Standing Orders and Oral Questions: the UK House of Commons

In part three of our comparison of Standing Orders governing Question Period, we now turn our attention to the mother of all parliaments, Westminster.

While Australia and New Zealand both had very clear rules in place governing their version of Question Period, rules which outline the content of both questions and answers, there are actually very few standing orders in place governing Questions in the UK House of Commons. I think this is an important point. There has been a lot of discussion recently in Canadian political circles about the need for tougher, clearer rules as a means of improving the quality of the Canadian Question Period. Australia has fairly clear rules governing both answers and questions, yet Question Time in Australia can be every bit as loud, raucous and disrespectful as any Canadian Question Period. The UK House of Commons meanwhile has very few actual rules, relying more on accepted practice and conventions, and for the most part, Oral Answers to Questions are very calm, quiet, respectful proceedings. The one exception, of course, is Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Consequently, I think it is very clear that having quite detailed, specific rules in place will not guarantee a better oral questions session; ultimately, it comes down to how Members choose to act during these proceedings, rules or no rules.

The standing orders specifically dealing with Questions are fairly straightforward. What follows will be a discussion of the standing orders which deal with Oral Questions to ministers ONLY. I will not discuss the rules dealing with Urgent Questions or Written Questions.

SO 21(1) outlines when Questions will take place (Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) after private business and motions for unapposed returns have been dealt with. In the UK, as was the case in New Zealand, Members must table their questions in writing with the Table Office “in a form determined by the Speaker”, we learn in SO 22(1). The UK also uses a rota system for questions to ministers, meaning that the entire cabinet is not present every day for questions. SO 22(5) explains that Members who wish to question a particular minister must submit their questions by a certain deadline as specified by the Speaker, and that only those questions which have been chosen in the “shuffle” will be printed on the Order paper:

(5) Notice of a question for oral answer may be given only for answer on the next day on which the Member to whom it is addressed is due to give oral answers; and in respect of each such day the Speaker shall specify the latest date and time at which notice may be given and how many questions are to be printed for each Member answering; and only that number of notices of questions (selected at random from those received in a manner to be prescribed by the Speaker) shall be treated as valid notices received on the day concerned:Provided that the latest date and time specified by the Speaker shall be such as to enable the notices selected to be printed and circulated
(a) in the case of questions to the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the Advocate General at least four days (excluding Friday, Saturday and Sunday) before the question is to be answered, or
(b) in the case of questions to other Ministers, at least two days (excluding Friday, Saturday and Sunday) before the question is to be answered.

The other standing orders deal with written questions and urgent questions.

The Standing Orders also include a rule on relevancy. Standing Order 42 states:

The Speaker, or the chair, after having called the attention of the House, or of the committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or tedious repetition either of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other Members in debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech.

According to Erskine May (24th ed.), the procedural manual of the UK Parliament, there isn’t the stipulation that the rule of relevance in debate does not apply to Questions. A Member’s speech “must be directed to the question under discussion or to the motion or amendment intended to be moved, or to a point of order (May, p. 438).” The Speaker has full authority to intervene when a Member strays from the matter under discussion (p. 452). Indeed, the Speaker has cut off Ministers if their answer was not addressing the main point of the question asked of them. You can see examples of Speaker Bercow doing that to the Prime Minister here and here during PMQs, for example. I will add that I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Speaker cut off a Minister during the other daily Answers to Oral Questions. I’m sure it has probably happened, but the point is that if we leave PMQs out of the equation, the other oral question sessions are conducted in such a way that the Speaker very rarely has to intervene. If and when he does, it is usually to cut off a Minister whose answer has gone on a bit too long. More often than not, the Speaker will simply ask the Minister to try to be a bit more succinct. This is why I think that the regular refrain here in Canada for more and better rules rather misses the point. Yes, the Canadian House of Commons Speaker could be more interventionist to enforce the rules and agreed-to conventions that do exist; but adding more rules won’t necessarily address any of the current problems if Members, both MPs and ministers, aren’t willing to make them work.

While there aren’t many rules governing Questions spelled out in the Standing Orders, there are extensive conventions in place that Members must respect. According to Erskine May, the purpose of a question is “to obtain information or press for action; it should not be framed primarily so as to convey information, or so as to suggest its own answer or convey a particular point of view, and it should not be in effect a short speech.” (p. 358) Questions to ministers must relate to matters for which the minister is officially responsible. A number of decisions by Speakers have defined the interpretation of “ministerial responsibility”. Any of the following will be ruled out of order:

  • questions on statements in the press or comments made by individuals or unofficial bodies;
  • questions on matters under the control of local or other statutory authorities or of bodies or persons not responsible to the Government;
  • questions on evidence of witnesses or other matters before a Royal Commission or parliamentary committee or matters within the jurisdiction of a parliamentary committee;
  • questions on the actions of a minister for which he or she is not responsible to Parliament;
  • questions seeking an expression of opinion on a question of law such as the interpretation of a statute, or of an international document, or a minister’s own powers, etc.
  • questions on matters that are more the responsibility of another minister, or ask a minister to influence the actions of another;
  • questions suggesting amendments to bills before the House or in committee;
  • questions which relate to opposition party policies rather than the Government’s policies;
  • questions on matters which have been devolved to the national assemblies of Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland.

Erskine May also has a few words to say about answers to oral questions. They should be confined to the points contained in the question. Because the questions are tabled, proposed answers should not be revealed in advance. Ministers may refuse an answer on security grounds. (pp.  366-7).

The Speaker has a great deal of control over the entire questions process. For example, he or she is the final authority as to the admissibility of questions (p. 356). The Speaker can refuse  any question deemed irregular, even if it stands on the Order paper. The Clerks at the Table have full power to sub-edit questions. The Speaker will curb any Member whose question is too long. If a Member asks a question that was “of so general a character as to provide a wide area for supplementaries”, the Speaker will refuse to call Members to ask supplementaries. The Speaker will normally call no more than one Official Opposition front bencher during topical questions because of the expressed view that questions are intended for the benefit of backbenchers. (pp. 366-7).

As I’ve previously stated in other posts, it is difficult to explain why things work so much better in the UK. The political culture is quite different, with British MPs appearing to have a better understanding of, and respect for, parliamentary procedure. I get the impression that they take parliament more seriously. Maybe they have a better understanding of procedure – I don’t know. I can’t prove that this is actually the case, however; it’s just how things appear to be when you watch their proceedings as much as I tend to do. It is also very difficult to compare Canada’s Question Period with Oral Answers to Questions because the procedure in the UK is so very different. I have blogged rather extensively about these differences, but it doesn’t hurt to highlight again some of the things that I think make the British version better.

