sixty members as there is in having a Committee of the Whole of 265: it is hopeless to expect a committee of such size to accomplish any useful work. (W.F. Dawson, Procedure in the Canadian House of Commons, p. 209)
In Canada the colonies adopted the practices of the British House of Commons and thus Committees of the Whole were brought over. In Lower Canada, four grand committees were struck at the start of each session that covered four broad but important areas of government. Addresses to the Crown were often first proposed and debated in the Committee of the Whole. At Confederation, the Parliament of Canada adopted the procedures of the former Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada which required that issues of taxation, trade or public revenue had to be first considered by a Committee of the Whole before any resolution or bill could be passed by the House of Commons.
From 1867 to 1968 there were three main committees of the whole House of Commons; the Committee of Supply, the Committee of Ways and Means and Committees of the Whole House. The House of Commons often resolved into the Committee of Supply to consider budgetary matters and supply estimates provided to the House by the government. In 1968 after a special committee was struck to review and revise the rules of the House of Commons, changes were made to the committee structure. Standing Committees would be formed at the start of each session with membership limited to a certain number of members and partisan representation being based on the composition of the House as a whole. The process of resolving into a Committee of the Whole for matters of routine legislation, which financial matters were increasingly being viewed as, was seen as too cumbersome and complex for the entire House. The new streamlined process saw most Committees of the Whole in Canada fall by the wayside. And by 1975, the only remaining committee composed of all members of the House of Commons is the Committee of the Whole itself.
Special Rules and Procedures
When the House resolves into a Committee of the Whole there are significant changes to the rules and procedures which govern that particular body. While Standing Order 101 clearly states that all rules and procedures of the House of Commons shall remain in force while the House is resolved into a Committee of the Whole, it goes on to further add that rules pertaining to the seconding of motions and the length of speeches do not apply while in a Committee of the Whole. In fact, one of the most attractive aspects about Committees of the Whole is that members are permitted to speak more than once and may speak for up to 20 minutes on a particular topic, provided it is relevant to the bill or motion at hand. The general decorum while in a Committee of the Whole is much less formal that when the House itself is in session. The Speaker, for example, is not present in the Chair and actually leaves the Chamber entirely while the committee is meeting. The Mace is moved from the Table to the bracket just below out of sight. Members are not required to stand in their place to speak (they may sit anywhere they like in the House) and often civil servants are brought to the floor of the House to assist Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries during deliberations.
On 11 June 2008, Stephen Harper issued an apology to aboriginal Canadians for the role of the federal government in the residential school system. During this apology, the House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole which allowed aboriginal leaders to be on the floor of the Chamber during the speech and as well to address members present following the remarks from the Prime Minister. This is an example of the differences between the House of Commons being in session and being resolved into a Committee of the Whole.
Procedures for Resolving into Committee
The rules and procedures regarding how the House of Commons resolves into a Committee of the Whole have changed over time. Today, an order in placed on the Order Paper for the Speaker to vacate the Chair and the House to resolve into a Committee of the Whole is carried out without debate or objection. Once read in the House at the appropriate time, the Speaker simply gets up and leaves the Chair and the Chamber. The Sergeant-at-Arms will move the Mace from its place at the Table to the bracket just underneath the Table and all of the Officers of Parliament will vacate the Chamber. The Deputy Speaker, or more accurately, the Chair of the Committee of the Whole takes their place at the end of the Table (where the Clerk of the House of Commons typically sits) and the Speaker’s Chair is left vacant. The image of a vacant Speaker’s Chair and the Table will no Mace present is a sign that the House of Commons is no longer in formal session and has resolved into a Committee of the Whole. Individual members may also begin moving about the House at this time. It is not uncommon for the minister or parliamentary secretary relevant to the particular item being considered to take a seat along the front bench where government members normally sit. It is also not uncommon for civil servants to be escorted into and out of the Chamber during this time to assist ministers or parliamentary secretaries during the meeting of the committee.
When an Order of the Day is read for the House to go into a Committee of the Whole or when it is ordered that a bill be considered in a Committee of the Whole, the Speaker shall leave the Chair without question put. (House of Commons Standing Order 100)
A quorum of 20 members is required for the committee to sit. The quorum must be present when the House resolves itself into committee and during the entirety of the meeting. If at any time a member rises to draw to attention to a lack of quorum, the Chair will count members present and if a quorum is not met they will vacate the chair and report the status to the Speaker. The Speaker will take their chair and the Chair of the Committee of the Whole will report to the Speaker that a quorum is not present. If at this time the Speaker sees that there still is no quorum present than they will order the bells rung. If after 15 minutes of the bells ringing quorum has not been met than the House and committee will adjourn for the day and the proceedings will resume where they left off the following day.
