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.

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

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.

Related Posts:

The Backbench Business Committee on e-petitions

As readers may know, part of the plan when the UK Government launched its new e-petitions scheme this summer was that a petition which garnered over 100,000 signatures would be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for possible debate in Parliament. Two petitions have reached the required number of signatures and have been referred to the Committee (see this post for more information on this).

Today, the Backbench Business Committee has released on statement on e-petitions noting certain problems with the e-petitions scheme as currently set up and which need to be addressed. These problems are:

1. The Government has not allocated any additional time to the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling debates on e-petitions and the Committee’s existing limited supply of debate days is already oversubscribed.

2. More importantly, the Committee has no power to schedule debates unless some MPs come forward to tell the Committee that they wish to take part in them. However the Government has not provided any way to link petitions to MPs who wish to sponsor them on the e-petitions site, or any advice to petitioners on what they might need to do to achieve this.

The Committee concludes:

The Backbench Business Committee will:

  • publish advice on their website to help organisers of petitioners know how to take their case forward;
  • continue to press the Government to provide specific time for debates on e-petitions so that there is an effective way for the public to engage with Parliament;
  • hold individual and group meetings with campaign groups and organisers of e-petitions to discuss how best to get their issues on the agenda.

What this seems to imply is simply that there will not be any debate on any e-petition which reaches the 100,000 signature requirement unless the Government allocates more days to the Backbench Business Committee specifically for this purpose, and even then only if an MP or group of MPs sponsor a debate on an e-petition. Right now, there exists no way to link MPs with e-petitioners so that the MP can sponsor the e-petition and push for it to be debated.

Update: The Government indicated today that additional time might be allocated to the Backbench Business Committee for e-petition debates.

Related Posts:

What’s what in Parliament: The Standing Orders

The Standing Orders are the written rules under which a Parliament conducts its business. They regulate the way Members behave, Bills are processed and debates are organised. The continuing or “standing” nature of rules means that they do not lapse at the end of a session or a Parliament; they remain in effect until the House itself decides to suspend, change or repeal them. In some instances, however, provisional or temporary Standing Orders may be adopted by a legislature and last only until the end of a sesssion or a parliament.

The Standing Orders typically provide a detailed description of the legislative process, the election and role of the Speaker, the parliamentary calender, how committees will be organized and function, etc. However, not all rules observed in the House are found in the Standing Orders. Much of parliamentary procedure is not written into the Standing Orders but exist as the custom and practice of Parliament. Some stem from Speaker’s rulings in the legislative chamber, other procedures are followed because that’s the way things have been done in the past, so a precedent has been set. These will vary from one legislative body to another. For example, in the UK House of Commons, the practice that Bills are ‘read’ three times in both Houses is not in the Standing Orders, but it is in the Canadian House of Commons Standing Orders (SO 71). Another example, in the Canadian House of Commons, Members must not use props, displays or exhibits during debate, and any Member who does so will be ruled out of order by the Speaker. However, there is no rule in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons forbidding the use of props; this is simply a long-standing parliamentary convention.

Similarly, there may be rules in place which simply aren’t followed at all any more, or else actual practice followed in the House may differ from what is stipulated in the rules.

Other aspects of how business transpires in a Parliament are governed by the country’s constitution, as well as certain Acts. Some of these constitutional provisions may be adopted as formal rules in the Standing Orders. Using Canada again as an example, we learn in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.) that:

Sections of the Constitution Act, 1867 which can be traced back to the Constitutional Act, 1791 stipulate that all questions arising in the House are to be decided by a simple majority, with the Speaker having a casting vote in the case of a tie, and that all Members must take a prescribed oath before being allowed to take their seat in the House. Those sections of the Constitution Act, 1867 which can be traced back to the Union Act, 1840 stipulate that on first assembling, the House must elect a Speaker, that it must also proceed to elect another Speaker in the case of a vacancy in that office due to death, resignation or some other cause, that the Speaker shall preside at all meetings of the House, that the quorum of the House shall be 20 Members, and that all requests for the raising or spending of money must originate in the House of Commons and must be recommended to the House by the Governor General.

The Parliament of Canada Act also contains many important provisions which are of procedural significance. Examples of these include: the power of the House and its committees to administer oaths to witnesses appearing either at the Bar of the House or before a committee; procedures to be followed when Members resign or when seats are otherwise vacated; conflict of interest rules applicable to Members; a Deputy Speaker’s ability to act in the Speaker’s absence, etc.