First, as mentioned above, the UK House of Commons uses a rota for ministerial departments. This means that on most days, only one ministry is being questioned. The larger departments get the full hour to themselves. Smaller departments will share the allotted hour, but not at the same time. For example, most Canadians will be quite familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly half-hour during which the UK Prime Minister takes questions. This happens every Wednesday from noon to 12:30. What you might not know is that PMQs is the second half-hour of Wednesday’s one-hour questions slot, which runs from 11:30 to 12:30. PMQs is always preceded by questions to one of four smaller ministries: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or International Development. Other departments will get 40 minutes and then a smaller agency will get the final 20 minutes of questions.

The second thing to understand is that the UK government maintains a clear distinction between the Ministry and Cabinet. Not all ministers are members of the Cabinet. Each department is headed by a Secretary of State, e.g. the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Education, etc. They are part of Cabinet. Each Secretary of State will have a number of Ministers of State, who are not part of cabinet, assigned to their department. The number will vary depending on the size of the department, from one to perhaps as many as 7-8. These ministers will usually be responsible for one specific part of the department’s mandate. For example, the Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP is Secretary of State for Education, and she has five ministers of State and one Parliamentary Under Secretary of State assigned to the Department. When it is the Department of Education’s time to face questions, the only Ministers present will be the Secretary of State, her five Ministers of State and the Under Secretary. No other cabinet minister will be present. In contrast, the Northern Ireland Office has the Secretary of State and one Minister of State, so they will be the only two fielding questions. Because only one department is up for questions at one time, Ministers cannot defer questions to some other minister as occurs here in Canada. There is one exception to my statement that no other cabinet ministers being present except the minister facing questions, and that is for PMQs. During PMQs, most of the cabinet will surround the Prime Minister on the front bench; however, the PM will never defer a question to another minister. If the Prime Minister is not available on a given Wednesday, he or she will delegate PMQs to another senior minister who will answer on his or her behalf. Prime Minister Cameron usually delegates this responsibility to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, but recently, both Cameron and Clegg were in Scotland on the Wednesday and so House Leader William Hague stood in. If another cabinet minister is away for their department’s oral questions, the other ministers assigned to that department will field all of the questions.

Which MPs get to ask questions is determined by lottery — the shuffle as it is known. All of the questions tabled by MPs for a particular department are shuffled and drawn by lottery. This means that the party whips cannot control which of their MPs will ask questions. They can certainly provide their MPs with questions that they would like to see asked, but they cannot control the outcome of the lottery. Nor can the whips stop any of their MPs from asking questions that are of interest to them. The right to ask a topical question is also determined by lottery. Topical questions differ in that the actual text of the question is not tabled. Or rather, all MPs who want to ask a topical question submit the same question: Will the Minister make a statement on his or her departmental responsibilities. This is an open question, meaning that MPs are then free to ask supplementary questions on any topic that touches on the minister’s departmental responsibilities. Topical questions are asked during the last 15-20 minutes of a question session, but only of the larger ministries. The four smaller ones which share their time slot with PMQs don’t have topical questions, while the first question asked of the PM during PMQs is a topical question, and all other questions are then in essence, supplementaries.

The Speaker has full control over which MPs to call on to ask questions. The order of the main questions drawn in the shuffle is predetermined, but the Speaker controls which MPs he or she will call on to ask supplementaries. The only pre-established “list”, if we can call it that, is that the Speaker will alternate between sides. If the main question was asked by an opposition MP, the Speaker will then turn to the government side for a supplementary, then back to the opposition side, then back to the government side, etc. Sometimes, there may be only members on the government side who stand to ask supplementaries on a given topic, sometimes mostly opposition members. In the end, however, most question sessions result in a fairly even division of questions between both sides of the House. This is so not the case here in Canada.

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Standing Orders and Oral Questions: New Zealand

In the second part of our review of Standing Orders governing Question Period in other jurisdictions, we will now look at New Zealand.

The New Zealand Parliament’s Standing Orders contain a rule addressing the matter of relevancy (SO 111):

(1) All debate must be relevant to the question before the House.
(2) After having called the attention of the House to the conduct of a member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition either of the member’s own arguments or of the arguments used by other members in debate, the Speaker may terminate that member’s speech.

Unlike here in Canada and in Australia, however, there is no disclaimer in the New Zealand procedural manual, Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (more commonly referred to simply as “McGee” among procedural geeks) that this rule does not apply to oral questions, as we will discuss in more detail further below.

Oral questions in the New Zealand parliament share one important characteristic with oral questions in the UK House of Commons: Members must give notice in writing of a question for oral answer (SO 381), meaning the questions are tabled in advance:

(1) Notices of oral questions are lodged by members in writing to the Clerk. A notice of an oral question must be—

(a) signed by the member or by another member on the member’s behalf, and
(b) delivered to the Clerk between 10 am and 10.30 am on the day the question is to be asked.

(2) Twelve oral questions to Ministers may be accepted each day. Questions will be allocated on a basis that is proportional to party membership in the House. The Business Committee decides the weekly allocation and rotation of questions.
(3) Oral questions that have been accepted are circulated.

Once lodged with the Clerk, all questions are reviewed to ensure they comply with the Standing Orders. If a question is found to be out of order, it is returned to the Member who tabled it, or it may be accepted “subject to amendment or authentication of a statement or quotation contained in it.” (McGee, p. 548) As well as tabling questions to be asked of Ministers, questions may be put to a Member (not being a Minister or the Speaker) relating to any bill, motion or public matter connected with the business of the House, of which the member has charge. Questions can also be put to the Speaker, but only written questions. Questions put to other Members (not Ministers) are answered after the questions put to Ministers (SO 379).

As per SO 378, questions to Ministers must relate to public affairs with which the Minister is officially connected, or proceedings in the House or any matter of administration for which the Minister is responsible. The question cannot touch on the actions of a Minister in a personal or party capacity, nor can a Minister be questioned about a statement he or she has made if that statement was not related to some aspect of the Minister’s portfolio. (McGee, p. 556) 

Standing order 300 deals with the content of questions:

(1) Questions must be concise and not contain—

(a) statements of facts and names of persons unless they are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible and can be authenticated, or
(b) arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions, or expressions of opinion, or
(c) discreditable references to the House or any member of Parliament or any offensive or unparliamentary expression.

(2) Questions must not seek a legal opinion.
(3) A written question must not repeat the substance of a question already lodged in the same calendar year.
(4) Questions must not refer to proceedings in committee at meetings closed to the public until those proceedings are reported to the House or (subject to Standing Order 115) to a matter awaiting or under adjudication in, or suppressed by an order of, any New Zealand court.
(5) Where the notice of a question does not comply with the provisions of the Standing Orders, it is not accepted. If, by inadvertence, such a notice is accepted it may be subsequently disallowed by the Speaker unless it is amended or revised so as to comply with the Standing Orders.

