Journalist and author Dale Smith’s latest column for Loonie Politics, “Debate management is a lost art in Canada” (which is paywalled) provides readers with an excellent overview of the decline of parliamentary debate in the Canadian House of Commons. Smith identifies a number of factors that have contributed to the dual problems of 1) the poor quality of debate and 2) time management problems that force governments to rely on time allocation and closure (issues I’ve blogged about extensively, most recently here).
In particular, Smith targets the advent of speaking lists provided to the Speaker by Whips and party House leaders, and the reliance on prepared speeches that are then read. This combination creates a situation where there is no real debate – MPs are simply reading speeches at each other – and debate does not collapse naturally. The party House leaders (in particular, opposition party House leaders) try to get as many of their MPs to speak in each debate as they possibly can:
Instead, thanks to the advent of speaking lists and doing away with the rules forbidding prepared speeches, we’re no longer actually engaging in a process of debate, but rather we’re simply tasking MPs to stand up in the House of Commons to read speeches into the record. The poor wretches condemned to House duty get up, read their script, and then half the time pack up and leave immediately after as the next person gets up to read their own prepared speech.
As Smith points out (and as I have also explained on this blog), we end up spending far too much time on second reading debate, and that really isn’t what should happen. Second reading debate is about the general principle of the bill; MPs are not debating the actual details of the bill. No work is being done on the bill — that’s what Committee stage is for. The amount of time that is spent on second reading debate of a bill in the Canadian House of Commons is a complete waste of the House’s limited and valuable time.
While Smith is correct to target both speaking lists and the reliance on scripts as hugely problematic, there is another factor that has severely undermined the quality of debate in the Canadian House of Commons. The introduction of time limits on speeches in 1927 is what really started us down this path.
Prior to 1927, there were no limits on how long an MP who had been recognized by the Speaker in a debate could speak. Following a number of filibusters, during which some Members spoke for hours, even days on end, the “40-minute-rule” was introduced in 1927. It provided that no Member could speak for more than 40 minutes at a time during any debate, except the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, a Minister moving a Government Order or the Member speaking in response to and following the Minister, a Member moving a motion of no confidence in the Government or the Minister replying thereto. A rule limiting speeches in Committee of the Whole to 30 minutes was added in 1955. In 1982, the 40-minute limit was reduced to 20 minutes, except for the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition, who still have unlimited time.
The Annotated Standing Orders of the House of Commons (2nd ed) explains that the time limit on speeches was reduced to 20 minutes, “in an effort to introduce greater spontaneity and “cut and thrust” into the debate” (p. 152). In addition, a 10-minute period was made available following each speech other Members to put questions or make comments to the Member who had spoken. This is important – obviously, debate wasn’t spontaneous if Members were largely just reading from prepared notes for 40 minute blocks at a time. The need to add on a 10-minute ‘Questions and Comments’ period reveals another problem – there was no actual debate taking place – no give and take, back and forth, between the Members in the chamber. It was just one long speech followed by another long speech.
If you’ve ever watched any debate in the UK House of Commons – and I don’t mean PMQs here, I mean actual debate on a bill or other motion, you will have noticed that the Member who has the floor will frequently take interventions from other Members during the course of their remarks. This is known as “giving way”. We used to do this in Canada too, back when there were no time limits on speeches. For a very good example of this practice, I direct you to the Hansard of the second reading debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (aka the Brexit Bill), that took place on January 31, 2017. You will note that the minister responsible for the bill, the Secretary of State for Exiting Europe, the Rt. Hon. David Davis, opens the debate, and is almost immediately asked if he will give way by another MP, Philip Davies. The minister refuses at that point, but then does allow Mr. Davies to intervene a bit further on. This continues throughout the Secretary’s opening remarks – he takes interventions from other MPs, refuses others – in other words, there is an actual sense of debate, of give and take and back and forth. This continues with the next speaker in the debate, the Labour shadow critic. He too takes interventions throughout the course of his remarks.
