When a Party isn’t a Party, Part 3

(This is the third installment of a series on the history of ministerial statements and officially recognized party status. Please read Part 1 and Part 2 before proceeding.)

As discussed in Part 1, the Standing Order governing Statements by Ministers was adopted in 1964 on a provisional basis. The new rule, which allowed only for factual pronouncements of government policy, also required that these not provoke debate. It further codified the existing practice of responses by the opposition. The new rule read as follows:

On motions, as listed in section (2) of this standing order, a minister of the crown may make an announcement or a statement of government policy. Any such announcement or statement should be limited to facts which it is deemed necessary to make known to the House and should not be designed to provoke debate at this stage. A spokesman for each of the parties in opposition to the government may comment briefly, subject to the same limitation.

During the debate to concur in the Third Report of the Special Committee on Procedure and Organization which proposed the new rule, the Chair of the Committee drew the attention of the House to the provision that one spokesman for each opposition parliamentary group be permitted to comment briefly on a ministerial statement, in order to avoid past occurrences which turned into “a five man debate in which nobody else can take part, which leaves us all with the feeling that we have taken too much time and that we have not actually dealt with any item of the business before the house.” (Debates, 7 May 1964, p. 3007.) Another member of the Special Committee pointed out that the provisional standing order the committee was proposing departed somewhat from the British practice, where “these statements on motions are followed not only by comments, but questions are allowed. In this way the issue is sharpened and clarified so that it becomes quite apparent what is involved in the statement.” This tradition, Mr. Baldwin explained, could not be followed in the Canadian House of Commons because “of the situation in this house, the number of parties, and the type of statements which have been made”. (Ibid., p. 3008.)

The references to the procedure on ministerial statements in the UK is interesting. It is true that, at the time, the UK House of Commons was overwhelmingly dominated by two parties, Labour and the Conservatives. There was a third party, the Liberals, but in every election since 1945, their seat total never exceeded 12 (out of 630 total seats). However, Mr. Baldwin’s assessment of the situation in the “mother of all parliaments” misunderstood how the procedure functioned at Westminster; in Britain, while the shadow critic was the only one to respond to the minister’s statement with a statement of their own, all Members were able to question a minister following a statement. These questions were not allocated by party, nor was it necessary for a balance between parties to be achieved. The Speaker of the UK House of Commons would try to alternate between one side of the House and the other, but at times, there would be more interest from one side than the other. The number and caucus size of parties represented in the House of Commons was not at all a factor; each MP had a right to question the minister if he or she chose to do so.

The Special Committee’s report was concurred in and the new provisional standing order on statements by ministers came into effect that very day.

The 8 November 1965 general election returned another hung parliament. The Liberal Party again formed a minority government with 131 MPs, the Progressive Conservatives (PC) formed the Official Opposition and held 97 seats, followed by the NDP with 21, the Social Credit Party (SC) with five seats, and the Ralliement des Créditistes (RC) with nine. Two independents were also elected. The new Parliament was barely into its third week when a ministerial statement caused the matter of recognized parties to come to the fore.

On 31 January 1966, the Minister of Justice delivered a statement to the House. On this particular occasion, the Minister’s statement was followed by responses from the Leader of the Opposition as well as the leaders of the three other parliamentary groups in opposition: Mr. Douglas for the NDP, Mr. Caouette of the RC and Mr. Thompson for the SC Party. A PC backbencher, Robert Coates, then rose on a point of order asking for the right to respond based on the fact that Mr. Thompson had been permitted to comment on the Minister’s statement. He then asked the Speaker “Are you prepared to grant to all the members of the House, on an equal basis, the right to comment on statements made by ministers on motions?” (Debates, 31 January 1966, p. 429.)

The Speaker replied that that wording of the Standing Order would seem to prevent Mr. Coates’ from commenting since it allowed only one spokesperson from each party. Another MP, Harold Winch (NDP), also asked for the right to respond to which the Speaker responded that “the right as it now exists” precluded both MPs from responding, but if the matter were to be raised again at a future date, he would be pleased to look into the matter further. (Debates, p. 430.)