Conduct of Debate
There are four unique characteristics of a Committee of the Whole in contrast to the rules and procedures in place when the House of Commons is in session. First, the rules of motions and the seconding of motions is different. No motion from the Committee of the Whole requires a seconder and motions may only be withdrawn by the mover or by unanimous consent of the committee. Second, members may speak more than once and, third, members may speak for up to 20 minutes with the exception of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition who have unlimited time to speak, if they wish. And lastly, members are not required to be in their place during the meeting of the committee and often move about the Chamber during the meeting.
(1) The Standing Orders of the House shall be observed in Committees of the Whole so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the seconding of motions, limiting the number of times of speaking and the length of speeches.
(2) Speeches in Committees of the Whole must be strictly relevant to the item or clause under consideration.
(3) No Member, except the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, shall speak for more than twenty minutes at a time in any Committee of the Whole. (House of Commons Standing Order 101)
When the Committee of the Whole is interrupted to permit the House of Commons to carry on with routine proceedings (for example, Oral Questions), the Chair will simply vacate their seat and the Speaker will resume the Chair. Once in place, the Chair reports the status of the committee to the Speaker and requests leave for further time to deliberate. The scheduling of Committees of the Whole is generally conducted by the Speaker in consultation with the House Leaders from each political party (with strong input from the majority leader). Once the Speaker takes the Chair and the Mace is moved back to the Table than the House of Commons resumes its sitting and carries on with proceedings.
If debate is required to be extended for any reason, members may not move such a motion without notice as in the House of Commons. Rather, notice must be given so that the Chair can make arrangements to report the status of the committee to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Any request for debate extension must go through the Speaker of the House of Commons who is responsible for committees of the House.
Voting within the Committee of the Whole is first done by voice. If the Chair hears no objection to a bill or motion than it is deemed passed without opposition. Any member may request a standing vote. The standing vote is done differently than in the House of Commons because a members name is not recorded in divisions. Members are not necessarily in their place, they simply rise where they stand on the division they wish and they are counted out-loud by the Chair. At the end of the count the matter is either affirmed or negatived and the committee moves on the next item of business. Typically the Chair does not vote in Committees of the Whole but may do so in order to break up a tie between the committee in the same fashion as the Speaker in the House of Commons (that is in such a way as to maintain the status quo).
Committees of the Whole are used in the modern Canadian parliament to debate matters of particular importance which may require input from members beyond what would be permitted in the Standing Committee model. The desire to resolve into a Committee of the Whole is generally started by the government or opposition House Leader and is added to the Order Paper as required. Committees of the Whole have also been used to allow the government to make an announcement and allow members of the public to address the Chamber. It is not uncommon to see orders for the House to resolve into a Committee of the Whole in the consideration of controversial legislation or main estimates or to conduct a less formal take-note debate on a particular subject.
Photo credit: Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the Committee of the Whole while aboriginal leaders listen on the floor of the House of Commons. Buzzfeed.
The historical origins of the office of the Speaker of the House of Commons go back almost 600 years. The importance of the office is highlighted in the opening of the relevant chapter in the House of Common Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed, “no other office or position is more closely linked to the history of the House of Commons than that of the Speaker.” The Speaker in Canada exists as a result of its development within the United Kingdom, however the roles and functions of the Speaker today in Canada are markedly different than the United Kingdom. As well, as the result of reforms in the 1960s, the office of the Speaker has taken on more authority within the House of Commons and its proceedings. In this post, we will explore the powers of the Speaker of the House of Commons and briefly highlight how they have developed over time since 1867.
When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867 the British North America Act clearly defined the existence, election and function of the Speaker of the House of Commons. By 1867, most constitutional issues related to the office had been resolved in the UK, and thus the Canadian Speaker has never been subjected to the same degree of constitutional development as their UK counterpart (House of Commons Procedure and Practice 2nd Ed). However, that does not mean that the interpretation of the function of the office as defined in the constitution and the practice of enforcement of these functions has not changed over time, specifically through changes within the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.
