When a Party isn’t a Party, Part 2

(This is the second installment of a series on the history of ministerial statements and officially recognized party status. Please read Part 1 before proceeding.)

After the amendments to the Senate and House of Commons Act contained in Bill C-91 were adopted in July 1963, the House adjourned for the summer. During the summer, the Social Credit Party (SC) split into the Quebec-based Ralliement des Créditistes (RC) with 13 members led by Mr. Caouette, and the western-based Social Credit Party, under the “national” leadership of Mr. Thompson, with the remaining 11 members. Before the House resumed sitting in September, the leaders of each faction contacted the Speaker to explain what had transpired. The NDP also wrote to the Speaker and asked that the seating arrangements in the House be changed to reflect the fact that the NDP, with its 17 members, was now the third largest parliamentary group in the House and should be seated next to the Official Opposition.

The Speaker addressed the House on the first day back in September, explaining that the events which had taken place over the summer “have given rise to a number of questions”, including that of the recognition of a new party and leader; the seating arrangements in the chamber; the question of the allowance to “the leader of a party that has a recognized membership of 12 or more persons”, as well as logistical considerations such as the allocation of offices and personnel. The Speaker cited a definition of party from Edmund Burke, that a party: “is a body of men united for promoting the national interest on some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” He would leave it to the House to decide if the two new groups, the Social Credit rump and the Ralliement Créditistes constituted new parties based on Burke’s definition.

The Speaker further explained that among the duties of the Speaker was to see that the Standing Orders of the House were followed in the course of its procedure. As Speaker, he must be impartial and removed from politics. The House can regulate its own affairs and so the situation facing them now would be best resolved by the House itself, not the Speaker. He added:

I cannot conclude this statement without some reference to the significance of these events for the future of the definition and status of parties in this house. It is not my place to evaluate the significance of these matters for the future of the ever changing structure and character of political parties; yet it is my duty, I believe, to bring to the attention of the house the novel character of the situation now before it, and more particularly the payment of allowances and the effect on the organization of parliament and parties and of the work of this house that naturally must be reflected by the emergence from time to time of new groups that invite the house to accord them the status of parties. Profound constitutional questions arise; for example, can a group of members which did not exist as a party at the time of the election of a parliament be recognized as a party before it has submitted itself to the electorate? (Debates, 30 September 1963, pp. 3008-09)

The Speaker called on the Members to refer the matter to a committee for study and propose a solution, which the Speaker would then carry out.

The NDP raised a matter of privilege arguing that it was more than a question of seating; it also affected the order of speaking in debate and the right to move amendments in certain cases, and, following on the advice of the Speaker, moved a motion to refer the matter to the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections. The Leader of the Opposition, the Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker, also spoke to remind the House that he had warned, during the debate on the amendment to pay an allowance to leaders of parties other than the official opposition, that such a move might lead to a multiplicity and proliferation of parties. He also reminded the House that the recognition of parties other than the official opposition was contrary to the basic principle of British parliamentary government.

The Committee on Privileges and Elections studied the matter and tabled its Second Report in the House on 9 October 1963. The report consisted of four recommendations:

1. That the New Democratic Party occupy the seats next to the official Opposition on the left side of the Speaker.

2. That the members of the Social Credit Party occupy the seats next to the New Democratic Party on the left side of the Speaker.

3. That the members of the group under the leadership of Mr. Caouette occupy the seats on the left of the Social Credit Party.

4. That the question of the privileges to be enjoyed by the group under the leadership of Mr. Réal Caouette be referred to the Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons for study and report to the Speaker. (Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, Second Report, 9 October 1963, p. 50.)

In recommending that the smaller SC group be seated next to the NDP instead of the larger break-away RC group, the Committee opted to organize the seating arrangements based on the numerical superiority of members who had contested the election under a specific party label, even though in 1963, party labels did not appear next to the candidate’s name on the ballot paper. The break-away group was not recognized as a new parliamentary group in the House since its members had not contested an election under their new label and were to be considered independents. The fact that the break-away group was larger did not matter. By making this decision, the Committee reinforced two important points:

1) respecting the tradition of non-recognition of parties in Parliament, it is not up to the House to decide if the break-away group is a new party; that decision will be left to voters; and

2) the definition of “recognized party” based on a membership of 12 included in the provisions for determining the allowance to leaders of parties other than the official opposition did not factor into the Committee’s considerations since that was a statutory, not procedural, measure, hence the decision to refer the matter to the Parliamentary Counsel to determine if Mr. Caouette qualified for the stipend or not.

The Report generated a very substantive debate over a number of days both inside and outside of the House. And while the majority of those who spoke in the debate paid little heed to the Senate and House of Commons Act definition of a “recognized party” having twelve or more members, we can see that this concept was beginning to take hold.