Similarly, rule 386 deals with the content of replies:

(1) An answer that seeks to address the question asked must be given if it can be given consistently with the public interest.
(2) The reply to any question must be concise and confined to the subject-matter of the question asked, and not contain—

(a) statements of facts and the names of any persons unless they are strictly necessary to answer the question, or
(b) arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, or ironical expressions, or
(c) discreditable references to the House or any member of Parliament or any offensive or unparliamentary expression.

(3) Replies shall not refer to proceedings in committee at meetings closed to the public that have not yet been reported to the House or (subject to Standing Order 115) to a matter awaiting or under adjudication in,or suppressed by an order of, any New Zealand court.

McGee provides some interesting commentary regarding the answering of questions (pp. 563-66). Ministers “cannot be forced to answer a question”, but an answer ought to be given if it can be given consistent with the public interest. “It may be refused if, in the Minister’s opinion, the public interest would be imperilled by giving the information sought.” An inadequate or unsatisfactory answer is not a refusal to reply. If a Minister has decided that he or she will not answer a certain question, Speakers have stated that the Minister should indicate this via a point of order prior to the question being called. Strictly speaking, however, a Minister can simply refuse to answer when called upon by the Speaker. A Minister who refuses to answer a question is not obliged to give reasons why, but it is preferable if they do so:

A Minister’s response to a question that he or she does not intend to answer it is in fact a reply, unsatisfactory as it may be to members. Sometimes Ministers may be reluctant to give an informative response on a matter that is under negotiation or consideration by another body. A response in these terms is not, strictly speaking, a refusal to reply. Whether to respond in this way is a matter for ministerial judgment.

When a Minister does reply (and for the most part, they do), they are expected to address the content of the question:

The Minister’s reply must address the question asked. This involves a question of relevancy. The reply must be a direct response to the question; it cannot be a statement on an unrelated matter which it suits the Minister to introduce. (…)

While Ministers are required to “address” the question asked in their replies, whether the reply provided actually “answers” the question asked is a subjective judgment. It is no part of the Speaker’s role to make such a judgment. The test of adequacy is whether the answer addresses the question by being relevant to it. Essentially, the House itself and public opinion (assisted by the news media and reports of parliamentary proceedings) are the judges of the adequacy of a reply by making a political judgment on the matter. This is the position whether the criticism of a reply is directed to its accuracy in terms of facts asserted or its comprehensiveness in answering the question asked. (The Speaker does have a role in ensuring that it remains relevant to the subject matter of the question.)

Thus the Speaker cannot be appealed to on the ground that the reply is inaccurate. A deliberate attempt to mislead the House would be a contempt and if a Minister discovers that incorrect information has been given to the House the Minister is expected to correct the record as soon as possible. But subject to these circumstances, accuracy or otherwise is a matter that may be disputed and the Speaker is not the judge of it. It is a matter for political criticism of the Minister concerned if members believe that a Minister has answered incorrectly.

Again we see the argument that it is not up to the Speaker to judge the content of a reply, but in New Zealand, the Speaker is expected to ensure that the answer at least appears to be relevant to the question asked.

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Question or Answer Period?

Recently in the Canadian House of Commons, the Leader of the Official Opposition vented his frustration over the repeated non-answers to questions he was receiving from the Government side during Question Period on the Speaker. After first pleading for the Speaker to enforce the House’s rules on relevancy and repetition, he then openly questioned the Speaker’s impartiality. This caused the Speaker to deny the Leader of the Opposition his final two questions in the rotation.

The next day, before Question Period began, the Speaker delivered a statement to the House in which he explained that the rules on relevancy and repetition did not apply to Question Period, and that the numerous rulings in the past had clearly established that it was not up to the Speaker to decide if the content of an answer satisfied the question asked. Indeed, the Speaker has no say over the content of answers unless they contain unparliamentary language or a clear attack on another Member. He reminded the House that he had previously suggested to them that if they were not happy with the rules governing Question Period, the House was free to modify them and he invited them to do just that in order to provide the Chair with clearer, stronger rules to enforce. He also repeated the oft-heard “It is called question period, not answer period,” as if that alone justified everything.

But would it make any difference if it was called “answer period”?

Interestingly enough, in the UK House of Commons, the daily oral question time is actually called “Oral Answers to Questions”. Regular readers of this blog know that I am very fond of how the UK does oral answers to questions. Overall, I think UK MPs do receive better quality answers to the questions they ask. Is this attributable to the fact that they call their question time “Oral answers to Questions”? If we go by Canadian belief, then yes, that would be the reason. Obviously, if we changed the name of Question Period to Answer Period, everything that is currently wrong would become right overnight, yes? Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated.

There are a myriad of procedural and cultural differences between oral questions in the UK and oral questions in Canada that explain why I personally think the UK system is better. One of the problems in Canada has to do with the questions themselves. The subject matter of the question must fall within the collective responsibility of the Government or the individual responsibility of one of its Ministers. This is the only basis upon which Ministers can be expected to answer questions. Too often, in the Canadian House of Commons, opposition MPs will ask questions that have nothing to do with government business. Examples include questions about the internal administration of the Senate or questions about the internal workings of the political party currently forming the government. Neither of these are government business, and the Speaker, even with our apparently very lax rules surrounding Question Period, would be well within his or her right to disallow such questions. Similarly questions from MPs from the same party currently forming the government frequently ask questions which are nothing more than attacks on the opposition’s policies or leader. These too should be disallowed by the Speaker.

In the UK, MPs have to table their questions with the Table Clerks for review before they can be included in the lottery. Inappropriate questions will be disallowed. Of course, this procedure applies only to the main questions which will then appear on the Order paper – MPs are free to ask any supplementary question once the Minister has answered the main question. While there are many rules governing tabled questions, there are few rules for oral supplementaries. However, the Speaker will call the MP to order if the supplementary is wide of the original question, if they refer to matters sub judice, or if they clearly have nothing to do with the minister’s responsibilities.

This is one of the biggest problems for Speakers, both in the UK (regarding supplementaries only) and Canada. The reality is that it is often difficult to tell if a question will be out of order until the MP asking it is a fair way into asking it. That said, it should be relatively easy to quickly identify questions from the government side which invite Ministers to comment on Opposition policies.

Because the main questions asked to Ministers in the UK are tabled a minimum of three days in advance, this gives ministers time to prepare actual answers. And for the most part, MPs do receive actual answers to their questions. MPs in Canada can give notice to Ministers of specific questions they intend to ask; I don’t know if any of them do actually do this, and I don’t know if it would result in an actual, factual answer if they did. But even when questions are pre-submitted, as is the case in the UK, the reality is that the Speaker is, most of the time, not in a position to judge if the answer provided adequately addressed the question asked. He or she is not privy to the Minister’s briefing notes; he or she does not sit in on cabinet briefings, etc. Granted, in some cases (particularly here in Canada), it will be blatantly obvious that the Minister is simply not answering the question asked; but in most cases, the Speaker is not in a position to make that assessment, and that is why repeated rulings here in Canada have maintained that is is not the Speaker’s role to judge the content of answers.