The Speaker has almost always been elected from among the Members of the governing party, and although the Speaker eschews partisan political activity, he or she does not make a complete break. When running for re-election, incumbent Speakers are usually careful to avoid partisan statements that might prejudice their perceived impartiality in the future. Only one Speaker has chosen to sever himself from all party affiliations and to present himself as an independent candidate in general elections. Speaker Lamoureux (1966‑74) resigned from the Liberal Party and, as an independent candidate, ran and won in the general elections of 1968 and 1972. In 1968, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party refrained from nominating candidates to oppose him; the New Democratic Party had already nominated a candidate prior to his decision to run as an independent.
The roles and functions of the Speaker of the House of Commons can be broadly broken into two categories; ceremonial and administration. In their ceremonial role, the Speaker is the representative of all of the House of Commons and is their official spokesperson. This role is evident during the opening of parliament when the Speaker speaks in the Senate of Canada to the Governor-General on behalf of the entire elected assembly. In their administrative roles, the Speaker is the chair of the House committee that oversees the spending and function of parliament, its employees and services. The Speaker also chairs all sessions of parliament sometimes with the exception of Committees of the Whole.
One of the most important aspects of the Speakers’ role in the House of Commons is the enforcement of the rules including the Standing Orders. This role has changed over time within the House, with the Speaker having varying degrees of power to punish members who were ruled out of line and the ability to rule on breaches to the rules in the regular conduct of House business. We can explore how both functions have changed over time.
The Speaker of the House of Commons has not always had final say on whether a point of order was ruled out of line. Prior to changes made to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons in 1965, the House of Commons could overrule the ruling of the Speaker. Up until the turn of the 20th century, overruling the Speaker was rarely done by the House of Commons, however with the employment of a more active opposition in the House, it became common practice for members to follow-up a ruling from the Speaker with a motion seeking support/taking issue from the entire House of Commons. The most striking of these occurred during the infamous “pipeline” debate in the spring of 1956. The House of Commons overruled the Speaker on a judgement concerning the nature of debate on a pipeline project which lead to widespread dissension among Members of Parliament. In 1965 changes were made the Standing Orders and a “no-appeal” clause was entered into the section dealing with the powers of the Speaker regarding rulings in the House of Commons. MPs now have no other recourse in parliament but the Chair of the Speaker and the Speakers’ ruling remains final.
The Speaker has a range of powers at their disposal to deal with unruly Members in the House of Commons. The first of these powers remain in the fact that the Speaker chairs each sitting of the House. This means that at any time the Speaker can rise in their chair and end debate. Now, there are specific reasons for why the Chair would rise (it would not be in line with their duty to progress debate for the Speaker to hinder debate by needlessly rising in their chair). You see this happen often during the most watched portion of proceedings in the House of Commons, Oral Questions. The Speaker often cuts cheering/heckling short by rising in their chair and calling “Order, order” to get members to be silent and carry on with Oral Questions. This intervention is a common occurrence through-out each proceeding of the House. It is also used to move the House from one proceeding to another in Routine Business. For example, the House has a specific time for shifting from debate to Members’ Statements and then into Oral Question. During most days, Members’ Statements starts at 2 pm and lasts for 15 minutes. Regardless of where debate is at 2 pm, the Speaker rises in their chair and shifts the attention of the House to Members’ Statements. As each statement is read until 2:15 pm, the Chair will keep the focus of the House on the statements being read and then will rise in their chair and shift the attention of the House to Question Period. If you have ever watched a clip of Oral Questions from the start, you might have seen this portion when the Speaker rises and states, “Oral Questions, the Honourable Leader of the Opposition…” (for example).
The Speaker also has a very specific power in naming a Member of Parliament. Naming is an old mechanism dating back to the early days of the UK parliament, when the Chair would call by name a person in the assembly who was acting out of line. The act of naming is in stark contrast to parliamentary decorum which dictates that a member is referred to in the House by their riding or position. Naming a member is a lot like a parent using a child’s full name when they are in trouble. The Speaker gets the attention of the Member and of the entire House by calling the member’s name and specifically stating that they have been named. The Speaker may provide a reason, or may not, and the member must leave the chamber of the remainder of the sitting. Because the House of Commons is broken along partisan lines, it is not uncommon for the House Leader of the party for the respective member to rise on a point of order at an appropriate time following the naming incident to put forward a plan to deal with the member in question. This could be the tabling of a written apology or the proposal for a set number of days for suspension. It might also be a request for the Speaker to rule on the matter which may have disagreement among other Members on how to move forward. For most points of order, members of the House from all sides have a say to influence the judgement of the Speaker. At the end of the day, it is a very adult way of punishing and dealing with one another.
