On closure and time allocation

As O’Brien and Bosc explain in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.), one of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. While the political parties in the House may disagree on what a ‘reasonable period’ might be, they would all agree that eventually, debate must end and the House must decide a matter.

Over the years, changes to the Standing Orders have been made to expedite the business of the House. Chief among these was the introduction of time limits on speeches by Members. In the Canadian House of Commons, in most debates, MPs may speak once, for a maximum of 20 minutes. There are some exceptions to that rule, for example, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have unlimited speaking time. If debate extends beyond a certain number of hours, Members’ speaking time is reduced to 10 minutes. This differs from the UK House of Commons, where there are no time limits on how long MPs may speak. However, at the outset of certain debates, the Speaker may impose a time limit on speeches due to the great number of MPs who have indicated they wish to participate in the debate.

However, there are times when, despite the existing limits on debate, the Government believes there is a need to cut short the debate. Certain rules exist which allow the Government to do just that. This is called “curtailing debate” and the means by which this is usually done are via closure and time allocation.


Closure is a procedural device which is used to bring debate on a question to an end by a majority decision of the House even if not all the MPs who wish to speak on the matter have had the chance to do so. The Closure rule was adopted in the Canadian House of Commons in 1913, during a filibuster by opposition parties. It has already been introduced in the UK House of Commons much earlier, in 1881, and in the Australian House of Representatives in 1905. In those days, in Ottawa, there were no time limits on how long Members could speak on a question, and opposition parties had managed to significantly delay the passage of government legislation, with some debates on bills stretching out over two years. Since its introduction in 1913, closure has been used over 60 times in the Canadian House of Commons.

Closure is a motion “That debate not be further adjourned”. It provides the government with a procedure to require that the question be put at the end of the sitting in which a motion of closure is adopted. Closure may be applied to any debatable matter, including bills and motions.

Prior to moving a motion for closure, an oral notice of intention to do so must have been given by a Minister at a previous sitting of the House. Debate on the item that is the subject of the notice must have begun before notice of closure may be given. No obligation exists to proceed with moving the closure motion even if notice has been given.

After notice has been given, the closure motion may be moved during a subsequent sitting. It must be moved by a Minister immediately before the House resumes debate on the item. While the closure motion is not debatable or amendable, a 30-minute question period is permitted, during which Members may ask questions of the Minister responsible for the closured item. At the end of this period, the Speaker immediately puts the question on the closure motion.

When a motion for closure is adopted, debate resumes on the now-closured business, subject to the restrictions imposed by the closure rule. Any Private Members’ Business scheduled during that sitting day is still taken up at its regular time. All questions necessary to dispose of the closured business are put no later than 8:00 p.m.

Time Allocation

Time allocation, like closure, came about following a filibuster by the opposition during the Pipeline Debate in 1956. During that debate, closure was the only rule the government could use to advance its legislation but it was becoming clear that it was rather inflexible and inadequate. Consequently the House and its committees began deliberations on better ways to allot time for the consideration of specific pieces of legislation and planning of the session’s work, which the closure rule could not do. However, it wasn’t until 1969, after a debate which lasted 12 hours and that was, ironically, curtailed by a motion of closure, that a report recommending time allocation measures was adopted. The rule has evolved over the years, with the current version adopted in 2001.

The time allocation rule, which is used much more frequently than closure, allows for specific lengths of time to be set aside for the consideration of one or more stages of a public bill. Although the rule permits the government to negotiate with opposition parties towards the adoption of a timetable, it can also be used by the government to impose strict limits on the time for debate.

The rule is divided into three distinct sections with specific conditions applying depending on the degree of support among the recognized parties in the House of Commons. As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

1. All Parties Agree: The first section of the rule envisages agreement among the representatives of all the recognized parties in the House to allocate time to the proceedings at any or all stages of a public bill. No notice is required. In proposing the motion, a Minister first states that such an agreement has been reached and then sets out the terms of the agreement, specifying the number of days or hours of debate to be allocated. The Speaker then puts the question to the House, which is decided without debate or amendment.

2. Majority of Parties Agree: The second section of the rule envisages agreement among a majority of the representatives of the recognized parties in the House. In these circumstances, the government must be a party to any agreement reached. The motion may not cover more than one stage of the legislative process. It may, however, apply both to report stage and third reading, if it is consistent with the rule requiring a separate day for debate at third reading when a bill has been debated or amended at report stage. Again, no notice is required, and it is not necessary for debate on the stage or stages specified in the time allocation to have begun. Prior to moving the motion, the Minister states that a majority of party representatives have agreed to a proposed allocation of time. The motion specifies how many days or hours are to be allocated.

3. No Agreement: The third section of the rule permits the government to propose an allocation of time unilaterally. In this case, an oral notice of intention to move the motion is required. The motion can only propose the allocation of time for one stage of the legislative process, that being the stage then under consideration. However, the motion can cover both report stage and third reading, provided it is consistent with the rule which requires a separate day for third reading when a bill has been debated or amended at report stage. The amount of time allocated for any stage may not be less than one sitting day.

The wording of a motion for time allocation must be specific as to the terms of the allocation of time. In most cases, time is allocated in terms of sitting days or hours. When there is no agreement between the parties, the amount of time allocated may not be less than one day. The motion can propose only the allocation of time for one stage of the legislative process, that being the stage then under consideration, with the exception of report stage and third reading, which can be covered in one motion. A motion for time allocation must be moved by a Minister in the House, and is neither debatable nor amendable. However, there is a 30-minute period set aside for Members to ask questions of the Minister responsible for the bill in question.

After the adoption of a motion for time allocation, debate at the stage or stages of the bill in question then becomes subject to the time limits imposed by the motion. The day on which the time allocation motion is adopted may be counted as one sitting day for that purpose, provided the motion is moved and adopted at the beginning of Government Orders and the bill is taken up immediately. At the expiry of the time allocated for a given stage, any proceedings before the House are interrupted, and the Chair puts every question necessary for the disposal of the bill at that stage. (source: Compendium of Procedure Online)

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On pairing

Pairing is a parliamentary practice whereby two members of parliament from opposing political parties may agree to abstain where one member is unable to vote, due to other commitments, illness, travel problems, etc. The rationale behind the practice is to maintain the relative distribution of seats in the House so that a party’s strength is based on who was elected, not which MPs are ill that day, or had their flight delayed.

There are slight variations in how pairing is organized in different jurisdictions.

UK House of Commons

As explained on the UK Parliament website,

Pairing is an arrangement where an MP of one party agrees with an MP of an opposing party not to vote in a particular division. This gives both MPs the opportunity not to attend. Pairing is an informal arrangement and is not recognised by the House of Commons’ rules. Such arrangements have to be registered with the whips who check that the agreement is stuck to. Pairing is not allowed in divisions of great political importance but pairings can last for months or years.

There have been times, however, where one or more of the parties have refused to participate in pairing arrangements. In December 1996, for example, Labour and the Liberal Democrats discovered that the Tories had been cheating by pairing the same three Conservative MPs with three Labour MPs and three Liberal Democrat MPs. Because of that, the two opposition parties decided to withdraw from all pairing arrangements beginning in January 1997.

It is not clear how long this protest lasted – perhaps only until the end of that parliament since in the 1997 general election, Labour were elected with a huge majority. Pairing is currently practiced by all three of the major parties in the UK House of Commons, but only, as stated above, for votes that aren’t of great importance (one or two line whips).