The UK House of Commons also favours a strong Speaker. I have not done a side-by-side comparison of the Standing Orders to ascertain if the UK House of Commons’ rules actually do give more power to the Speaker, but there seems to be a greater respect for, and expectation that the Speaker will ensure that the rules of the House and proceedings in the House are respected. The UK House of Commons Speaker can and will cut short over-long supplementary questions and ministerial answers. He or she has full control over how many supplementaries are asked. In Canada, this is all pre-decided by an established quota and rota between the parties – the Speaker can’t decide to give more questions to one side or the other, or extra supplementaries. In the UK, while 2-3 supplementaries is the norm, if the subject of a question is one on which the government is vulnerable, the Speaker is free to decide to allow several more supplementary questions, including often hostile ones from the government’s own side – which would never happen in Canada.

Another issue in Canada is the time limits. Questions and answers in Canada are limited to 35 seconds each. That reality alone will severely curtail how detailed an answer a minister can give, assuming he or she wanted to provide a detailed answer in the first place. In the UK, there are no fixed time limits. In 2002, the Procedure Committee conducted a review of parliamentary questions, including the tendency for both supplementary questions and ministers’ replies to be on the long side. The Committee fully supported the Speaker’s attempts to restrain MPs and ministers from abusing the time of the House, and in encouraging “more incisive, tightly focused exchanges.” The reality is that shorter questions are more focused. They have to be. Questions asked in Canada, even with the 35-second time limit, too often included pointless preambles. Rambling, unfocused questions make it easier for ministers to provide equally unfocused answers.

I could go on, but there is something else that we should maybe consider. It is repeatedly said (and I have said so myself) that the point of oral questions is to allow the opposition to seek information from the government and to hold the government to account. And, in the past, this was probably accurate. The question is, is this still the right way to look at Question Period? The former Clerk of the UK House of Commons, in his seminal guide “How Parliament Works” (6th ed 2006 – a 7th edition will be released later this year), takes a different view:

Question Time is above all a political exchange; it is not about seeking information, which is what written questions are for. Oral questions are about exposing and criticising, or helping and supporting. (p. 327-8)

We frequently dismiss Question Period as nothing more than a show, or a circus — and maybe that’s all it is now. Maybe Sir Robert Rogers is right; it’s not about  seeking information, it’s a contest of duelling party manifestos. It’s the only part of the parliamentary day that receives any real media attention, therefore are we really surprised that MPs will favour soundbites over substance? This is another advantage the UK system has over Canada’s: Prime Minister’s Questions. PMQs is the circus, the weekly equivalent of our daily Question Period. The other daily answers to oral questions in the UK House of Commons, the ones to ministers other than the Prime Minister, remain very respectful, informative, affairs – if somewhat boring. Is that the answer for Canada? Isolate the show – the Prime Minister – have him questioned separately once a week, and adopt a departmental rotation for the other ministers as they do in the UK? It seems to work pretty well over there and certainly, things couldn’t possibly get much worse over here, could they?

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MP defections and by-election timing

Douglas Carswell, a UK Conservative backbench MP, today announced he was quitting the Tory Party to join UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party). He also announced he was resigning as an MP and would seek re-election under his new party label in a by-election.

Most of the discussion right now in the UK media is focusing on what this means for the Conservative Party as it is challenged on the right by UKIP. This blog, as we all know by now, does not focus on party policies or party politics in general. Rather, I want to look at two other issues raised by today’s events.

The first is Mr. Carswell’s decision to not only cross the floor to join another party, but to resign as an MP and seek re-election. I have discussed the issue of floor crossing (see this post), and normally, MPs in both Canada and the UK who decide to leave one party during the course of a parliament (meaning in-between elections) and join another simply do that. They do not resign their seat; they do not seek re-election under their new party label in a by-election. In other words, the voters in their constituency have no say in the matter until the next general election. As I explained in my post on floor crossing, there have been attempts in both the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons to pass legislation which would require an MP who decides to switch parties in-between elections to do exactly what Mr. Carswell is doing. Each attempt to pass such legislation (always via a Private Member’s Bill) have failed. Will Mr. Carswell’s actions change anything?

The question before us now is whether Mr. Carswell’s actions will set some sort of precedent. Will there now be greater pressure on defecting MPs to do the same thing rather than follow current practice, which, as I stated above, is simply to change party and continue on as an MP? Some in the UK are already arguing that it should.

The second point of interest involves the matter of the by-election itself. I’ve written a couple of posts outlining how the UK approach to calling by-elections compares with ours here in Canada, which you can read here and here. In both posts, I point out that the UK system seems better to me – the decision to call the by-election is not up to the Prime Minister, and consequently, vacant seats tend to be filled much more quickly in the UK than they are here in Canada. In Canada, the Prime Minister will often delay the calling of a by-election for as long as he or she can (and often for purely political reasons), which means a constituency can go up to six months without an MP.

In the UK, convention dictates that the party which holds the seat decides the date of the by-election. Generally, because it is their seat that is now vacant, the party wants to fill it as quickly as possible. This usually means that the writ is moved the same day or the day after the seat has become officially vacant However, the situation with Mr. Carswell is different. The Conservatives held that seat in the 2010 election, and so it is up to them to decide when to call the by-election. Here we may well see political maneuvering come to the fore. First there is the legitimate matter that they will have to find a suitable candidate to contest the seat against Mr. Carswell, and if we assume Carswell’s decision to defect to UKIP was a surprise to them, they probably don’t have anyone lined up as they full expected Mr. Carswell to run again in the 2015 General Election. But even once they find a candidate, they can still hold off on calling for the by-election to be held. However, even here, the by-election will most likely occur sooner than it would in Canada; a Speaker’s Conference on electoral law in 1973 proposed several changes to how by-elections are usually conducted and one of the guidelines adopted was that a writ for a by-election should normally be moved within three months of a vacancy arising.

So while most in the UK will be focusing on the Conservative-UKIP issues raised by Mr. Carswell’s defection, this blog will be far more interested in watching developments on these other two fronts.

ETA: Today (2 September 2014), it was announced that the by-election will occur on 9 October 2014. The resignation of Douglas Carswell as Clacton’s Member of Parliament became official the day after he announced he was defecting from the Conservatives to UKIP. On the afternoon of 29 September, a message was released by HM Treasury which made Mr Carswell’s resignation official:

“The Chancellor of the Exchequer has this day appointed John Douglas Wilson Carswell to be Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.”