In their ceremonial role, the Speaker represents the House of Commons as a whole in an unpartisan fashion. For this reason, it is the Speaker who official receives guests of parliament such as foreign heads of state/government, president and secretaries of important international bodies (such as the UN and NATO), official parliamentary delegations from other nations and distinguished Canadians. This is also why it is the Speaker who introduces any dignitaries who are present in the House of Commons (typically just before Oral Questions begins because this is when most people are watching the House of Commons).
Opening the sitting: It is the Speaker’s responsibility to open the sittings of the House once it has been determined that a quorum is present. When opening a sitting, the Speaker takes the Chair, calls the House to order, reads prayers, directs that the doors to the public galleries be opened, and then calls the first item of business. If, as sometimes happens, the Speaker is absent at the opening of a sitting, the House is so informed by the Clerk and the Deputy Speaker (or one of the other Chair Occupants) takes the Chair.
Reading motions, putting questions, announcing results of votes: Before debate begins on a matter, the Speaker proposes the question by reading the motion on which the House is to decide. When no Member rises to be recognized in debate, the Speaker asks if the House is “ready for the question”, thus ascertaining whether or not the debate has concluded. When debate on a question is closed, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to put the question, that is, to put the matter to the House for a decision, and afterwards to announce the result to the House.
Recognizing Members to speak in the House: No Member may speak in the House until called upon or recognized by the Speaker; any Member so recognized may speak during debate, questions and comments periods, Question Period, and other proceedings of the House. Various conventions and informal arrangements exist to encourage the participation of all parties in debate; nevertheless, the decision as to who may speak is ultimately the Speaker’s.
Deciding questions of order and questions of privilege: In presiding over the deliberations of the House, the Speaker is responsible for deciding questions of order and questions of privilege, and for ensuring that the rules and practices of the House are respected. The Speaker rules on questions of order and questions of privilege as they occur and not in anticipation. A question of order may be brought to the Speaker’s attention by a Member, or the Speaker may intervene when he or she observes an irregularity. In ruling on questions of order and questions of privilege, the Speaker cites the Standing Order or other applicable authority. At times, the Speaker may be called upon to deal with situations not provided for in the Standing Orders of the House; in such cases, the rules give authority to the Speaker to consider parliamentary tradition in jurisdictions outside the House of Commons of Canada “so far as they may be applicable”.
Decisions on motions: The Standing Orders confer on the Speaker certain responsibilities in connection with motions coming before the House for consideration. The Speaker has the responsibility to act, in the event that he or she judges a motion to be “contrary to the rules and privileges of Parliament”. In such a case, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to inform the House at the earliest opportunity, before the question is put, and to refer to the applicable rule or authority. This is to be distinguished from the Speaker’s general power to rule authoritatively on matters of procedure. While the Speaker is guardian of the rules and privileges of the House, he or she is its servant as well; the Members of the House retain collective control of their actions. Thus, if the Speaker were to inform the House that a proposed motion, though correct as to its form, runs counter to established parliamentary principles, customs or privileges, the House would then be in a position to take a decision on the matter, with the benefit of the information provided and the authorities cited by the Speaker. This rule was first adopted after Confederation and has never been invoked by the Speaker, although there have been attempts to persuade the Chair to invoke it.
Other rules of the House give the Speaker the power to select which report stage amendments will be considered by the House, and to group these for purposes of debate and division. In addition, in the event that notice of more than one opposition motion is given when a Supply day has been designated, the Speaker is responsible for selecting the one which will have precedence for consideration by the House.
Conduct of Private Members’ Business: It is the overall responsibility of the Speaker to make all the necessary arrangements to ensure the orderly conduct of the hour of each sitting day devoted to Private Members’ Business. This includes ensuring that the House has 24 hours’ notice of the item to be considered in each sitting, seeing to the arrangement of exchanges when a sponsoring Member is unable to be present when his or her item is scheduled for consideration, and refusing a notice of an item of Private Members’ Business which is deemed to be substantially the same as another.
Private bills: When private bills are to be brought before Parliament, persons wishing to act as parliamentary agents (i.e., employed in promoting or opposing a private bill) must be granted authority to do so by the Speaker. The Speaker also has the power to issue a temporary or absolute prohibition on an individual acting as a parliamentary agent, in cases where he or she has failed to act in accordance with parliamentary rules and practice.
