On irrelevance

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. Over time, the business of government became more complex, and legislatures had increasingly limited time available to them to consider this business. It was therefore essential to do so as efficiently as possible. Requiring that speeches (as well as questions and comments) remain relevant to the matter being debated allows the House to reach decisions without needless obstruction and excludes discussions that aren’t conducive to that end.

The practice of restraining debate that is either repetitious or irrelevant to the matter under discussion dates back to the earliest days of the English House of Commons. The practice seems to have been well established in the English House of Commons by the end of the 16th century and in 1604, a rule on relevance in debate was adopted.

There are some debates that exempt Members from being relevant. For example, it is a well-established parliamentary convention that Members may speak on any topic they choose during the debate on the motion for an Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne. Similarly, newly elected Members making their maiden speech in the House are given some leeway to talk about themselves, their constituency, why they entered politics, etc. In all other debates and proceedings, however, Members are to ensure that their comments and remarks are relevant to the matter currently before the House.

Admittedly, the rule on relevancy can be somewhat difficult to define and enforce. Often, it is difficult to judge the relevance of a Member’s comments until they have made some progress in or even completed their remarks. Presiding officers generally allow a fair degree of latitude in this area since a very strict interpretation could have the effect of severely curtailing debate.

Consequently, it isn’t that common for a presiding officer to call a Member to order for being irrelevant during the course of a debate. It is even rarer that this will happen during other proceedings, such as Oral Questions. However, in the Australian House of Representatives, the Speaker did just that – he called a Member to order for irrelevancy – and not just any Member, but the Prime Minister:

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister has been asked about a statement made prior to the election and has been asked if would she apologise for that statement. The Prime Minister has the call to answer the question.

Ms GILLARD: The senior figures of the opposition should explain why they went to the 2007 election, hands on their hearts, saying, ‘I will walk into the parliament and I will vote for a price on carbon.’

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister will become directly relevant and will answer the question.

Ms GILLARD: I am asked whether or not carbon pricing is a mistake for this country, and I am pointing out that carbon pricing in this nation has had strong bipartisan support, and that is why it is not a mistake for the nation. It has been supported fulsomely by the Leader of the Opposition. He sought election in 2007 on the basis that he would vote for carbon pricing—

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister will return to being directly relevant.

Ms GILLARD: and he probably said that in 2007 because he believed then, as did Prime Minister Howard—

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister will resume her seat. Next question?

Ms GILLARD: that it was the right thing for the nation.

The SPEAKER: The Prime Minister no longer has the call. Next question?

Canadians who regularly (or even occasionally) watch Question Period in the House of Commons are probably well aware that the Government side frequently does not answer the questions asked by Opposition Members, as we can see in this example:

Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, it is very clear that after the election, in the riding of the hon. member for Mount Royal, calls were made that were authorized directly by the Conservative Party. The Speaker of the House described those tactics as reprehensible. I will ask the question again: is the government prepared to accept the Speaker’s ruling and recognize that in fact those tactics are reprehensible?

Mr. Pierre Poilievre (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities and for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the real question is whether the Liberal Party is prepared to accept the results that Canadians handed them in the election. Canadians voted in very large numbers—there was an increase in voter turnout—to reject the Liberal Party as never before. The Liberal Party is now trying to come up with explanations for its extraordinary defeat. It has to accept the results. It has to accept democracy. That is what we are doing.

Could the Canadian Speaker call them to order for irrelevancy? Yes, indeed. However, it might be a bit more difficult in the Canadian House of Commons. In the Australian House of Representatives, Government ministers have up to four minutes for their answers. In the Canadian House of Commons, only 35 seconds is allowed answers. Given what was stated above, that it might not be immediately obvious if what a Member is saying is relevant to the matter being discussed, this is particularly true during Question Period. By the time the Speaker might realize that the Minister had not at all addressed the question, the 35 seconds would have expired. If Canadian Ministers had four minutes in which to provide an answer to the questions asked, it would be much easier for the Chair to call them on the question of relevancy.

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