Canada House of Commons

In the Canadian House of Commons, pairing did not have any official recognition up until 1991. It was considered a private arrangement between Members. In 1991, the Standing Orders were modified to provide for the establishment of a Register of Paired Members, which is kept at the Table. The actual pairing arrangements are arrived at by the party Whips, and Members who will not be participating in any recorded divisions on a given day will have their names entered into the Register by their respective party Whips. These pairings Members are published in the Debates (Hansard) and in the Journals immediately following the entry for any recorded division held on that day.

While this process has formalized pairing to a degree, it still remains largely a private arrangement between the parties, and nothing can be done if a paired Member “forgets” that they were paired and votes. Also, unlike in the UK, the practice in the Canadian House of Commons is that pairings are agreed to on an ad hoc basis, that is, vote by vote. There aren’t any long-term pairing agreements which may last months or years, as occurs in the UK House of Commons. As well, since there is no distinction between one-line, two-line and three-line whips in the Canadian House of Commons, the parties can agree to pairing arrangements on any type of vote, including those of “great political importance”.

Pairing most commonly occurs in the Canadian House of Commons during hung parliaments, when there is a minority government in place. In such instances, the numerical balance between the parties matters far more, and it becomes far more important that the relative voting strengths of the parties is maintained. When one party forms a majority government, pairing is much less common.

Australia House of Representatives

As in the UK and Canada, pairing in the Australian House of Representatives is an unofficial arrangement organized by the party Whips. As in the UK, Members have at times been paired not only on particular questions or one sitting, but sometimes for extended periods. This has even included pairing the Prime Minister with the Leader of the Opposition. As in Canada, pairing is more common when the relative strength of the parties is much closer. Also like Canada, pairing is allowed on crucial votes, and arranging pairings on key votes can be a very protracted and disorderly affair. Parties might also pull out of pairing arrangements, for various reasons:

Pairs have been cancelled by the Government because of the need for an absolute majority to pass a bill to alter the Constitution. The Opposition has cancelled the arrangements for the remainder of the session as a consequence of its view on the manner in which the proceedings of the House were being conducted. (House of Representatives Practice, p. 279)

New Zealand Parliament

Pairing was abolished in the New Zealand Parliament in 1996, following the introduction of new Standing Orders to accommodate the change to the MMP voting system. MPs no longer have to be in the chamber at the time of voting. Parties declare their total votes including the ‘proxy’ votes of those away.

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On electing a Speaker

In an earlier post, I explained the role of the Speaker in Westminster parliamentary systems, and briefly touched on how the Speaker is chosen. In this post, I will expand on that topic since there seems to be a degree of interest in the topic, according the blog’s search statistics.

Canada: House of Commons

The Constitution Act, 1867 requires that the Speaker be elected by the House of Commons:

44. The House of Commons on its first assembling after a General Election shall proceed with all practicable Speed to elect One of its Members to be Speaker.

Prior to 1986, this amounted to the rubber-stamp approval of a Member nominated by the Prime Minister, and was usually, but not always, a Member from his or her own party. In 1926, and in 1979, Conservative Prime Ministers named Liberal MPs as Speakers.

In 1986, the Standing Orders were changed to allow for the election of a Speaker by secret ballot.

All MPs except for Cabinet ministers and party leaders are eligible to run for the Speakership. Any MP who does not wish to put his or her name forward must issue a letter withdrawing from the ballot by the day before the vote. All MPs who do not remove their name from the ballot as of 6pm the day before the election are listed as candidates on the ballot and are allowed a five minute speech to persuade their colleagues as to why they should be elected.

The election is presided over by the Dean of the House, the MP who is the longest continuously serving MP who is not in Cabinet.

After the first round of voting, if no candidate has received more than 50% of the vote, all candidates who received less than 5% of the vote are removed from the ballot. If no candidate received less than 5% of the vote then the MP with the fewest vote drops off. This continues, with a one hour break between ballots, until one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. In the event of a tie on the final ballot, the ballot is taken again. This happened once, in 1993, when Gilbert Parent won over Jean-Robert Gauthier.

The Speakers of all of the provincial and territorial assemblies in Canada are also elected by their fellow Members, though the balloting system used may differ from one province to another. (See this post for a more detailed look at the election of the Speaker at the start of the 41st Parliament on 2 June 2011.)

The United Kingdom: House of Commons

Prior to 2001, a Speaker was elected through a series of divisions.  One candidate would be proposed as a Speaker in a motion and additional candidates would be presented as successive amendments to the original motion.  Each amendment would be voted on through a series of divisions until a candidate was finally chosen.  New procedures for the election of the Speaker were agreed by the House on 22 March 2001 (Standing Order Nos. 1A and 1B), but used for the first time only in 2009. This is because the UK has a tradition whereby if the Speaker from the previous parliament is re-elected and indicates that they are still willing to serve as Speaker, the Father of the House (the longest serving MP) calls on one Member to move the motion that the former Speaker should take the Chair as Speaker-elect.  This is the procedure that was followed after the 2001 and 2005 General Elections.

If a Speaker dies or retires, or does not return after a General Election, a new Speaker is elected by the House.  As part of the new procedures, put in to practice for the first time on 22 June 2009, an exhaustive secret ballot system is used.  Only Members of Parliament are able to vote for a new Speaker. Before voting begins, each candidate addresses the House, explaining why they believe they should be elected. At each round, Members are given a list of candidates and place an “X” next to the candidate of their choice. The votes are then counted. The candidate with the fewest votes is then eliminated, as are any candidates who received less than 5% of the votes cast.  Also, any candidate may withdraw within 10 minutes of the announcement of the ballot.  This process continues until one candidate gains more than half of the votes.

Unlike in other jurisdictions, once elected to the post, the Speaker resigns from his or her party. If he or she stands for re-election in the next General Election, they are listed on the ballot as “Speaker”, not as a member of any party, and the major parties in the House of Commons normally do not run candidates against the Speaker in order to better ensure that he or she will be re-elected.

Australia: House of Representatives

As is the case in Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act requires that a Speaker be elected:

35. The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker of the House, and as often as the office of Speaker becomes vacant the House shall again choose a member to be the Speaker.

The Speaker is elected by the House of Representatives in a secret ballot. The Clerk conducts the election. Candidates are nominated by other MPs, and then asked by the Clerk if they are willing to let their name stand. If only one MP is nominated, than they become the Speaker. If there are two or more candidates for the position of Speaker, Members vote by secret ballot. If no candidate emerges with over 50% of the vote, the nominee with the smallest number of votes is excluded from later ballots, and a fresh round of voting takes place. This process is repeated as often as necessary until one nominee receives a majority of the votes, and this nominee is elected Speaker.

The first Speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, sat as an independent after his election as Speaker, but since his death in 1909 the Speakership has been a partisan office and the nominee of the government party has always been elected. Unlike the Speaker of the House of Commons in Britain, the Speaker continues to attend party meetings, and at general elections stands as a party candidate.

There is no convention in Australia that the Speaker should not be opposed in his or her constituency, and three Speakers (Groom in 1929, Nairn in 1943 and Aston in 1972) have been defeated at general elections. Because the Speaker is always the nominee of the governing party, there is no expectation that a Speaker will continue in office following a change of government. While the Opposition sometimes nominates one of its own members for Speaker after a general election, this is understood to be a symbolic act, and party discipline is always followed in any ballot.

New Zealand: House of Representatives

Members of Parliament vote to elect the Speaker at the start of each new Parliament (after every general election). This is the first task of every new Parliament once members have been sworn in.