The Standing Orders belong to the legislative body they govern, and that legislative body is free to amend or repeal any rule, and create new ones. In some instances, this is done by an all-party parliamentary committee which will review existing rules and put forward recommendations to improve how the House conducts its business. In other instances, the government of the day will propose changes to the rules which will then be debated in House and often reviewed by a committee. Sometimes the Speaker, in a ruling on a matter which may not be explicitly covered by the Standing Orders, may refer the matter to a committee for consideration, which may result in changes to the Standing Orders.

___________

United Kingdom House of Commons Standing Orders – Public Business, Private Business
United Kingdom House of Lords Standing Orders – Public Business, Private Business, Authoritative Guide
Canadian House of Commons Standing Orders
Canadian Senate Standing Orders
Australian House of Representatives Standing Orders
Australian Senate Standing Orders
New Zealand Parliament Standing Orders

Related Posts:

Some interesting links

This blog’s author is rather swamped at work these days, and so I will take this opportunity to share with you some recent links that have caught my attention.

1. Is the tide finally turning for Nick Clegg?

Having gone from everyone’s darling after the first ever leaders’ debates last spring to the most despised person in British politics, Nick Clegg seems to be getting some respect in the press these days, and from rather unlikely sources. First up is this piece in the right-leaning, pro-Tory Telegraph by Paul Goodman, wherein he writes: “Whatever happens, Clegg will be in the midst of it – polite, influential, under-scrutinised and enduring as ever, despite the opprobrium heaped on his head. (…) His party has not split. He has faced no leadership challenge. None of the party’s MPs has called for him to go. His last party conference rallied round – as will the coming one, despite the inevitable huffing and puffing. His one-man masochism strategy is also a marathon strategy, as he strains towards the day when voters will thank him, however begrudgingly, for his role in the great mission of deficit reduction.”

Then there’s Rafael Behr’s piece in the left-leaning, pro-Labour New Statesman: “Speculation along these lines is a diverting political parlour game, but it ignores the current reality that Clegg is the Deputy PM, leading a party with enough seats in parliament and enough ministers in cabinet to leave yellow fingerprints all over government. The best testimony to the Lib Dems’ power is the fury it routinely provokes on the Tory right. Hawkish on the deficit, liberal on social policy and populist on bankers; thriftier than Labour but nicer than the Tories, the Lib Dems are squatting stubbornly, sometimes chaotically, in the middle of British politics. The voters might not thank Nick Clegg for it in the opinion polls; the other parties resent him for it. One thing he cannot be, however, is ignored.”

2. Political perceptions run amok

Recently, in The Observer, we learned that Labour’s new strategy would be to attack David Cameron as a “recognisably rightwing” leader. This view of Cameron was roundly rejected by readers of the more right-leaning Spectator (note the reader comments on this piece, rather than the blog post itself) and over at ConservativeHome, where the general consensus among right-wing Tories is that David Cameron may be many things, but right-wing is not one of them.

3. Parliamentum

For anyone who generally enjoys reading this blog, I would like to recommend another blog to you, Parliamentum, written by James W. J. Bowden. He writes about “Westminster parliamentarism in the core Commonwealth (The UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), particularly the unwritten constitution, the reserve powers of the crown, and the evolution of parliament, the cabinet, and the crown as institutions.” His approach is more academic than mine, since my goal is more to explain how parliament and parliamentary procedure works to people who aren’t very familiar with either, but I think both blogs complement each other quite well.

4. The Cabinet Manual and the Working of the British Constitution

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) released  a report analyzing the draft Cabinet Manual, a potentially powerful document that codifies and unites the often unwritten conventions and rules that have governed and guided governmental activity for decades. I have mentioned this draft Cabinet Manual in a few posts. You can download the PDF of this report here.

5. For anyone going through Parliament withdrawal

Some good news: the UK Parliament resumes sitting next week. The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy provides a handy look-ahead as to what to expect. If any of that sounds interesting to you, you can livestream proceedings in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and committee hearings thanks to Parliament Live TV. Canada’s Parliament doesn’t come back from its summer holidays until September 19.

Related Posts:

Speaker Bercow and accusations of bias

British House of Commons Speaker John Bercow annoys many MPs. There have been a rash of articles over the course of the past year hinting at behind-the-scenes plots to get rid of him. Having regularly livestreamed proceedings from the UK House of Commons, I find it difficult to assess why there is such animosity towards Speaker Bercow.

Reasons oft-advanced is that he is arrogant and overbearing, and that he hates the Conservative Party. It is this last point that raises some eyebrows. Bercow was a member of the Conservatives, until he became Speaker of course. Like all MPs elected Speaker in the UK, once elected to the post, Bercow resigned his party membership in order to maintain the highest degree of impartiality. And is perhaps because he does strive to be impartial that some Conservative MPs think he now “hates” the party.