Tabling of documents: Statutory provisions, as well as rules of the House, require the Speaker to receive and table certain reports and documents in the House. When the Speaker tables a document, he or she may do so during the sitting; alternatively, the document may be deposited with the Clerk of the House. In either case, the tabling is noted in the Journals and the item tabled is deemed permanently referred to the appropriate standing committee. The specific documents tabled by the Speaker are as follows:
As Chair of the Board of Internal Economy (the body responsible for all financial and administrative matters affecting the House of Commons) the Speaker is responsible for tabling reports of the Board’s proceedings. The reports consist of minutes of the Board’s meetings, which are tabled as they are approved by the Board. The Speaker is also responsible for tabling the annual reports of the Board’s decisions respecting the budgets of parliamentary committees. In addition, the Parliament of Canada Act requires the Speaker to table any by‑laws made by the Board within 30 days of their making; typically, these are deposited with the Clerk.
The Speaker is required after consultation with the House Leaders to table annually, before September 30, a calendar of sitting and non‑sitting weeks for the following year.
Statutory requirements exist whereby designated officers of Parliament and the Canadian Human Rights Commission transmit their annual reports and any special or investigatory reports to the Speaker, who then tables them in the House.
In the decennial process to readjust electoral boundaries, reports of the provincial and territorial electoral boundaries commissions are transmitted by the Chief Electoral Officer to the Speaker, who tables them when the House is sitting.
When election results are contested or appealed under the Canada Elections Act, reports of court decisions are made to the Speaker, who then informs the House.
Emergency debates: When a Member has made a request to move the adjournment of the House in order to debate a matter requiring urgent consideration (an emergency debate), the Speaker is responsible for deciding whether or not the request will be granted. When the Speaker has granted an application for an emergency debate, the rules provide for it to take place the same day, but the Speaker may also exercise a discretionary power to defer the debate to a specific time on the next sitting day. An emergency debate ends at the times specified in the Standing Orders, but again, the Speaker has discretion to declare the motion carried and to adjourn the House to the next sitting day if, in his or her opinion, debate has concluded before those times. Once it is underway, an emergency debate takes precedence over all other business; in the event of conflict or incompatibility with regard to other rules or other business of the House, the Speaker has complete discretion in reconciling the difficulty.
Recall of the House: When the House stands adjourned during a session, the Speaker has the power to recall the House to meet prior to the date on which it is scheduled to reconvene. The request to recall the House is always initiated by a Minister (usually the Government House Leader), and the Speaker has no authority to consider such a request from any other Member. In these circumstances (or while Parliament stands prorogued, or prior to the first session of a new Parliament), upon receipt of a written request from the government, the Speaker will cause to be published a Special Order Paper which informs the House of any measure the government wishes the House to consider immediately. A notice for recall of the House is not usually withdrawn; but on one occasion, after receiving a request from all the recognized parties in the House, the Speaker issued a formal statement cancelling an earlier notice for recall.
Parliamentary publications: The official publications of the House of Commons are published under the authority of the Speaker. These include, among others, the Journals, the Debates, the Order Paper and Notice Paper, the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, bills and the minutes and reports of House of Commons committees.
Chairs of legislative committees: The Speaker also has responsibilities with regard to Chairs of legislative committees. It is the Speaker’s duty at the start of each session, and thereafter as necessary, to select Members to form a Panel of Chairs. The Speaker exercises a certain amount of discretion in the choice of Members; the rules specify only that a proportionate number of Members be appointed from the government and opposition parties and that the other Presiding Officers of the House be on the Panel ex officio. Whenever the House decides to proceed with the appointment of a legislative committee, it is the Speaker’s responsibility to select from the Panel of Chairs a Member to chair that committee.
Take-note debates: The Speaker may, further to the adoption of a motion proposed by a Minister of the Crown, preside over a take-note debate conducted in a Committee of the Whole.
The function of the Speaker is the most important in the House of Commons and all of parliament. The paramount role of the Speaker in each parliament and each session is captured well in the words spoken by the Speaker to each monarch since the early days of parliament:
May it please Your Excellency,
The House of Commons has elected me their Speaker, though I am but little able to fulfil the important duties thus assigned to me. If, in the performance of those duties, I should at any time fall into error, I pray that the fault may be imputed to me, and not to the Commons, whose servant I am, and who, through me, the better to enable them to discharge their duty to their Queen and Country, humbly claim all their undoubted rights and privileges, especially that they may have freedom of speech in their debates, access to Your Excellency’s person at all seasonable times, and that their proceedings may receive from Your Excellency the most favourable construction.
Photo credit: House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer who was speak from 2011 – 2015. Canadian Press via Huffington Post.