(You may recall my earlier post explaining that MPs in the UK House of Commons cannot actually resign their seat.)

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Do we need a Peoples’ PMQs?

UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently floated the idea of a weekly “public question time” where an audience representative of the country would question the prime minister on any issue of the day.

Miliband was a bit short on details regarding how this would work. Apart from stating that the audience should be representative of the country, the only other details he provided was that the public PMQs should be held in parliament at least every two weeks, but preferably weekly.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea, but it also raises a number of questions. First of all, how would these people – representative of the country – be selected? Would it be a completely random process, you know, sort of like being chosen for jury duty? Or would interested persons be invited via a website or social media to put their name in? If the latter, self-selection, then you’re not going to end up with an audience “representative of the country.” You’re going to end up with an audience full of political partisans and people with specific causes and agendas.

As Dan Hodge rightly notes in this column:

The vast majority of British voters have zero interest in Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor, once the initial novelty had worn off, would they have any more interest in watching People’s Questions. It’s only politicians who think the weekly interrogation of politicians is of major national significance.

This is the reality of our times: most people – most ordinary people “representative of the country” just don’t care enough – or at all – about politics. They’d have no interest in participating in a Peoples’ PMQs. The only people who would be keen on participating, as I stated above, would be partisans and people with vested interests. The sad truth is that people who are really keen on politics aren’t the majority. And if you end up with an audience full of partisans, the questions won’t be any more enlightening than what you currently get in PMQs. Case in point: when this story came out in the UK, the Guardian put up an open thread column asking “What would you ask David Cameron?” If you’re not familiar with the Guardian, suffice it to say that the vast majority of its readers do not like the Tories. The paper is strongly associated with the Labour Party, and its readers are decidedly left-of-centre. A quick perusal of some of the suggestions quickly demonstrates what sort of questions partisans would ask.

I admit that I am very leery of “real people” questions. There has been an extremely annoying trend here in Canada regarding leaders’ debates during election campaigns, where the normal practice of having the party leaders face questions from a panel of seasoned journalists has been replaced with asking questions from “ordinary” Canadians. The problem with this is that, as I’ve said, most people aren’t really into politics, and the questions that are asked often tend to be rather non-specific, and often inappropriate. A lot of “ordinary” people will ask federal party leaders questions about education and healthcare, which aren’t federal responsibilities. Yes, the federal government provides funding to the provinces to be used for education and healthcare, but Ottawa’s ability to do much in those areas is quite limited. I do miss the days when Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would simply sneer at those questions and dismiss them with “That’s not a federal responsibility, it’s provincial” and refuse to say more, while the other federal leaders would try to wax poetic about grandiose plans over something they really couldn’t do much about. I would think any sort of “Peoples PMQs” wouldn’t be much better.

Another issue is simply that this idea looks like an attempt to by-pass Parliament. MPs are elected to represent people – it is their job to hold the PM and the Cabinet to account. If citizens have certain concerns about a government policy, they can (and should) contact their MP and that MP should try to get answers on behalf of his or her constituents from the relevant government minister, including the PM. There are a number of UK MPs who, once they learn that they’ll be allotted a question during PMQs (because the names of MPs are drawn in a lottery), ask for suggestions for questions on Twitter and other social media. Whether or not they actually use any of the questions suggested to them by their followers, I don’t know, but I do regularly see them on Twitter inviting people to suggest questions.

UK party leaders are already quite accessible to the public (especially compared to Canadian party leaders). Before he became PM, David Cameron held a regular number of Q&A sessions in marginal ridings. He has continued this practice since becoming PM (here’s a recent one from this year). Yes, these aren’t always public events or televised, so not the same as a Peoples’ PMQs, but my point here is that at least the PM is regularly going out and talking to people, being questioned by them. Deputy PM Nick Clegg has a weekly radio call-in show.

Every single minister regularly appears before his or her department’s select committee for questioning (including the PM, who appears before the Liaison Committee a couple of times each session – you can watch his most recent appearance here. More and more of these committees have also turned to Twitter and other social media to invite “ordinary people” to submit questions to be put to the Minister. They will often reserve the last 20 or so minutes of the session for questions submitted by the public. Here’s an interesting assessment of the very first time this was attempted back in 2012, by the Education Committee.

I don’t disagree with Ed Miliband and others that there is too often a disconnect between elected officials and the general public, but I don’t think that a Peoples’ PMQs will really do much to change that. My gut feeling is that a lot of people, probably a majority of people, will never be that interested in politics in general, and gimmicks won’t change that.

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Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt.2)

(The following is part 2 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. You can read part 1 here. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 2: The specifics of Senate reform and their effects

In my previous post I discussed the problems of majoritarianism and the resulting executive dominance in Canada’s system of government. In this post I will explore in detail my specific recommendations for reform, as well as the way in which they would empower the Senate to fulfil its role of balancing out the power of the government and holding it to account, all the while better representing Provincial interests.

Creating bicameral incongruence

An interesting question is by what formula the Provinces should be represented in the Senate; it would be reasonable to think that a different basis of representation, such as equal representation for each province, could make the partisan composition of the Senate become incongruent to that of the Commons. However, such change to the current situation is not critical, much less sufficient for that end. Instead, the decisive factor would be the method of appointment or election, which must be one which makes a one-party majority very unlikely.

One way to appoint Senators that is likely to both create intercameral incongruence and a ‘Provinces’ chamber’ would be appointment by Provincial governments or legislatures. The main drawback of this solution would be an entanglement of provincial and federal politics, eliminating the separation between the two which is one of the advantages of federalism. People would no longer be able to vote in provincial elections without effecting the federal government. In the long term, this strongly incentivises federal parties to take over control of the provincial party systems, which would severely undermine any role the Senate may at first have as an agent of the Provinces’ interests.

The way forward would appear to be direct elections. In order to prevent governments from winning upper-house majorities – the absolutely crucial part of the equation – the electoral system should be some form of proportional representation. In order to avoid excessive party domination, it would be a good idea to choose a candidate-based PR system, such as the single transferable vote (STV). This fully candidate-based proportional system would inject a dose of intraparty competition that is not only likely to weaken the parties, but strengthen the role of provincial interests. The way for candidates to compete against other candidates of the same party is to differentiate themselves by catering to particularistic interests of the electoral district, in this case – the Provinces. Meanwhile, the degree of choice voters have under STV in ranking candidates from various parties (very much unlike the first-part-the-post used for elections to the House of Commons) is also commendable, and is more likely to result in the election of independents than other PR systems. The result of this electoral system should be a diverse representation of the electorate, with a majority for any single party becoming a highly unlikely prospect.