Interested MPs nominate themselves as candidates. If there is only one member nominated, the Clerk puts no question to the House; there can be no vote on the nomination, and the member is declared to be elected Speaker. If there are two members nominated, a personal vote is held to determine which one is to be elected. For this purpose the Ayes lobby is used for those voting for the member whose name comes first in the alphabet and the Noes lobby for those voting for the other member. In the event of a tie on the vote the Clerk calls for further nominations, which may include either or both of the members who were first nominated.

If more than two members are nominated for Speaker, members initially vote from their places in the House rather than by going into the lobbies as they do on a personal vote. The bells are rung for seven minutes and then the doors are locked. Working alphabetically, members are then asked by the Clerk individually to rise in their places and state which of the nominated members they vote for. Members may record an abstention. No proxy votes are permitted. If, at the end of this process, any candidate has obtained an absolute majority of the votes of the members voting (that is, excluding any abstentions), that member is immediately declared elected. Otherwise the member with the fewest number of votes drops out and the votes are taken again until only two candidates remain. If the two candidates with the fewest votes have the same number of votes, the entire vote is taken again. If the two candidates with the fewest votes still have the same number of votes, the Clerk determines which candidate is to drop out by drawing lots.

When, after this process, there are only two candidates remaining, the election is decided by a personal vote. Again, no proxies are permitted. In the event of a tie on the personal vote, nominations are called for again. After the election vote, the Speaker-elect visits the Governor-General to be confirmed in office. The Speaker almost always comes from the Government benches.

The Speaker of New Zealand’s House of Representatives is allowed to maintain links with their political party, but must not show political bias when chairing business in the House. From 1996 under the voting system introduced as a result of MMP the Speaker’s casting vote was abolished. The Speaker’s vote is now included with the votes held by the party. In the other jurisdiction mentioned above, the Speaker votes only in the instance of a tie (the casting vote). In New Zealand, if a vote results in tie, the motion is simply declared lost.

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MP confusion over e-petitions

While listening to the debate in the UK House of Commons on a backbench motion calling for a referendum on membership in the EU, I was struck by regularly repeated claims by MPs concerning the role that petitions, particularly e-petitions, played in instigating the debate.

Many MPs stated that the day’s debate came about thanks to the Government’s own e-petitions scheme, triggered by an e-petition gaining over 100,000 signatures. For example:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge that not only is he moving this motion, but more than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition to 10 Downing street calling for him to do just this?


Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I understand that I have only five minutes, so I will take only two interventions—if people want to intervene—if colleagues do not mind.

I would like to address first the process and principle of the motion and then present-day Europe, if colleagues will forgive the alliteration. The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue. The Backbench Business Committee then decided that to be the right debate to bring before Parliament and, as Members will know, that Committee is elected by the House. This debate has not been brought about by a small or large number of Conservative Back Benchers, therefore; it is a response to the will and the voice of the British people.


Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): (…) Let us not forget, as many Members have said, that this issue has reached us today not only because of the 100,000 e-petition signatories, but because of the many organisations that have brought together different types of petition and written to people. It is not just about e-petitions.


Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate. It is, in fact, a historic debate because it is the first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system. I believe that that system is a wonderful one; it is absolutely right to hold this debate today. I also think it right in principle that this House should debate issues of particular importance to the public, of which this is one.

and finally:

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain why this was the second most popular issue on the e-petitions list?

Kris Hopkins: As I said in response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), if there is such support for the matter, we should campaign to ensure that it is part of our party’s next election manifesto.

You get the idea – these samples are from the online Hansard of the debate, which you can access here.

The problem is, these statements aren’t exactly accurate, and some are simply false.

Despite what many MPs claimed, there was no e-petition calling for a referendum on the EU on the official Government E-Petitions website which garnered over 100,000 signatures. There were many separate petitions, both traditional paper and electronic, which together surpassed 100,000 signatures, but these were collected independently of the official e-petitions scheme. In fact, a campaign to petition for a referendum on the EU began in March of this year, over four months before launch of the Government e-petitions scheme at the end of July of this year.

So if there was no single e-petition calling for an EU referendum on the Government e-petitions site that had over 100,000 signatures,  how did the debate come about?

The Backbench Business Committee, which is responsible for scheduling debates on backbench business, issued a press release explaining how the EU referendum debate came about:

The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business committee following a representation by Mr David Nuttall MP at a public meeting of the committee on 18 October 2011. A large number of backbench Members indicated their support for the debate. This issue has also been raised in public petitions.

This issue has also been raised by various organisations through both paper and online petitions. Between them they have collected more than 100,000 names.

In other words, the Committee decided to schedule the debate primarily because a backbench Member, Mr. Nuttall, requested one, and had the backing of  “a large number of backbench Members”. That there were also petitions in support of such a debate was incidental to, not the driving force behind, the decision to schedule the debate. Mr. Nuttall may well have decided to make the representation to the Committee because of the number of petitions in support of a referendum on EU membership, but the Committee’s decision was based on his representation and support from other MPs for such a debate, not because of various petitions.

Queries to this blog have revealed that there is a fair bit of confusion about the whole e-petitions scheme amongst the general public in the UK. It is somewhat disheartening to see that some MPs also don’t really seem to grasp how it works. For example, in the first quote above, Nadine Dorries refers to “an e-petition to 10 Downing street”. Ms. Dorries is perhaps confused with the e-petitions scheme that had been set up in November 2006 by former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the 10 Downing St. website, which was shut down by the Coalition Government just after it took office last year.

MP Mark Pritchard stated: “The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue.” As mentioned above, this is completely false. The petitions, both paper and electronic, in favour of an EU referendum were in circulation before the launch of the new HM Government e-petition’s website. I am not disputing that these petitions got over 100,000 signatures, but they weren’t related to the “Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions”, nor are they the origins of the debate.

Mr Davies claims that the EU referendum debate was the “first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system”. Again, this is false. A backbench debate was held only a week earlier (17 October 2011) on the issue of the release of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough tragedy – which was the subject of an e-petition on the Government e-petition site which garnered over 100,000 signatures. That was the first debate triggered by the public through the petitions system, as it clearly states on the press release issued by the Backbench Business Committee.

As for Mr. Tomlinson’s comment that the EU petition is supposedly the “second most popular issue on the e-petition list”,  that is simply false. The second most popular issue on the e-petitions list (assuming he is referring to the official Government e-petitions site and not some independent e-petitions site), is the e-petitions calling for full disclosure of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough disaster mentioned above. The first e-petition mentioning a referendum on the EU is seventh on the list.

I can appreciate that debates triggered by e-petitions are a very new development for the UK House of Commons, and so it is not entirely surprising that some MPs seem rather confused about the process. I do hope some effort is made to clarify exactly how the e-petitions scheme works, so that in the future, MPs will not further add to the misinformation and misunderstanding already out there.

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On toeing the party line: three-line whips

(Note: See this post for statistics on how often Canadian MPs vote with their party.)

In an earlier post, I discussed how UK MPs tend to be far more rebellious than their Canadian counterparts, frequently voting against their own party. In that post, I noted that large scale rebellions were, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in Canada; party discipline is much, much stronger in Canada (and from what I understand, in Australia too).

Tomorrow (24 October 2011) there will be a Backbench Business debate on holding a referendum on British membership of the EU. The motion, from Conservative MP David Nuttall reads: “This House calls upon the government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the united Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union, or renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation.”

The debate was originally scheduled for Thursday (27 October) but due to the growing support by Conservative backbenchers for the motion, it was moved to Monday to allow the Prime Minister and other front-bench MPs to attend and participate. The Conservative Party leadership is imposing a three-line whip to defeat the motion, which many Conservative MPs are promising to defy.