That future date arrived only weeks later. On February 18, 1966, the Prime Minister delivered a ministerial statement to the House which was followed by a brief comment by a spokesperson from each of the three parliamentary groups in opposition. Robert Coates again raised a point of order objecting to the fact that the leaders of both the Social Credit and Ralliement des Créditistes had been permitted to reply, referring to them as “members who purport to be leaders of parties but which have no party basis in the house”. (Debates, 18 February 1966, p. 1224.) Coates argued that allowing Mssrs Thompson and Caouette to speak delayed the business of the house and that they should not be allowed to reply. The Speaker invited other Members to comment on the point raised regarding how to interpret Standing Order 15, which led to a lively debate.

Notably, only one Member, another PC, argued in support of Mr. Coates. Mr Churchill’s position was that the decision to pay an allowance to leaders of opposition parties which had twelve or more members set a precedent for the Speaker with regards to who should be allowed to speak on motions: “This precedent has determined that a party, in so far as we recognize parties in this house, must be on the basis of a minimum of twelve members.” (p. 1227.) This position was rejected by all other Members who spoke to the matter. Mr. Knowles (NDP) argued that the House had already recognized that there were four “groups or parties” in opposition to the government, and that Standing Order 15 clearly stated that one spokesman from each party in opposition had the right to respond to ministerial statements. He continued:

I submit, Mr. Speaker, that there is no such thing as an overall-all definition of parties so far as the House of Commons is concerned. In the first place the names of the parties are not allowed on the ballot papers. We come here as individual members and our groupings are the result of our own arrangements. The only case where the word “party” appears, so far as the members of the House of Commons are concerned, is in the Senate and House of Commons Act where provision is made for an extra allowance to the leader of a party other than the government or the official opposition when that party has 12 or more members. But that, Mr. Speaker, and I assert it as strongly as I can, does not define a party. This is merely a definition for the purpose of that one piece of legislation, namely the Senate and House of Commons Act.

I submit that there is no over-all definition of parties in this house, and that we have accepted that fact that we are here as five groups. Your Honour has allotted areas in this house for the seating of each of the five groups that are here. I suggest that to attempt to alter this arrangement by objecting to spokesmen for the various parties having a chance to speak on motions is certainly defying the spirit of the last parliament, defying the spirit of parliament itself and defying the wishes of the Canadian people who, of their own free will, sent members of five parties to this House of Commons. (p. 1225.)

Other MPs echoed this position. Mr. Olsen (SC) reminded the House of the long-standing practice and tradition in the House of recognizing spokesmen from parties who had fewer than twelve members. Mr. Reid (Liberal-Labour) warned of the risk of minority groups in the House being “abolished by a rather unscrupulous attempt by the members across the way to cut off valid sections of the Canadian population from the opportunity of expressing their opinion in this house.” (Ibid., p. 1226.) Reid’s view was echoed by Mr. Grégoire (RC), who added that the official opposition did not speak in the name of all of the opposition parties. One of the Independent MPs noted that despite the “good will and good faith” of the Speaker and his assistants, “efforts are being made to restrain the number of members from the third parties, and we are against that.” He added that the two Independents represented “more than a hundred thousand voters”, adding

The Speaker’s role is to protect the minorities in this house. We have the right to speak, and not only after the party whips have decided to let six Liberals, six Conservatives and six members of the New Democratic party have the floor. We have been elected to the house by the people. We represent not only a riding, a province, a party, but we have been elected members of parliament for Canada and represent the whole country. We are all equal when it comes to having the right to speak.

That is why I ask you, on behalf of the hon. Member for Three Rivers and the others, to reconsider this attitude and not allow the party whips to decide who is going to speak. (Ibid., p. 1226.)