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

The next question is the election cycle. The best possibility would be to simply to hold Senate elections concurrently with elections to the House of Commons. Such elections would, however, best be staggered, with half of the Senate being elected at each general election, for two main reasons: firstly, it would increase the Senate’s independence by reducing the prime minister’s power to threaten dissolution to one that concerns only the more senior half. Secondly, in combination with proportional representation, it would make it more difficult for a government to achieve a majority in the upper house. Under PR, a party needs close to or over 50% of the vote to win a majority of seats contested – therefore, if Senate elections were staggered, two successive landslide wins would be necessary for a single party to win a Senate majority. Furthermore, longer terms may lead to longer-term thinking in the Senate as a result of the delay in concern for re-election. For these reasons one-half of each Province’s Senators should be elected at each federal parliamentary election, which would currently mean a term of no longer than eight years, while the minimum would depend on the frequency of elections.

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Breaking Deadlock

Currently, the Senate’s full power is used only sparingly, due to the way in which it is appointed; there can be no doubt that an elected Senate would be much more assertive. For enabling an effective role for the Senate in review of legislation and government actions the crucial factor is that the Senate retain a large degree of power over legislation. The only reason governments have to co-operate with a Senate’s accountability measures, such as inquiry or information disclosure order is the latter’s potential threat of declining to pass government legislation until the government complies. A house of review with no legislative power would be ineffective, as it could simply be ignored. Likewise, a house that chooses to not exercise its legislative power is also a poor check. Therefore an assertive body of senators is essential to allow the senate to fulfil is role a check on government power.

Nevertheless, for good and effective government, complete deadlock should be avoided. A good mechanism would therefore be needed, in order to resolve disagreements between the Houses and to encourage Senators to work towards a compromise instead of being obstructive. The current formal powers of the Senate are almost symmetrical to that of the House of Commons, with only very few limits, specifically regarding initiative and amendment of money bills. A deadlock-breaking mechanism exists, in a form inspired by the British Constitution: additional appointments can be made (on the prime minister’s advice), limited to either 4 or 8 extra senators. As a deadlock breaker it is simply a way for the government party to come closer to having a majority in the Senate. If the Senate were elected, it is possible that governments will get into the habit of making these appointments at the start of each session, effectively a government bonus in the Senate which has no place in the reformed institution proposed here.

Actually, a certain deadlock-breaking mechanism is already inherent in the election cycle proposed above. Should the two houses disagree on a bill, and the government is well-positioned in the opinion polls to win an election, there’s an incentive for the prime minister to advise a ‘one-and-a-half’ dissolution, whereby the House of Commons and half of the Senate face new elections. This threat would be a potent bargaining tool in the hands of the PM, while also poses its own risks for him. A government which is not faring well in the polls will almost certainly not make use of this avenue. In such a case, there is a greater threat of deadlock; seeing as the Senate can block supply, there is even a threat that the opposition in the Senate will try to bring down the government and force an election. There is a good case for removing the Senate’s power to block supply, which effectively makes the government depend on both houses for funding. It can be argued that the government should only be responsible to one house to avoid the deleterious effects of instability, not to mention government shutdowns. Secondly, one could argue for removal in the interest of the financial efficiency that one-party government promotes; if such a government must compromise with other parties to pass its budget, this potential will decrease. However, a check on the government’s finances is as important as any other for the Senate for checking the government’s power and keeping it accountable.  I would suggest some limitation to the Senate’s power to block supply, so that it cannot veto the bare essentials necessary to fund government, but so that it can still veto radical changes to fiscal policy, including such things as tax increases.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

The proposals

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained, to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

Conclusion: curbing the excesses of the Westminster system

Some readers of this blog will note similarities between the proposal outlined here and the system existing in Australia on the federal level as well as in several states, and indeed, the Australian experience was the inspiration. As in Canada, the Australian government utterly dominates the lower house; but unlike its Canadian counterpart, the Australian Senate, elected through PR, has a very effective review role. The Australian Senate not only improves and moderates legislation, but also holds the government accountable and transparent in various ways, creating checks and balances not present in most versions of the Westminster system.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

In all probability, a Canadian Senate reconstituted along the lines described above would be similarly empowered to increase scrutiny and oversight, carrying out inquiries and ordering the disclosure of information from the government, thereby checking executive power and increasing transparency. In the new Senate, devoid of a government majority, governments will have to negotiate with other parties to pass much of their legislation. Most proposals should pass with no significant clashes, or with improvements arising from bipartisan collaboration, but more controversial bills will have to be toned down and negotiated to have a chance of success.

Due to the more frequent need to secure compromises, the government’s ex-post accountability before the electorate would be watered down somewhat. Nonetheless, majority governments will remain in a very powerful position; the Senate will be able to constrain a government, but not to force one out. Since the other parties will remain unable to either remove such a government, or pass anything without its concurrence, a majority government would be partly responsible for any proposal that does pass, keeping accountability strong. The situation would of course be different, as it is now, in the case of a minority or ‘hung’ parliament. Such scenarios may sometimes prove trickier for governments than today, but in most cases, if a majority can be secured for some bill in the House, the same parties’ support will also be sufficient in the Senate.

In the long term, elections to the two houses may become strongly defined by the system. Elections to the House of Commons would become more strictly about the choice of government, with more people likely to vote strategically, voting their true preference in the Senate election.  Due to its electoral system, the Senate will almost certainly become more representative of the electorate than the House of Commons. Among its ranks there will be small parties which have great difficulty in capturing seats in the lower house. Such small parties (and independents) will begin focussing on elections to the Senate, where they will have a real chance to influence policy. They may also come to emphasise their role in making the Senate the place where the government is held to account, as the Australian Democrats did with their slogan ‘keep the bastards honest!’ Meanwhile, for the big parties, the distinguishing element of Senate elections would become competition among candidates of the same party (under STV). In order to differentiate themselves, a party’s candidates are will likely compete with each other in terms of bringing various benefits to their province.

Of course, this is not the whole picture; an elected Senate, where the government is permanently in minority, would fundamentally transform Canada’s political equation. Executive dominance, largely the unfortunate side-effect of the Westminster system’s majoritarianism, would be remedied while preserving most of its benefits. While the government, in most cases, should be able to continue to control the House, opposition parties in the Senate will have not only the power, but also the mandate to hold governments to account and subject their policies to a ‘sober second thought’. This, I am convinced, would be the best way of curbing the excesses of the Westminster system – by accomplishing what few of the participants in the FPTP-vs.-PR debate seem to contemplate: an elegant compromise between the accountability of the former and the representativeness of the latter.

Suggested further reading

Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice

Accountability Versus Government Control: the Effect of Proportional Representation

From breaking governments to a brake on government: a new bicameralism in Victoria?

