When a Party isn’t a Party, Part 1

Harper statement
Prime Minister Harper delivering statement on expanding mission in Iraq. (Source: Office of the Prime Minister)

On March 24 2015, the Prime Minister of Canada delivered a ministerial statement to the House of Commons on the matter of expanding Canada’s mission in Iraq against the Islamic State (ISIL). The leader of the Opposition as well as the leader of the third party followed with responses of their own; Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s efforts to speak were denied by the House.

Later in the week, in an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail, Ms May stated:

The right to speak on behalf of my constituents is something I asserted from my first day in the House. As each leader stood to welcome the new Speaker, I stood and was recognized. It is not for the major parties to decide who gets to speak.

The decision, she continues, belongs to the Speaker. Except when it doesn’t: “Following statements by ministers, unanimous consent is required” she explains.

Ministerial Statements are governed by Standing Order 33 which reads:

33.(1) On Statements by Ministers, as listed in Standing Order 30(3), a Minister of the Crown may make a short factual announcement or statement of government policy. A Member from each of the parties in opposition to the government may comment briefly thereon. The time for such proceedings shall be limited as the Speaker deems fit.

Note two things: first, it says that a Member “from each of the parties in opposition to the government” may comment, and second, there’s no mention of requiring unanimous consent to do so. The problem is the interpretation of the word “parties” to mean only so-called “officially recognized” parties — that is, parliamentary groups with a membership of 12 or more MPs. It wasn’t always that way.

Here’s a bit of history about all of this.

The standing order on ministerial statements was adopted in 1964. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t ministerial statements delivered in the House before 1964; quite the contrary. Ministers have been delivering statements to the House since 1867, there just wasn’t any rule governing the practice. But the tradition was well established – Ministers would rise to deliver a statement to the House before Orders of the Day were called and representatives of the opposition groups routinely responded.

By the early 1950s, the practice had become more refined. It became the custom to allow only party leaders to respond to the statements; however, that practice didn’t last terribly long. By 1959, the House reverted back to the practice of allowing responses from one speaker from each parliamentary group in the House. Also, these statements were now delivered under the rubric “Motions” during Routine Proceedings rather than before Orders of the Day. Then, as I stated above, a Standing Order was adopted in 1964 codifying the practice, as well as the responses by the opposition parliamentary groups.

The timing is somewhat important here. Earlier in that same Parliament, in 1963, the House of Commons had adopted a series of amendments to the Senate and House of Commons Act (what is now called the Parliament of Canada Act). Most of these amendments were fairly innocuous and involved changes covering a range of matters including increasing the sessional allowance payable to MPs and Senators, increasing their travel allowances, and providing an allowance to widows of MPs. One new clause added to the Act allowed for the payment of an allowance to the leaders of parties other than the Official Opposition. The Leader of the Official Opposition had been receiving an allowance for decades in recognition of the important role he played in the House of Commons, and no one had ever suggested paying an allowance for leaders of other parliamentary groups in the House. Why was this suddenly something to do?

The federal election held on 8 April 1963 had returned a hung parliament; more importantly, this was the fourth election in six years, and in only one of those elections had a party managed to secure a majority of the seats. The other three elections resulted in hung parliaments, meaning the two smaller parties, the Social Credit Party (SC) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) held the balance of power.

By 1963, it was clear to all that not only were smaller parties a permanent fact of life in the Canadian House of Commons, they were necessary for the functioning of the government in minority situations. Consequently, soon after the 1963 election, the Liberal Government of Lester Pearson proposed amending the Senate and House of Commons Act to grant an annual allowance to party leaders other than the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. This move in and of itself would appear to be rather innocuous; indeed, funding for opposition groups was introduced in Britain only 12 years later, in 1975. However, the Canadian initiative ended up having serious repercussions on proceedings in the House of Commons because it appeared to define what constituted a political party. The amendment to the Senate and House of Commons Act extended funding only to those Members who led a party with a “recognized membership of 12 or more persons in the House of Commons.”