The concept of a “three-line whip” was new to me. While whipped votes are the norm in Canada, I’d never heard of one described as a “three-line” whip. The reason for that is because it has never really been implemented here, except for one brief experiment.


A whip is an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. Whips are a party’s “enforcers”, who typically offer inducements and threaten punishments for party members to ensure that they vote according to the official party policy. A whip’s role is also to ensure that the elected representatives of their party are in attendance when important votes are taken. The usage comes from the hunting term whipping in, i.e. preventing hounds from wandering away from the pack. Hence a whipped vote is one where Members of a given party are told how they will vote, and if they choose to not obey the whip’s instructions, will be punished by the party. Punishment can range from being removed from a Committee they sit on, or having to resign any frontbench position they hold, or even being expelled from caucus and forced to sit as an independent.

In the United Kingdom, there are three categories of whip that are issued on particular business. These whips are issued to MPs in the form of a letter outlining the Parliamentary schedule, with a sentence such as “Your attendance is absolutely essential” next to each debate in which there will be a vote, underlined one, two or three times according to the severity of the whip:

  • A single-line whip is a guide to what the party’s policy would indicate, and notification of when the vote is expected to take place; this is non-binding for attendance or voting.
  • A two-line whip, sometimes known as a double-line whip, is an instruction to attend and vote; partially binding for voting, attendance required unless prior permission given by the whip.
  • A three-line whip is a strict instruction to attend and vote, breach of which would normally have serious consequences. Permission not to attend may be given by the whip, but a serious reason is needed. Breach of a three-line whip can lead to expulsion from the parliamentary political group in extreme circumstances and may lead to expulsion from the party. Consequently, three-line whips are generally only issued on key issues, such as votes of confidence and supply. The nature of three-line whips and the potential punishments for revolt vary dramatically among parties and legislatures.

A similar arrangement was experimented with by the Liberal Party of Canada during the Government of Prime Minister Paul Martin as part of its “Action Plan for Democratic Reform“. According to Paul E. J. Thomas, the Action Plan for Democratic Reform included categories of whip:

A three-line whip voting system refers to the extent to which the government sees a bill as a matter of confidence. Under the system, bills with a one-line whip are considered to be “free votes” for all members, meaning that the government takes no position on the issue and the outcome of the vote will not affect the Parliament’s confidence in the government. On two-line votes the cabinet takes a position, but government backbenchers are not obliged to follow it and the outcome again does not affect the government’s survival. Lastly, the three-line whip is saved for key parts of the government’s legislative agenda that are matters of confidence on which the government can fall. As such, all MPs from the governing party are expected to toe the party line.

As you can see, the Liberal Party’s three-line whip system differed somewhat from its UK counterpart. One-line whips introduced by the Liberals were free votes, the Government took no position on the issue, while in the UK, the party’s policy is stated, but Members are free to vote as they wish. Liberal two-line whips applied to cabinet members only – backbench members were still free to vote as they wished, while in the UK it is partially binding for voting. Three-line whips were pretty much the same – Liberal MPs were expected to attend the vote and vote as the party dictated they should, the same as in the UK.

The three-line whip experiment was short-lived and applied only to the 3rd session of the 37th Parliament, and the 38th Parliament, and only to the Liberal Party, which formed the Government during that period. The reality in Canada is that almost all votes in the House, for all parties, would be considered three-line whips. From the report It’s My Party: Political Dysfunction Reconsidered:

The  Canadian  parliamentary  system  has a tradition of strict party discipline, meaning that for the majority of votes in the House of Commons, MPs vote with their political party. Party leaders enforce this discipline so they can be as certain as possible about whether legislation will pass a vote. It also helps the public hold parties to account at election time: if all members of a party vote in a particular way, then the party’s positions are ostensibly clearer to the electorate. Voting records indicate that most MPs vote with their party nearly all of the time, so it was a surprise how many MPs emphasized the times they didn’t agree with their party.

Samara Canada found, through exit interviews conducted with MPs who had decided not to seek re-election in the May 2011 election that:

 One MP recalled how difficult a particular vote was for him, and other members of his party. “There was a pounding in caucus. We had to vote for this. And I did. I shouldn’t have. But I saw people who were much more committed to [the issue] than I, getting up to vote and crying because they had to vote for it,” he said.

Most MPs described not really understanding how a party’s position on most issues was determined. “Virtually all MPs, with the exception of maybe the whips, go into the House of Commons with a bill and 18 to 20 amendments, and don’t have a damned clue of what the amendments say,” said one MP.

Furthermore, many said it was impossible to keep track of the bills on which they were called to vote. “I hate to tell you how many bills I had very little idea what I was voting on. That’s not necessarily my weakness, that’s just the reality,” one MP said.

Even the one item of business in the Canadian House of Commons which is supposed to allow MPs free votes, Private Members’ Bills, is largely whipped:

Private members’ bills are traditionally free votes and are introduced into the House by individual backbench MPs from any party, rather than by the government. However, even in this ostensibly independent area, the MPs reported heavy party intervention.

One Bloc MP said his party still pressured MPs when facing a free vote. “There are no real free votes. The political parties will say that it’s a free vote to seem democratic, but if the leader has an opinion on it, he’s going to put pressure on the membership so that you think like him,” he said.

A New Democrat MP expressed frustration that the governing parties rarely adhered to free votes once in power. “All these guys who said they were for free votes end up voting against private member’s business because their government does not want it to happen,” he said.

What makes the use of the three-line whip with regards to Monday’s vote on the motion calling for a referendum on the EU particularly interesting is that this is an item of backbench business, and second, the outcome isn’t binding on the Government. Therefore, there is no real need to whip the vote, since the Government is under no obligation to act if the outcome is in favour of a referendum. Of course, if the motion passes by a large margin, and the Government chooses to ignore the outcome, the optics won’t look very good. The party leadership is justifying the three-line whip saying that the motion is “contrary to Government policy.” Still, resorting to a three-line whip does seem rather heavy-handed. And it’s not only Prime Minister David Cameron facing dissent from his MPs; Opposition Leader Ed Milliband has instructed his party to vote against the motion, but many Labour MPs have said they will vote in favour. you can see a complete list of MPs who’ve signed the motion, indicating they will vote in favour of it, here.

The motion will most likely be defeated, since the Coalition Government enjoys a significant working majority in the House, as explained in this post. Still, it promises to be an interesting debate and vote. You can watch the debate live online here. Debate could start at about 3:30 GMT (10:30 EST), but if there are any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements, the start time will be pushed back.

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Sin binning

The issue of order and decorum – or rather, lack thereof – is a fairly prevalent one, not only here in Canada, but also in other parliamentary jurisdictions such as the UK and Australia. While the general public may well get the idea that heckling, name calling and other boorish behaviour is rampant during most parliamentary proceedings, the truth of the matter is that this sort of disorderly conduct is prevalent mostly during oral questions (in the UK, PMQs).

It is up to the Speaker to maintain order in the House, but he or she has limited options at their disposal. They can call Members to order, but that may only temporarily silence a Member. And if one Member stops heckling after being called to order, another one will often just pick up where the first left off.They can refuse to recognize a Member who is being disruptive, but this won’t necessarily stop the Member from misbehaving.