Luckily, the Speaker rejected the argument put forward by Mr. Coates. In his ruling, delivered 18 February 1966, the Speaker concluded that, in this regard, the House should be guided by practice, which had long allowed each party (although not independent Members) an opportunity to comment on ministerial statements, regardless of its membership in the House. Speaker Baudouin had ruled in 1954 that each party would be allowed one comment on any ministerial statement, meaning that a spokesperson from each party, not necessarily the party leader, would be allowed to respond. While on the surface, there might be some merit to interpreting Standing Order 15 in the light of the 1963 amendment to the Senate and House of Commons Act, the Speaker reminded the House of a principle of parliamentary procedure from Beauchesne’s fourth edition:

“In the interpretation of the rules, or standing orders, the house is generally guided not so much by the literal construction of the orders themselves as by the consideration of what has been the practice of the house with respect to them”:

We must take into consideration that after the 1963 amendment to the Senate and House of Commons Act was enacted, standing order 15(2a) was adopted by the house, and that in the same year such standing order was adopted the house accepted that the hon. Member for Red Deer be permitted to make comments on ministerial statements, although at that time he had in his party fewer members than the number provide in the amendment to the Senate and House of Commons Act.

Following such precedents, I do not see how I could come to the conclusion that standing order 15(2a) is to be interpreted in the light of the amendment to the above mentioned act. (p. 1435.)

What this incident demonstrates is that the adoption of a definition of “officially recognized party” for the purposes of providing financial support to leaders of opposition parties other than the Official Opposition had begun to infiltrate into the the procedural side of business in the House. The long-standing parliamentary tradition of not formally recognizing the party system was being challenged. It wasn’t enough that some Members were starting to argue that access to certain proceedings should be based on parties rather than Members, but that only some parties would be able to participate in certain proceedings. If the parliamentary party did not have twelve MPs in the House of Commons, its Members should, at worst, be prohibited from participating in certain proceedings, or at best, be granted restricted participation, or have their ability to participate depend on the goodwill of the House to allow them a chance to speak.

As Courtney notes, the new standing order on ministerial statements and the Speaker’s ruling in 1965 were important in two respects: 1) the long-standing tradition of granting speaking privileges to a spokesperson from each parliamentary group in the House had been codified, and was an accepted norm in the operation of the House and 2) the Speaker’s interpretation of the new Standing Order, which was accepted in the House and the matter not raised again, distinguished the procedural rule from the statutory definition of a political party. (John C. Courtney, “Recognition of Canadian Political Parties in Parliament and in Law,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, XI:I (March 1978), 40.) 

That remained the practice until the late 1980s. From that point forward, it became necessary for smaller parliamentary groups in the House — those with fewer than 12 members — to ask for unanimous consent of the House in order to be allowed to respond to a ministerial statement. Why did practice change then? It is probably in no small part due the rather seismic changes that affected a number of political parties. In 1987, for example, the Reform Party was launched, and contested the 1988 general election. It failed to win any seats, but in 1989, managed to win a by-election, and thus disturbed the three-party (Liberal, Conservative and NDP) status quo which had dominated since the 1980 general election. In 1990, following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, seven Conservative and two Liberal MPs from Quebec left their respective parties and formed an informal coalition that became the Bloc québécois. That same year, the fledgling party elected its first MP in a by-election. Since neither the Reform Party nor the BQ had any history in the House of Commons (unlike the Social Credit Party in 1965, which had been a presence in the House of Commons since 1935), there was probably very little enthusiasm among the older, established parties to grant the new parliamentary groups any sort of recognition in the House.  The 1993 general election saw the Conservative Party reduced to only 2 seats and the NDP reduced to nine. Also, by the 1990s, more and more of the business of the House was being organized around parties rather than Members, and the Standing Orders now made specific references to “officially recognized parties”. While the 1955 Standing Orders of the Canadian House of Commons made no mention of parties, the current Standing Orders refer directly or indirectly to “party” or “parties” a total of 71 times. Parties — the officially recognized ones — had largely replaced Members as the central agents in the House.

And that, dear readers, explains in large part why Elizabeth May was not allowed to speak to the Prime Minister’s statement on Canada’s mission in Iraq.


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