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Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt. 1)

(The following is part 1 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 1: Curbing the excesses of majoritarianism


Canada has a parliamentary form of government, using first-past-the post to elect the members of its confidence chamber, the House of Commons. Despite the recent period of minority governments from 2004 to 2011, minorities are the exception in Canada as elections usually result in a Commons majority for one party. House majorities don’t usually result from majorities in vote terms, but are manufactured by the majoritarian first-past-the-post electoral system. The upper house, the Senate, is formally co-equal but is appointed on advice of the prime minister. While this doesn’t always mean that the Senate has a government majority, it has usually made the Senate passive even in times of a split parliament (different majorities in each house) as it usually defers to the greater legitimacy of the elected House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Constitution’s division of power between the federal level and the provinces may be said to favour the federal level, particularly in light of the fact that the Supreme Court is appointed by the federal government. Canada therefore has a constitution which can be characterized as being as close to Westminster’s as possible for a federal country with judicial review, having a lower house elected using a majoritarian electoral system, with few checks on the government’s power.

election chart

The electoral mechanics of first-past-the-post illustrated: in 2011 the Conservative Party won a House majority on just under forty percent of the vote. Not a representative result, but one offering ex-post accountability.

The main advantages of Canada’s system of government is that the way in which governments are formed flows directly from election results, providing a strong sense of accountability. Voters generally have the choice between two parties that could potentially form a government, and the party that receives the most votes usually receives a working majority to do so. Canada does not have a two-party system, but there has been a two-party alternation in government. When voters rally behind one opposition party, they can replace an unpopular government with relative ease. As a result of the system’s concentration of power, it is easier for Canadian governments to act decisively, an advantage in a crisis as well as a virtue for the democratic process, as it allows parties to more faithfully stick to their election promises. But much more important is the accountability this affords: majority governments, not having to compromise with other parties, have wide latitude to carry out their election promises, and can consequently be held accountable for its actions at the next election. It is far more straightforward to assign blame to the single party that forms government than it is in the context of a coalition or even a minority government.

The problem

The main drawback of Canada’s system of government is the lack of a check on the power of the government, a government rarely formed on true majority support. As a result of the development of party discipline, which is as strong in Canada as in any parliamentary regime, ‘responsibility’ to parliament is almost symbolic. The government so dominates parliament that one might almost say that the true relationship is the opposite: that the House of Commons is responsible to the government, which can dissolve it at any time, and which can order its parliamentary majority to pass laws with few constraints additional to that of public opinion. Some have gone so far as to call it an ‘elective dictatorship’, and there’s some truth to that. This excessive concentration of power in the federal executive has brought about polarising decisions, sharp swings in policy from one government to the next, as well as clashes between the federal government and the provinces. The case could be made that part of the problem is that Canadian government is too centralised, with no actor with an effective mandate to represent provincial interests at the federal level.  But the broader underlying issue is the shortage of actors of any type that would check the government and balance Canadian politics. As Madison wrote in Federalist no. 51, ‘A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions’. Though the danger of a lack of checks and balances may not have fully materialised yet, the power of the executive should not remain unconstrained, particularly in light of the fact that it rarely rests on majority support. On the whole therefore, what Canada’s constitutional situation calls for is more veto players: political actors with the power to act as a check on the party in government.

Reform alternatives and a proposed framework

There are a number of conceivable approaches to this question. One possible way of increasing the number of veto players would be to change the electoral system for the House of Commons to some form of proportional representation. Minority or ‘hung’ parliaments would become the norm, and parties would need to secure other parties’ support in order to remain in government. As currently happens as a result of hung parliament, the first governments under this system will be minority governments, but coalitions are likely to form eventually. By increasing the number of parties necessary, in most cases, to form a government and make policy, this would mostly solve the current ‘elected dictatorship’ and policy instability problems. However, this would come at the cost of the main benefits of the current system. The current efficient choice of government at the polls, the decisiveness of election results and resulting accountability and decisive policymaking would greatly diminish under proportional representation in the House of Commons. Besides, while proportional representation may ensure that no party achieves a majority in the House, it is no guarantee for effective review. A coalition government may be constrained by the divergent agendas of its constituent parties, but once coalition partners agree on a broad legislative programme, they can dominate the House to a degree not much lesser than a single-party majority government.

There is however a different option for reform, providing a new veto player by reforming a different institution: the Senate. In order for it to form an effective check on government power, its partisan makeup needs to become incongruent with that of the House: the parties in opposition should have a majority in the Senate. The Senate could then become an effective ‘house of review’, empowered not only to improve legislation and moderate policy but also hold governments to account. A secondary aim would be to give Senators institutional incentives to stand up for provincial interests and making the Senate into an institution geared to protect the provinces against federal encroachments, just as the ‘triple-E Senate’ campaign prevalent in Western Canada has in mind. Besides, it would put an end to the current patronage and lack of accountability in the current Senate.

For these reasons, the path forward should be in reforming the Senate. The primary goal should be to prevent the party in government from attaining a majority in that chamber, with a secondary goal of having Senators chosen in such a way that offers some incentive for protecting provincial interests. The aim is to strengthen the position of the Senate vis-à-vis the government of the day in order to limit the existing executive dominance over the system, thus transforming bicameralism into a source of checks and balances in Canada’s constitution. My next post will explore and identify more specifically how this goal would best be fulfilled and what Canadian politics would look like after the change.

(Part 2)

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Ontario Provincial Election June 2014

ontario_smallThis blog will not engage in a discussion of the policies of political parties, either at the provincial or federal level. However, it will provide links to sites that might prove useful to voters for the 12 June 2014 Ontario provincial election.

Vote Compass Ontario 2014

Vote Compass is an educational tool developed by political scientists. Answer a short series of questions to discover how you fit in the Ontario political landscape. If you’re unsure of which party to vote for, this might help. And even if you are certain which party you want to support, the Vote Compass results might surprise you!

Party Platform Comparisons

Comparison of party positions on six key issues from Yahoo News.

Political Party Platform Comparison from the Consulting Engineers of Ontario (PDF)

Comparison of the parties’ education platform from the OSSTF

Comparison of parties’ positions on key issues from the Globe and Mail

General Election Information

Elections Ontario has all the information you need about the upcoming election. Start with their We Make Voting Easy page.

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On by-election timing

I have previously written about the differences in calling by-elections in both Canada and the UK, pointing out that, in general, by-elections in the UK tend to be called within days of a seat becoming vacant, while in Canada, it can often take months for a by-election to be called.

The Canadian federal electoral district of Macleod has been without representation for almost six months now. By-elections must be called within 180 days of the Chief Electoral Officer being officially notified of a vacancy, which means the deadline for calling the by-election will be 17 May 2014. There are currently four other vacant seats in the House of Commons.

In the UK, Conservative MP Patrick Mercer resigned his seat on 29 April 2014. Two days later, on 1 May, the writ was issued and the by-election date set for 5 June. The constituency of Newark will be without an MP for little more than a month.