In the previous Canadian parliament, Speaker Milliken was sometimes criticized for not doing more to curb indecorous behaviour in the House of Commons during Question Period. In interviews, Milliken defended himself explaining that the only real punishment a Speaker can inflict on unruly Members is to name them. Naming a Member means that they are banned from the Chamber for the remainder of the sessional day. Speaker Milliken was very hesitant to resort to naming Members and has explained that this was almost more of a reward than a punishment for some Members – they would immediately run down to the lobby and talk to the press, getting more publicity and air time than Members who were behaving properly in the chamber. There was also the problem of minority government to deal with. Naming a Member or Members meant that they might miss critical votes, and this in itself could increase the tension in the Chamber.

I recently learned that Speakers of Australia’s House of Representatives have an additional tool at their disposal for dealing with disruptive Members. Standing Order 94(a) states that:

94. The Speaker can take action against disorderly conduct by a Member:
Direction to leave the Chamber
(a)  The Speaker can direct a disorderly Member to leave the Chamber for one hour. The direction shall not be open to debate or dissent, and if the Member does not leave the Chamber immediately, the Speaker can name the Member under the following procedure.

This practice is commonly referred to as “sin binning”. Ian Harris, Clerk of the House of Representatives, in a presentation to the Canadian Clerks-at-the-Table annual Professional Development seminar in 2006 stated that the concept of the “sin bin” first came to the attention of Australians in relation to hockey – the practice of sending a player off the ice for a few minutes for having broken a rule. The practice was adopted in both major forms of rugby played in Australia. In 1994, the House Representatives adopted the above rule allowing the Speaker to direct a Member who is behaving indecorously to leave the Chamber for an hour. The adoption of this rule was on the recommendation of the Procedure Committee,

which saw the mechanism as a means or removing a source of disorder rather than a punishment, enabling a situation to be defused before it deteriorated, and without disrupting proceedings more than necessary. A Member who is directed to leave the Chamber under this procedure may not enter the Chamber galleries or the room in which the Main Committee is meeting.

In other words, sin binning is the procedural equivalent of being sent to the penalty box. It is an interesting idea, and certainly one that would have worked better than naming in the previous parliament. It would have removed the disruptive Member (or Members) for one hour only, which (one hopes) would have had a calming effect on proceedings during Question Period (or other debate), but wouldn’t have punished anyone unduly or caused problems for parties in the event of a crucial vote since the Member(s) would be back in the Chamber in time to participate in any vote scheduled for that day.

Since the idea has a Canadian influence, it might be something the Canadian parliament might want to consider adopting.

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Keyword Post: Answers to Questions on Election Outcomes

Following the recent election in the Canadian province of Ontario, I can see that there are a lot of people searching for very basic information about how our system of government works. While I have detailed posts answering most of these questions on this blog, I will provide shorter, basic answers to some of the most common questions to which people want answers.

1. What happens in a minority government / what does a minority government mean / how does a minority government happen?

A minority government simply means that the party or parties forming the government do not have a majority of the seats in the legislature. In the case of Ontario, there are 107 seats in the provincial assembly, therefore to have a majority government, a party (or parties) needs to have at least 54 seat. If the party, or parties, which forms the government have fewer than 54, we call this a minority government – it could be a single party minority government, or a coalition minority government. The Liberal Party won 53 seats in the 6 October election, more than any one of the other two parties (PC 37, NDP 17), but less than the two other parties combined, who have a majority between them (54 seats), therefore Ontario now has a single party minority government.

As for what happens during a minority government, the party forming the government must work more closely with the other parties in order to ensure that the government survives.  Therefore, it will tailor legislation to appeal to at least one of the other parties, in order to get that party to vote to support the legislation in the House. Minority governments can be very effective if they work closely with the other parties, but if there is little cooperation, then the government can be unstable, constantly at risk of being defeated on a confidence matter or vote. The more cooperation there is between the parties, the better the chances are that the government will last more than a few months and the more productive the legislature will be. For more detailed information about government formation and various forms of government, please read this post and this post.

2. How many votes does a third party need to get?

It isn’t a question of how many votes a party needs, it is a matter of how many seats a party wins. In the Ontario legislature, a party must win at least 8 seats to be recognized as a party. If fewer than 8 MPPs are elected from a certain party, they will be considered “Independent Members”. This has consequences because additional funds are available to political parties represented in the House, but not Independents. Committee chairs are allocated to recognized parties, but not to Independents. Political parties are allocated a certain amount of debate time and questions during Oral Questions, but Independents can only participate in debates and in Oral Questions if the Speaker chooses to recognize them.

Therefore, a party needs to win at least 8 seats to be a recognized party in the legislative assembly. However, party representation in the Legislature is not limited to only three parties. For many many years now, there have been only three parties represented in the Legislative Assembly, but there used to be more than three, and in the future, if the Greens (or some other party) become more popular and get members elected, there will be more than three parties again.

In the Canadian House of Commons, a party must win 12 seats to be recognized as a party. That is why Elizabeth May, leader of and the only member of the Green party in the House of Commons is considered an Independent. The Bloc Quebecois won only 4 seats in the 2011 election, and thus is no longer a recognized party. Its four members are considered Independents. Some jurisdictions don’t have any minimum seat requirements for a  party to be recognized in the House.

3. Could the Progressive Conservatives and NDP form a coalition?

Yes. It’s probably not very likely given that ideologically, they aren’t very close, but there is certainly nothing stopping the two parties from working together, even forming a coalition. However, even if they announced that they had formed a coalition, which would command a majority of the seats in the legislature, they would not automatically become the government. As the incumbent party, the Liberals have the right form the government first. If they Liberal minority government were defeated on a confidence vote, then the Lieutenant Governor could ask a PC-NDP coalition to form a new government. Again, see this post on government formation for more information.

4. How many votes are needed to win a seat in the provincial (or federal) election?

One more than the candidate who finishes second.

Because Ontario (and every other jurisdiction in Canada) uses Single Member Plurality (more commonly known as First-Past-the-Post) to elect members, a candidate only has to receive a simple majority of the votes cast, which could be as few as one single vote more than the person in second place. They don’t need to get 50% of the votes cast, just more than the next person.

For example, in the 6 October 2011 Ontario election, in the riding of St. Paul’s, the final results were:

Hoskins, Liberal – 25,052 votes, or 58.4%
McGirr, PC – 8971 votes, or 20.9%
Hynes, NDP -  7121 votes, or 16.6%

In this case, the Liberal candidate won decisively, receiving a majority of the votes cast (58.4%), well ahead of the candidate in 2nd place. However, in other ridings, the results were much closer, for example, in Kitchener Centre:

Milloy, Liberal – 15,392 votes, or 39.2%
MacDonald, PC – 15,069 votes, or 38.4%
Dearlove, NDP – 7382 votes, or 18.8%

In this case, the winner did not get over 50% of the votes cast, but that doesn’t matter. He did get more votes than the candidate who finished second (323), and that is all that is required. Even if the margin of victory had been only one vote, he still would have won the seat. Please see this post for more information on how FPTP works (or doesn’t work).

5. How many votes does it take for a majority government in Canada/in a province?

Again, it isn’t a question of votes, but how many seats a party wins. That will vary by legislature. In the federal House of Commons, there are currently 308 seats, therefore a party (or coalition of parties) needs 155 seats for a majority (308 / 2 + 1). The numbers will be different for each provincial legislature since they all have different numbers of seats. Simply take the total number of seats in the legislature, divide by two and add one. That is how many seats are required for a majority in that province. (If you don’t know how many seats there are in the legislature in question, simply Google for that legislature – i.e. “legislative assembly of Saskatchewan”. The information will be available on the Assembly’s website.)