There were a number of objections to the Committee’s recommendations raised during the course of the concurrence debate, which began on 17 October 1963. One issue of contention was the Committee’s recommendation to seat the smaller Social Credit caucus ahead of the larger Ralliement des Créditistes splinter group. By abandoning the principle of numerical superiority to determine where a caucus would sit, some MPs, led by the NDP’s Stanley Knowles, argued that the majority was denying a minority the right to be recognized, in other words, the majority in the House was determining which parties were official and which were not; which would enjoy certain rights and privileges, and which would not. Their right to certain privileges was being referred to someone for study:

I assert that it will be a sorry day if, by a majority of votes of this house, we say certain parties are official and that one party is not official and is not recognized. The Liberal party has never been voted on by the House of Commons, either as to its name of as it its status as a party. This has never been done for the Conservative party either. The Conservative party never had to submit its constitution to parliament and never had to prove that its leader was properly elected. We never had to do that in the days of the C.C.F., nor have we had to do so as New Democrats. We do not want a motion passed that parliament recognizes us. We do not need the recognition of a majority of the house. That could be given one day and taken away the next. We are a free party in a free country, in a country that emphasizes the principles of political democracy, and we will take a wrong step if we approve what is in the motion before the house at this time. (Debates, 17 October 1963, p. 3664.)

Others countered that the RC group could not be recognized as a party because they had not been elected under that banner. They would have to wait until the next election, to see if voters approved of their decision to split from the national Social Credit Party and form a separate group. This position was roundly rejected by Diefenbaker who countered that the method by which a party is formed was of no consequence to Parliament:

The assertion that a party cannot be recognized unless it has fought an election and fielded a certain number of candidates would create a condition of affairs wherein members would be bound into forced allegiance until such time as they were able to go before the electorate, and to accept the recommendations of the committee in this regard would be a travesty on parliament. (…) A political party is self-created, self-constituted, until such time as its members are removed by the electorate from the political scene. (Debates, p. 3673.)

The issue was the subject of much debate outside of the House of Commons as well. A number of newspapers covered the ongoing debate, and some of their commentary was read into the official record during the debate. It was these outside sources that focused more on the Senate and House of Commons Act definition of a “recognized” party having twelve or more members. For example, Mr. Caouette read the following extract from the 8 October 1963 edition of the Toronto Star:

The law defining political parties in the House of Commons was clarified by an amendment to the Senate and House of Commons Act which was passed last summer. (…) The Commons as a whole should give the creditistes what they are numerically entitled to—recognition as the third-ranking opposition party. (Debates, p. 3673.)

The 10 October 1963 edition of Montreal Matin argued:

Bill C-91 recognizes only one criterion, that is the number of members. It is the Liberal party which thought that one up concerning third parties in spite of a long tradition that, in parliament, opposition is indivisible. (p. 3682)

And from an editorial in the Toronto Telegram (9 October 1963):

Mr. Caouette has a good case for the recognition of his creditistes as a parliamentary party. Indeed, the Liberals and Conservatives appear to be violating the spirit if not the letter of a law passed only last July, which implies that a group with 12 members or more is entitled to party status in parliament. (Debates, 18 October 1963, p. 3725.)

But some MPs also raised the matter of Bill c-91. Mr. Perron argued that it made no sense to cling to the tradition of a two-party system since third parties were well established on the Canadian political scene. He added that “it is probably with such a vision of the future that on the 28th of June last, Bill No. C-91 was introduced, tending to the recognition as a group in this house of a party of 12 members in the House of Commons under the direction of a leader recognized by them.” Further on he states, “If the continuity in the house is to be ensured according to standards of democracy, I believe that it is time for us to recognize the rights and privileges of other parties in the house, as defined by Bill C-91.”(Debates, 17 October, 1963, p. 3690, 3691.)

The problem here is that the leaders’ allowance amendment does not, in fact, define a political party; it only defines the person who will qualify for the allowance. The amendment extended paying an allowance “to each leader of a party in the House of Commons, other than the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, that has a recognized membership of twelve or more persons in the House of Commons”. It in no way implied that a party with fewer than twelve members would not be, or could not be recognized by the House of Commons as a parliamentary group, only that its leader would not qualify for the allowance. Indeed, some Members did raise the fact that the references to Bill C-91 simply confused the issue at hand, which was whether the majority in the House could or should be allowed to determine which parliamentary groups should be recognized, and which should not. The reference in the amendment to “a recognized membership of 12 or more persons” was proving difficult to interpret. What did “recognized” mean? Did it mean recognition by the House? By the electorate? By the MPs who supported the group leader?

Another problem is the issue of recognizing a parliamentary group in the House of Commons. The Committee’s fourth recommendation, that the question of the privileges to be enjoyed by the group under the leadership of Mr. Réal Caouette be referred to the Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons is odd. Parties do not enjoy rights and privileges, only Members do. Ultimately, it shouldn’t have mattered at all if some MPs left one party to form a new one, or left one party to join another. This should not have had any impact on any MP’s right to participate fully in House proceedings, especially when one remembers that party affiliation was not listed next to candidates’ names on ballot papers at that time. An MP’s right to participate in House proceedings should be based on one thing only: that they were elected to that place. That was, and still is, the case in the UK House of Commons.

However, the seeds were sown. The idea that a party had to have at least 12 members in order to be recognized — and thus able to participate fully in certain proceedings in the House of Commons — had taken root.


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