As I had explained in that earlier post, in Canada, under the Parliament of Canada Act, when a seat in the House is vacant, the Speaker of the House of Commons informs the Chief Electoral Officer by means of a Speaker’s warrant.

After receiving the warrant, section 57 of the Canada Elections Act authorizes the Governor in Council to fix the date on which the Chief Electoral Officer is to issue the writ. The date of issuance must fall between the 11th and 180th days after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the warrant from the Speaker. The Governor in Council also fixes the date for election day, which cannot be earlier than 36 days after the Chief Electoral Officer issues the writ. As I explained, the “Governor in Council” is the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister; in other words, it is the Prime Minister who decides when to call a by-election. It is the Prime Minister who determines how long some Canadians will go without representation in the House.

I wonder why things were arranged like this. It isn’t the Prime Minister’s House of Commons; it shouldn’t be up to the PM to decide that some citizens will be denied representation for months on end.

In the UK, the Prime Minster has no say in when by-elections occur.

The writ for a by-election in the UK is usually issued on the same day as or the day following a motion in the Commons for the Speaker to make out the warrant for the issue of a writ. By Parliamentary convention the Chief Whip of the party to which the previous Member belonged will usually arrange for the motion to be moved.

The writ is issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and sent to the Returning Officer or Acting  Returning  Officer  for  the  constituency. The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, as explained on the UK Parliament website:

is head of the Crown Office, which has custody of the Great Seal of the Realm, and has administrative functions in connection with the courts and the judicial process. The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery initiates a parliamentary election in a constituency by sending an election writ to the Returning Officer, and receives all ballot papers and ballot stubs after the election is complete; these are retained for a year. Since 1885 the office of Clerk of the Crown in Chancery has been combined with that of Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice.

In other words, he or she is a civil servant.

As explained in this Commons Library Standard Note, the by-election timetable is set in motion following the receipt of the writ. Previously, the governing legislation allowed for a 13-day timetable, but in practice no by-election using a 13-day timetable had occurred in the last few decades. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 has lengthened the by-election timetable from between 13 to 19 days to between 21 and 27 days.

The only means by which the UK Government could hold up the process of issuing a writ for a by-election is by delaying the appointment of the MP who is resigning to the Chiltern Hundreds. As I have explained in this post, MPs in the UK cannot actually resign their seat. Death, disqualification and expulsion are the only means by which a Member’s seat may be vacated during the lifetime of a Parliament. When an MP wants to resign his or her seat, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will disqualify them by appointing the MP to one of two offices that are used for disqualification: Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and of the Manor of Northstead. In the case of former MP Patrick Mercer, he announced his resignation on 29 April, and on 30 April, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed him to be Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds. The next day, 1 May, the chief whip of the Conservative Party moved the writ in the House of Commons.

Surely this is a better model? It removes the possibility of a Prime Minister playing politics with by-election timing and in the process, denying citizens their right to representation in the House of Commons for months on end.

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On early candidate selection

There will most likely be general elections in both Canada and the UK next year. I say most likely only because Canada’s “fixed election dates” aren’t binding on the the Prime Minister/Governor General. There will definitely be a general election in the UK – on May 6 2015, to be exact. Their fixed-term parliaments law is binding. The next election in Canada should happen in October 2015, but as I said, the PM could well decide to call one earlier or even later.

As regular readers know by now, I like to highlight differences between how things are done here in Canada and how they are done elsewhere. Today I’m going to focus on when candidates are selected for the next election.

In Canada, political parties tend to wait until a few months or even weeks (or even days) before an election is expected or called to choose their candidates. Some, usually in ridings in which a party isn’t very competitive, might not get a candidate until after the writs have dropped. The deadline for candidate nominations is the 21st day before voting day.

In the UK, parties like to get a much earlier start. In fact, it isn’t at all uncommon for parties to select a candidate years in advance of the next general election.

For example, the last general election in the UK was in May 2010. In January 2011, the Labour party gave the green light to candidate selections in 26 marginal ridings – constituencies in which they had finished a very close second in the May 2010 election. What that means is that Labour had nominated candidates – what are called prospective parliamentary candidates, or PPCs – in place up to four years in advance of the next general election.

Labour isn’t alone in doing this. All three of the main parties will target key ridings that they think they have a chance of winning next time around – the aforementioned marginals – and will try to get a candidate in place at least a year, often 2-3 years ahead of the next election. Parties appearing to lag on this front will be the subject of media attention.

These candidates then have 2-4 years to campaign in their constituency – doing door-to-door canvassing, attending local events – in other words, getting themselves known to local voters. Most of these activities don’t really cost anything – the largest expense would be travelling around the constituency.

I mentioned this to some colleagues and they thought it was extremely bizarre. Why on earth, some asked, would a party want to commit itself or tie itself to a candidate so far ahead of an election? That struck me as a very odd response. If a party is willing to commit itself to a candidate they hope will be one of their MPs for at least the next four years, why wouldn’t they be willing to commit to them 2-3 years before the election date?

Recently, the federal NDP nominated a candidate in the riding of Edmonton-Centre for the 2015 election. A few weeks later, the candidate withdrew due to health concerns. I did see more than a few comments on Twitter questioning the wisdom of selecting a candidate so far in advance of the actual election. Again, I think it makes far more sense to get a candidate in place as early as possible. Health concerns happen; that’s not a good enough reason to not choose someone well in advance of the next election.

Some regularly complain that voters only vote based on party label – that no one votes for the actual individual anymore. Well, that’s hardly surprising if most, if not all, of the candidates in your constituency are nominated only a few weeks before voting day. Odds are most voters don’t know any of these individuals, and won’t be able to get a sense of them during the short election campaign. However, if a party had a candidate in place years in advance, that person would become quite well known in their own right, and some voters at least might be more open to voting for the actual person rather than their party label.

I wouldn’t expect parties to nominate a candidate years in advance in every single constituency. UK parties don’t do that. They target the marginals, the constituencies which they only narrowly lost in the previous election and that they think they have a real shot at winning next time around.

Of course, it is probably a lot easier for PPCs in the UK to campaign well in advance of an actual election; constituencies are much smaller in size – geographically-speaking – and it would be much easier to get around to the various villages and towns. However, the large size of most rural ridings here in Canada is another argument in favour of having a candidate in place 2-3 years ahead of the actual election: that way, the candidate can actually campaign effectively and repeatedly across the entire riding, something that may prove difficult to do during the official 36-day election campaign.

I think it makes a lot of sense for parties to identify seats they might win and ensure that they have candidates in place well in advance of the next general election. It would provide them with an active, constant presence in the riding, and allow their candidate to be known and build a base of support. And maybe it would help voters base their decision on the candidate, rather than just party label, which I think would be a very good thing indeed.

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