6. What happens when less then 50% of the population vote in a Canadian election?

Nothing. In the first place, not everyone is eligible to vote in an election. There are certain conditions which must be met to be eligible to vote (for example, you must be at least 18 years old, you must be a Canadian citizen, etc.), therefore the number of eligible voters will always be lower than the total population of the country or province (in the case of a provincial election). However, voting is not mandatory and there is no minimum turnout required to validate elections in Canada, therefore as long as some people turn out to vote and Members get elected, the election will be valid. Of course, ideally, every one who is eligible to vote should do so.

7. What happens if a party wins but their leader doesn’t win a seat?

If a party wins sufficient seats in an election to allow it to form the government, but the party leader doesn’t win his or her seat, that party still forms the government. The party will name an interim leader from among its elected members, and the actual leader will attempt to get elected to the House as quickly as possible. This will usually happen via a by-election. The party may convince one of its members from a very safe riding to resign their seat. A by-election will be called to fill the vacancy, and the party leader will run in that by-election. Usually they will win, but if they were to lose, then it would be expected that they would probably resign as party leader. The party would then hold a leadership convention to choose a new leader. All of this would have no impact on the party’s right to form the government, however. You might want to read this post on how the Prime Minister is chosen for more information.

8. What happens if a minority government is defeated?

If a government is defeated because it has lost the confidence of the House (and this could happen to a majority government as well, though it isn’t very likely), normally the defeated Prime Minister or Premier will suggest to the Governor General (or Lieutenant Governor in a province) one of two things: to ask the leader of another party if they can form a government that might command the confidence of the House, or to dissolve parliament and call a new election. What the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor will decide to do might depend on when in the life of the parliament the government loses the confidence of the House. If the government’s defeat occurs very early on in the life of the new parliament (i.e. very soon after a general election), the GG or LG might be more inclined to see if another party or group of parties can form a new government. If this is possible, than that party (or group of parties if they have formed a coalition or reached some sort of agreement) will form the government without an election being necessary. However, if no other party or group of parties is able to form a government which will command the confidence of the House, then the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor will dissolve parliament and call for a new election. The greater the distance between the last election and the defeat of the government, however, the more likely it is that the GG or LG will dissolve parliament and call for a new election.

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Understanding government formation

There is some confusion in Canada (and elsewhere) as to how government formation occurs following a general election, particularly when an election results in a hung parliament. This post will attempt to provide a basic overview of the process. First, there are a couple of key concepts to understand and keep in mind.

1. In Westminster parliamentary systems, voters do not elect governments

You may frequently read media reports saying that recent polls show that a minority or majority government will be elected. This is false. Canadians, including at the provincial level, do not elect governments, we elect a parliament. The vote you cast is for your local MP or provincial representative only. You are not casting a vote for who you would like to see as Prime Minister or Premier, nor for what party you want to see form the government. The only person you are electing is your local representative. Certainly, if there is a party you would prefer to see form the government, you can vote for that party’s local representative, but whether or not that party ends up in government will depend on the overall configuration of the parliament elected.

2. A parliament is not the same thing as a government

Media reports will frequently use the terms “minority government” and “minority parliament”. This may confuse some people into thinking they mean the same thing. They do not. A parliament is the sum total of all the elected MPs (or MPPs/MLAs) from all parties. A Parliament is summoned following a general election and continues to exist until it is dissolved (ended) by a proclamation of the Governor General/Lieutenant Governor at the request of the Prime Minister/Premier. This is followed by another general election to elect a new parliament. Every member of the government is a Member of Parliament, but not all Members of Parliament are members of the Government.

A minority parliament is one in which no one party has won a majority of the seats. The British use the term hung parliament rather than minority parliament, which is preferable (but still not great) since it is less open to confusion with minority government. This is the term I will use.

A minority government is a type of government where a party (or group of parties) forms the government even though they don’t control a majority of the seats in parliament. Minority government most commonly occurs when there is a hung parliament, but it isn’t the only type of government which can be formed in a hung parliament situation.

3. To form the government, a party or group of parties must demonstrate that it has the confidence of the House.

The Prime Minister/Premier and the Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer for, their actions to the House as a body and must enjoy the support and the confidence of a majority of the Members of that Chamber to remain in office. This is commonly referred to as the confidence convention.

Government formation in a hung parliament

There has been a general election. No single party has won a majority of the seats in the legislative body. This is a hung (or minority) parliament. What happens next?

1. Does the leader of the party with the most seats (but not a majority) automatically become the Prime Minister/Premier?

No. This is a very common misconception, but it is not how our parliamentary system works. It is the party leader who can command the confidence of the House who will form the government. This could be the leader of the party which finishes with the second-most seats, as long as they have the support of other smaller parties.

2. Does the incumbent party have the first shot at forming the government?

Yes. The incumbent party is the party which had formed the government in the previous parliament, i.e. before the election was called. As the incumbent, they have the right to first decide if they believe they can form a government which will command the confidence of the House, even if they do not finish with the most seats.

Depending on the actual distribution of seats, the likelihood of this will vary tremendously. For example, the May 2010 general election in the UK resulted in the Conservative Party winning 307 seats, Labour (the incumbent party) winning 258 seats, and the Liberal Democrats winning 57 seats. Other smaller parties claimed the remaining 28 seats. As the incumbent party, Labour had the right to see if it could form a government with the help of other parties. It began negotiating with the Liberal Democrats, proposing a sort of “rainbow coalition” with the Lib Dems and other smaller parties. Meanwhile, the Conservatives also negotiated with the Liberal Democrats. It took five days before it became clear that Labour wouldn’t be able to form a government which would command the confidence of the House, and only then did Prime Minister Gordon Brown tender his resignation to the Queen. The Conservatives reached an agreement with the Liberal Democrats to form a majority coalition government. So while the UK has a hung parliament, it has a majority government.

In some instances, it will be very clear that the incumbent party cannot in any way command the confidence of the House on its own, or even with the help of other parties. In other instances, the incumbent will be able to form the government, even if it finishes second, if it can get the support of other parties either formally, by forming a coalition, or more informally, through a confidence and supply agreement, for example. If we use the example of the 2010 UK election, if the gap between Labour and the Conservatives had been narrower, or if the Lib Dems had won a greater number of seats, it might have been possible for Labour to form the government with the support of the Lib Dems, even if they were still second in number of seats to the Conservatives.

3. How long does it take to form a government?

It takes as long as necessary.

Canadians are quite accustomed to finding out on election night what sort of government they will have. In the case of a single party winning a majority of seats, the outcome is obvious – that party will form the government. In the event of a hung parliament however, the type of government which will be formed isn’t immediately apparent. We have become use to the media declaring a “Party X minority government” but they really should not do this. It is not up to the media to decide what sort of government will emerge – it is up to the newly elected parliament.

As mentioned above, in the UK in 2010, it took five days for a government to form as both Labour, the incumbent party, and the Conservatives, who had won the most seats, negotiated with the Liberal Democrats to see what sort of government could be formed which would command the confidence of the House. No one in the UK media declared a “Conservative minority government” on election night once the results were known – they simply stated that it was a hung parliament and then waited as the parties negotiated.

If, on election night in Ontario, it is a hung parliament result, even if the PCs end up with the most seats but short of a majority, until the Liberal government officially resigns, they are still the government. The Liberals can take a few days, even weeks, to negotiate with the NDP to see if they can work out some form of government. The PCs can do the same thing. Even if the media immediately declares a “PC minority government”, they really should not do that until the parties themselves decide on what form of government will emerge, as will be discussed below.