When the 40-minute time limit on speeches was introduced in the Canadian House of Commons, a funny thing happened. MPs who had the floor started refusing to give way because they realized that they had only a limited amount of time to say what they wanted to say. Often, they would tell fellow MPs that they would take interventions near the end of their remarks, but then proceed to talk for the entire 40 minutes allotted to them. Gradually, over time, there was no more debate, only MPs giving speeches one after the other for 40 minutes at a time. The introduction of ‘Questions and Comments’ in 1982 was an attempt to re-introduce a sense of actual give-and-take in the chamber during debates, but as Dale Smith notes in his column, “half the time, it’s their own bench standing up to reinforce talking points.”
In the UK House of Commons, there are no set time limits on speeches in the Standing Orders. However, the Speaker will establish informal time limits for each debate. How does the Speaker know what those time limits will be? He (or she) does the maths. There is a certain amount of time allotted for the debate (in the UK, for second reading debate of a bill, this is usually one afternoon/evening, so 2-6 hours, depending on when the House gets around to Orders of the Day) and he or she also knows roughly how many MPs want to participate in the debate. UK MPs have to sign up on a debate sheet outside the Speaker’s Office to indicate that they want to participate in a given debate. If we go back to our Brexit bill debate Hansard, you will note at the very beginning of the debate, the Speaker says:
“No fewer than 99 Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye today, without regard to how many might seek to contribute tomorrow. There will have to be a tough time limit on Back Benchers, the severity of which will depend on the level of consideration shown by Front Benchers, so there is of course no pressure.”
After the opening remarks by the Secretary of State and the Opposition Shadow Critic, and the moving of a reasoned amendment, the Speaker clarifies what that time limit will be:
“I referenced earlier the very large number of colleagues wishing to contribute, which I am afraid necessitates the imposition on Back Benchers, with immediate effect, of a six-minute time limit.”
So here we have the contradiction: the Canadian House of Commons lets MPs speak for up to 20 minutes (reducing that to 10 minutes once debate has gone on for more than 5 hours), and this has led to MPs reading scripted remarks for 20 minutes, followed by a 10-minute period for other MPs to put forward questions or comments on what the MP said, but is usually used by other members of the MP’s own caucus to reinforce their talking points. In the UK, time limits on how long MPs may speak in a debate are determined by the Speaker at the outset of each debate based on how much time is allotted for the debate, how many MPs indicated they wished to participate in the debate, and how much debate time is used up by the opening speakers. The time limits are usually much stricter than the 20 minutes Canadian MPs enjoy, but there is actual debate. MPs who have the floor will give way to allow other MPs to intervene during the course of their remarks, and respond to those interventions before continuing with their own remarks. And best of all, UK MPs, for the most part, don’t read their remarks.
Which brings me to the other problem with the 20-minute time limits here in Canada: it encourages the reliance on prepared texts. If you have to speak for only 3-4 minutes, I’d like to think that pretty much anyone could speak without a prepared text for that amount of time. But if you’re going to talk for several minutes, unless you’re a really gifted orator, you will want notes. The longer the time you have to speak, say a full 20 minutes, the more detailed your notes will become – until it’s just easier to read a prepared text. Canadian MPs don’t have to use up the full 20-minutes – they could speak for only a minute or two if they wished – but they pretty much all do use up the full 20 minutes. This is compounded by the fact that in Canada, some MPs don’t necessarily want to participate in a specific debate, but are made to by their House leader, often on very short notice, and given a script to read.
And while it might seem counter-intuitive to say that imposing time limits on speeches contributes to our time management problem, this is exactly the case. Again, it’s the maths. If MPs were limited to a few minutes for making their remarks in a debate, as is typically the case in the UK, you could fit in contributions from 4-6 MPs in the time it takes one MP speaking for 20 minutes plus the 10-minute Questions and Comments. And since each caucus (in particular opposition caucuses) want as many of their MPs as possible to speak (even if they are all mostly repeating the same scripted talking points over and over), by necessity the Canadian House of Commons has to allow far more time for second reading debate than is typically allotted in the UK House of Commons. For example, I took a random roughly one-hour excerpt from the Brexit Bill debate, from 2:05 pm to 3:03 pm. In the Canadian House of Commons, you would have heard from two speakers (20 minutes each) and 2 10-minute questions and comments sections. During that one-hour of the Brexit Bill debate, there were 8 speakers (none of them reading their remarks), and 13 interventions (pp. 837-854, beginning with the remarks by Hilary Benn at 2:05 pm). Now which system is a more efficient use of debate time?