The Government introduced the proposed changes to the Act on 29 July 1963. During the ensuing second reading debate on the bill, the proposal to pay an allowance to party leaders other than the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition received very little attention. MPs were far more concerned with the optics of giving themselves a raise. In fact, it was only the Leader of the Opposition, John Diefenbaker, who expressed any concerns over the initiative. Diefenbaker worried that the move would be a “divergence from the whole concept of parliamentary government in the British tradition” which, he argued, formally recognized only the Government and the opposition party with the largest number of seats. If this tradition were to be set aside, then “the government may well be introducing a multiplication and proliferation of parties in the years ahead and that our system does not work as effectively as it would if we had a two-party government.” (Debates, 29 July 1963, p. 2740.)

This was the only concern raised during the entire debate: that paying an allowance to other party leaders would lead to a multiplication of parties in the House. Not a single member questioned the requirement that a party have twelve MPs in order for its leader to qualify for the allowance, or asked how the Government had arrived at that number.

The bill passed second reading easily, with 200 MPs voting in favour, and only 10 against (including Mr. Diefenbaker). During clause-by-clause consideration, again, only one MP addressed the matter of paying an allowance to other party leaders; however he did so only to rebut the points raised earlier by the Leader of the Opposition. Mr. Grégoire (SC) counter-argued that if some voters chose to not support either of the two old parties, that was their democratic right:

If some voters decide to send a third and fourth political party with leaders to the house, those leaders will have from then on, added expenses and additional responsibilities. Now, I think that the item included in the bill is fully justified, the more so because this year fortunately we have leaders of a second and third opposition parties, as the leader of the official opposition does not do his job and is lost in old time theories. (Debates, 29 July 1963, p. 2750)

It is perhaps not that surprising that MPs did not question how and why “twelve” was chosen as the cut-off number for a party to have “recognized” membership. The amendment was an administrative one; it had nothing to do with the conduct of business in the House of Commons. It wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to anyone at the time that a statutory definition of recognized party established for administrative purposes would eventually intermingle with procedural claims in the House itself.

While MPs in 1963 did not raise these questions, it is necessary for us to ask why “twelve” was chosen as the cut-off number for a party to have a recognized membership. The major motivation behind the leaders’ allowance was the 1963 minority parliament itself. This was exclusively the Government’s initiative; the House leaders of the other parties were informed of what the Government planned to do, but they weren’t consulted. The NDP and Social Credit parties had become well-established fixtures in the House over the course of the past thirty years and both parties had, over the long-term, averaged at least twelve members per Parliament. Their leaders simply had more responsibilities than did other MPs. More bluntly, the Government needed either the NDP or the SC Party to survive crucial votes. (John C. Courtney, “Recognition of Canadian Political Parties in Parliament and in Law,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, XI:I (March 1978), 39)

In other words, the requirement that a party have a minimum of twelve elected members for its leader to qualify for the new allowance was entirely arbitrary. In the 26th Parliament, the Social Credit Party had 24 MPs and the NDP had 17, and twelve represented, more or less, the long-term average parliamentary representation of both parties. This was purely an administrative initiative, one designed to assist the leaders of the smaller opposition parties in carrying out their duties in the House. It should not have had any impact or influence over the conduct of business in the House of Commons itself. The 12-member threshold in the 1963 statute and parliamentary procedure had nothing to do with one another, yet the term, indeed more specifically the number, would gradually assume an authenticity of its own.

While smaller parties had been a fact of political life in the House of Commons prior to 1963, there had been no “magic number” associated with party membership in the House because the recognition of parliamentary groups was not a concern. Parliamentary procedure and tradition recognized MPs as the central actors in the House. But while parties did not enjoy any official recognition in the House, they were at least acknowledged for more practical purposes: MPs elected under the banner of one party would be seated together, the party forming the government on the side to the right of the Speaker, the opposition parties seated to the Speaker’s left, and the seating arrangements based on each group’s size, for example. The party whips would also meet to decide on the number of speakers that would take part in a debate, apportioning the slots among the parties. However, procedures in the House did not recognize party banner. Debate was for MPs to participate in; MPs asked questions; these proceedings were not structured around party nor were parties mentioned in the Standing Orders. Once elected, each MP had the same rights and privileges and opportunities; these were not contingent on the size of his or her caucus, although the math could play against them, e.g. MPs from smaller parties would have fewer opportunities to speak or ask questions simply because they were outnumbered. Following the adoption of the leaders’ allowance, it did not take long for this situation to begin to change.

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