The 2011 Ontario election: possible government formation outcomes

Current polls re: the 6 October 2011 election in the province of Ontario show that the two main parties, the Liberals – who are the incumbents – and the Progressive Conservatives, are in a virtual tie, with the third party, the New Democratic Party (NDP) not far behind. Most interpret this as meaning that a hung parliament will be the outcome of the election. However, Liberal support is higher in areas of the province where there are more seats at play, which means that there is a slight chance that the Liberals could eke out a very narrow majority win. Let’s look at various possible scenarios for government formation which could occur following the election on 6 October. Remember, there are 107 seats in the Ontario legislature, therefore a party (or coalition of parties) needs 54 seats to form a majority government. A hung parliament will result if no single party wins a majority of seats (54 seats or more).

1. Single-Party Majority Government

This is the most common, and traditionally expected outcome of an election conducted using First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) in the Westminster-model of parliamentary government. This is when a single party wins an overall majority of the seats in the legislative body. In the case of Ontario, one of the parties would have to win 54 or more seats in order to form a single-party majority government.

While most polls currently have the two main parties in a virtual dead heat, because Liberal support is strongest in parts of the province where there are more seats available to be won, some are projecting a very narrow Liberal majority government. For example, ThreeHundredandEight currently projects 58 seats for the Liberals (that is his final projection). If that is the result of the election, then the Liberals will form a narrow (5 seat) majority government.

2. Hung Parliament, Single-Party Minority Government

This is what Canadians and Ontarians are used to seeing when an election results in a hung parliament, with no single party winning a majority of the seats. Usually, the party which does win the largest number of seats will form a minority government. From 2004 until 2011, there have been minority governments in Ottawa, first Liberal (2004-06) then Conservative (2006-2008, 2008-2011). The last minority government in Ontario occurred in 1985.

Minority governments can be unstable, since the opposition will outnumber them and thus could easily defeat them on a confidence vote. Because of this, the party forming a minority government might seek to strengthen their position somewhat by reaching a confidence and supply agreement with a smaller party. This simply means that the 3rd party will commit to voting in favour of the governing party on all confidence votes and budget measures, sometimes in exchange for the party forming the government incorporating some of the 3rd party’s policies into its program. The governing party might also agree to not call another election for a fixed period of time, for example, two years. The smaller party will not be part of the government, however.

While normally it is the party with the most seats (but not a majority) which will form a minority government, this isn’t always the case. The party with the second highest number of seats could form a single-party minority government, if it reached some sort of agreement with a 3rd party. This is exactly what happened in Ontario in 1985. What matters, remember, is that the party forming the government have the confidence of the House, not whether they finished first or second in the seat count.

3. Hung Parliament, Coalition Majority Government

A hung parliament does not exclude the formation of a majority government. Two (or more) parties can agree to form a coalition government which would have a majority of seats in the legislature. This is what occurred in the United Kingdom in May 2010.

Unfortunately, coalition government, while entirely legitimate – and many would say preferable to single-party majority or minority government – is not likely to occur because there isn’t a tradition of coalition government in Canada or Ontario. Coalition government is far more common in jurisdictions which use some sort of proportional representation rather than FPTP.

Coalition differs from a confidence and supply agreement between two parties in that both parties form the government and both parties would have cabinet positions. The leader of the largest party in the coalition would become the Premier, and the leader of the smaller party would most likely be named Deputy Premier or given some other high profile portfolio.

4. Hung Parliament, Coalition Minority Government

In a hung parliament, it would be possible for two parties to form a coalition government, but the coalition would still be a minority government in that between them, they would not have a majority of seats in the Legislature.

This scenario would be highly unlikely in Ontario because it is extremely unlikely that a 4th party, or any independents, will win any seats. Because there will likely be only three parties elected to the Ontario legislature, Liberals, PCs an NDP, there isn’t any scenario that would allow for a minority coalition. Even if one party fell just shy of a majority of the seats on its own, for example, if the PCs won 53 seats, if the Liberals and NDP formed a coalition, between them they would have 54 seats – a majority. If the seats were more evenly distributed between the three parties, for example, Liberals 40, PCs 37, NDP 30, if the PCs and NDP formed a coalition, they would have a majority of the seats (67). If the Liberals and NDP formed a coalition, that too would be a majority government, 70 seats.

For a minority coalition to occur in Ontario, a fourth party would need to win seats. For example, let’s pretend the Green Party won seats as well, resulting in the following: Liberals 48 seats, PCs 42, NDP 10, Greens 7. The Liberals have more seats, but the PCs and NDP decide to form a coalition. Together they have 52 seats, more than the Liberals, but still not a majority. The Greens don’t want to be a part of the coalition but say they might support it on key votes. They aren’t interested in any sort of deal with the Liberals. So it’s still a minority government, but a PC-NDP coalition government rather than a single party government. However, as stated above, with only three parties expected to actually win seats, the math would not allow for a coalition minority government to occur.

The most important thing to remember is that which party, or parties, form the government will depend on whether they can command the confidence of the House, not where they finished in the seat count.

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Keyword post: Short answers to various queries

The following are answers to questions based on recent keyword search activity which has led people to this blog.

1. How many signatures does an e-petition require for it to be debated in the UK Parliament?

First of all, there is no guarantee that any petition will be debated in Parliament. Under the UK Government’s new e-petitions scheme, if an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures that will only guarantee that it will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate in the House of Commons, however, the Committee is free to consider scheduling a debate on any petition, regardless of the number of signatures it receives. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate. For a detailed explanation of this, please see this post. All petitions, however, will receive a response from the Government, once the period for signing them has closed.

2. If something happened to the Prime Minister, who would take over?

In countries such as Canada, the UK, etc., if the Prime Minister were incapacitated, decided to resign as his or her party leader or died suddenly, the party forming the government would simply name an interim leader from among its MPs. The interim leader would be acting Prime Minister while the party would hold a leadership race to choose a new leader, who would then automatically become the Prime Minister. These countries do not have presidential systems; prime ministers are not directly elected by voters to the post in general elections – the leader is chosen by the party. Parties can choose to change their leader at any time and for any reason, and if that party is the party that is forming the government, the new leader would become Prime Minister. Please see this post for information on how the Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister, and this post which addresses some related issues.

3. Who can force the Prime Minister out of office?

Since Prime Ministers in the UK and other countries are not directly elected by voters, they can’t really be forced out of office. The Prime Minister is simply an MP elected in a given constituency and who is also the leader of a political party which ends up forming the government. The surest way a PM can be removed from office by voters is for his or her party to be defeated in a general election. In between elections, however, a government can be removed from office if it loses the confidence of the House of Commons. Certain votes are considered confidence votes (the vote on the Speech from the Throne and the budget vote, for example). If a majority in the House vote against the government on these votes, the government is defeated. That could lead to a new election, or, depending on party standings in the House of Commons, another party might be asked to form the government. The party forming the government can also decide that it would prefer someone else to be its leader and force the current leader (and PM) to resign as party leader. The party would then choose a new leader, who would immediately become the Prime Minister. That party would still remain in power as the government, however.

4. How do I submit an e-petition to the Canadian House of Commons/provincial legislature?

Simply put, you can’t, unless you live in Quebec or in the Northwest Territories, which are the only legislatures in Canada which recognize or accept e-petitions. If you want to petition parliament or any other provincial legislature, you will have to do it the traditional way – print up your petition and collect real signatures on it. See this post for information on how to petitions legislatures in Canada.

5. Where I can find a picture of/more information about Eric Cameron Finance minister?

There is no such person as “Eric Cameron, Finance minister”. Eric Cameron is a fictional character in a novel, The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis.

6. Who are the contesting parties for the post of Prime Minister in the UK?

No one contests for the post of prime minister since the prime minister is not elected directly by voters. The leader of whichever party ends up forming the government following a general election will become prime minister. In the case of a coalition government, as is currently the case  in the UK, traditionally the leader of the largest party in the coalition normally becomes prime minister. Currently in the UK, there are only two parties which have a realistic chance at forming the government on their own (i.e., winning a majority of the seats), and thus their leader would become the Prime Minister. These are Labour (currently led by Ed Miliband) and the Conservatives (led by David Cameron, who is currently Prime Minister leading a Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats). Even if the next election resulted in another hung parliament, it would be either Miliband or Cameron who would end up as PM, depending on the actual seat results.

7. What happens if we elect a minority government in the Ontario election?

Voters don’t elect governments, they elect a parliament. If the election results in a hung (minority) parliament – in which no party wins a majority of the seats, there are many forms of government which could result. Please see this post for a full discussion of the various options that would be available for the parties to consider, depending on the actual results of the election.

8. In parliamentary systems, how much influence do the opposition parties have/how effective are the opposition parties?

There is no clear answer to this as it will depend on various factors such as the type of government in place and the circumstances the opposition parties find themselves in. For example, if an election results in a single-party majority government, the opposition parties will have very little influence. If an election results in a hung parliament, and a minority government emerges from that, the opposition parties are theoretically in a much stronger position since the minority government will require the support of some opposition members or parties in order to pass its legislation. This will force the government to include policies that it thinks will appeal to the opposition, or the opposition will be able to amend the legislation during committee stage. However, even in a minority government situation, sometimes the opposition parties find themselves in a very weakened position, and thus they are keen to avoid anything that might defeat the government and lead to an election since they themselves are not ready to fight an election. Perhaps they are in the midst of a leadership change, or their party is down in the polls, or they are having trouble raising money and can’t afford to fight an election. Because of this, they will be less likely to oppose the government.

In the case of a coalition government, such as is currently the case in the UK, while it does have a majority of seats, because the government is made up of two parties, this has the potential to make it more unstable than a single-party majority government. Also, UK MPs are much more independent than are their counterparts in countries such as Canada and Australia, where party discipline is very very strong and MPs rarely defy the party whips. Therefore in the UK, even government backbench MPs often oppose their own government.

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Has the Backbench Business Commitee been a success?

A reader of this blog asked if the UK House of Commons Backbench Business Committee has been a success. This is a difficult question to answer because I am not certain how one would measure  – or even define – success in this context.

For those unfamiliar with the Backbench Business Committee, this is a new Commons select committee created on 15 June 2010 through the adoption of a new standing order. The creation of such a committee had been proposed during the previous Parliament by the Wright Committee on Reform of the House of Commons in its report of 12 November 2009.

The purpose of the Backbench Business Committee is to schedule debates on 35 days during the current session. The House has decided that these days will be devoted to backbench business and that at least 27 of them will be debates in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, with the remainder to be taken in Westminster Hall. The Committee encourages suggestions for subjects suitable for debate from backbenchers (i.e., members who are not Ministers of the Crown or shadow ministers).

Why this is important/different

Prior to the creation of this committee, it was the government of the day which determined what items would be called for debate. This is exactly what happens in the Canadian House of Commons and provincial legislatures. The gradual takeover by the Government of House time began in the first half of the 19th century, in response to the growth in Government financial business and Ministerial legislation, and hasn’t abated. There is time specifically allocated for the debate of non-government business, for example Opposition days and Private members’ public business, but this made up a fraction of the overall business of the House. While the Government can call any item on the Order paper, including motions and bills moved by backbenchers, it is government business that takes precedence and dominates the business of the House.

The Wright Committee determined that:

176. Backbenchers should schedule backbench business. Ministers should give up their role in the scheduling of any business except that which is exclusively Ministerial business, comprising Ministerial-sponsored legislation and associated motions, substantive non-legislative motions required in support of their policies and Ministerial statements The rest of the business currently scheduled by Ministers—such as House domestic business, select committee reports and general and topical debates—is for backbenchers to propose and the House to decide.

178. The scheduling of backbench business by backbenchers will require a means to decide what proposals for such business should be put to the House for its agreement. The obvious route is a committee of backbenchers elected by the House for that purpose. Such a committee’s task will not be an easy one. But it is in our view time for Members of the House, through a committee of their elected colleagues, to take some responsibility for what the House debates, when and for how long; and also for what it does not wish to debate, either at all or at its current length. For example, the House must be enabled to decide whether to sacrifice or curtail or move to another forum one or more of the set piece debates to make space for other business.

179. This will reduce the current extent of Government control or influence over the Parliamentary agenda. But the matters “lost” to Government will be principally those in which it has no direct interest: for example, the timing and topics of general debates and discussion of select committee reports. Rather than Ministers seeking to prioritise the many demands for time that are presented by Members, this responsibility would be handed to a committee representative of the House as a whole.

180. We therefore recommend that a Backbench Business Committee be created. It should be comprised of between seven and nine members elected by secret ballot of the House as a whole, with safeguards to ensure a due reflection of party proportionality in the House as a whole. The Chair would also be elected by ballot of the whole House. Frontbench members of all parties and PPSs would be ineligible for membership of the committee. The committee would have its own secretariat, provided by the Clerk of the House. To ensure that it was fully informed on a range of considerations affecting the scheduling of debates, such as the availability of Ministers, it might wish to invite the attendance of the Government’s business managers for part of the meeting. The committee would meet weekly to consider the competing claims for time made by select committees and backbenchers in groups or as individuals for the protected days and/or time-slots [see below] available in the two weeks ahead, and then to come to a firm view on the backbench business in the week immediately ahead.

Has the Committee been a success?

Again, I am not certain how one would ascertain whether or not the Committee has succeeded. It has scheduled and continues to schedule, debates that are of interest to backbench MPs. The very first debate centred on the issue of Ministers making major policy announcements outside of the House of Commons. Following that debate in July last year, the House invited the Procedure Committee to consider how the rules of the House could be changed or better used to ensure that Ministers made important announcements to Parliament first. The Committee was also asked to develop a protocol governing the release of information by Ministers. The Committee reported in February, and among its recommendations, it proposed that the House adopt a resolution setting out in broad terms the behaviour expected of Ministers and that any minister who breached that protocol should make a formal apology to the House, and at a time when the House is well-attended, such as prior to PMQs. In particularly serious cases, a motion of censure could be moved.

There have been slight glitches, most recently concerning e-petitions, as explained in this post. However, the Committee recently announced two upcoming debates on both the riots and the Hillsborough documents, which will take place on October 13 and 17.

The Committee has been a success in the sense that the business of the House is no longer completely controlled by the Government. This situation may improve further still because the Coalition Government maintains that it is committed to establishing a House business committee in 2013.  A House Business Committee would be tasked with assembling a draft agenda to put to the House. According to the Wright Report, such a committee would be comprised of

representatives of all parts of the House with a direct interest: backbenchers, Government and Opposition. The members of this committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated by the three party leaders. We would expect the Leader and shadow Leaders of the House to be among these nominees. The House Business Committee should be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means [the Deputy Speaker], whose would have been elected by the House as a whole to that office with this function partly in mind. It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials who currently support the usual channels.

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