Recently, the Daily Mail ran an article claiming that Bercow reprimands Conservative MPs twice as often as the does Labour MPs. This conclusion is based on figures compiled by Rob Wilson, the parliamentary private secretary to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who counted the number of times Mr Bercow shouted “order” at MPs since the general election in May 2010. He found that Conservative members were admonished 257 times compared with 109 times for Labour MPs. The article quotes Mr. Wilson saying: “Those MPs who have suggested bias in the Speaker’s handling of the Commons would feel vindicated by these figures.”

Of course, there was no suggestion anywhere that perhaps, just perhaps, Conservative MPs were called to order more often because it was deserved.

Conservative backbench MP Douglas Carswell addressed some of the complaints made against Speaker Bercow earlier this year. He dismissed the claims that Bercow was biased:

Bercow’s biased, complain others. If by that you mean he shows favour to one side of the Commons chamber or party, that is demonstrably not true. If anything he can be tediously even handed.

What bias Bercow does undoubtedly have is one which favours backbenchers against the frontbenches - and in support of the legislature over the executive.

Under Bercow, even tiddly little backbenchers like me can force ministers to come before the Commons and answer urgent questions. It makes their life difficult – and keeps them on their toes.

Commentators have observed the way in which this Parliament is more rebellious than others. One of the key reasons for this is the way the Speaker calls amendments. Under previous Speakers amendments tabled by backbenchers that the government might have found inconvenient would almost never get called. Now, there is every chance that they will.

I suspect that is precisely why part of the Tory hierarchy has taken against Mr B. It is because the legislature is slowly getting off its knees, no longer lying prostrate before the executive, that some inside the government remember fondly the days when Whips anointed Speakers – and Speakers behaved accordingly.

This is the impression I have from watching proceedings in the House of Commons. If Bercow is biased, as Carswell notes, it is towards the legislature at the expense of the executive. He is helped in that role by some of the new procedures that were voted on by the House in the dying days of the previous Parliament, such as the creation of a Backbench Business Committee, new rules for electing committee chairs and choosing committee membership, etc., which have also strengthened the legislature vis à vis the executive. But Bercow has also appeared more willing to make use of existing rules, such as Urgent Questions. His predecessor, Speaker Martin, allowed only two urgent questions during his last year as Speaker; Bercow has granted over 60 in the first year of this new Parliament.

If the legislature is being strengthened at the expense of the executive, it is natural that the party forming the executive would perceive that as bias against them. Once in power, a party develops a sense of entitlement; having that undercut doesn’t always sit very well.

This is not meant to downplay many of the other criticisms levelled at both Speaker Bercow, and in particular, his very out-spoken wife. However, the charges of “hating” the Conservatives, and bias in the Chamber are, I believe, undeserved. The rules have changed, voted on and adopted by the House itself, and Speaker Bercow is simply applying those rules. Perhaps some MPs belonging to one of the parties forming the government believe they are entitled to more of a free ride in the House. Speaker Bercow disagrees.

Related Posts:

On Members’ attire

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I pay tribute to all the public sector workers we rely on time and time again, and in particular those in Staffordshire. Over many months, I have had letters from serving police officers concerned about the Winsor report and the knock-on effect on morale, and about A19 and losing senior officers. Now they are concerned about the fact that having been called on at our time of need—out on the streets, putting themselves in the firing line—they are having their leave cancelled and having to give up holidays due to overtime requirements. It was an hour and a half before we heard the words “Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary”, and we have heard nothing about Mayor Boris Johnson’s view about policing cuts. Will the Prime Minister finally get to his feet and address the loss of 16,000 jobs?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether we need an inquiry into safety in the House, Mr Speaker, but someone seems to have stolen the hon. Gentleman’s jacket.

I accept that we are asking police officers to do a difficult job and, yes, we are asking them to undergo a pay freeze, as other public sector workers are doing, but we are giving them the backing they want by cutting paperwork and enabling them to get out on the street and do the job they want to do.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s concern, but I assure the House that nothing disorderly has happened. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) was perfectly in order. He was focusing not on sartorial matters but on violence, and he was perfectly in order. We will leave it at that. I ask the House to try to rise to the level of events. (Source: House of Commons Hansard, 11 August 2011)

This exchange took place during Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement on the civil unrest which had occurred in the United Kingdom earlier in the week. The fact that a Labour MP appeared in the House of Commons sans jacket caused somewhat of a stir. Despite the overall seriousness of the subject being debated, ConservativeHome still felt it noteworthy to blog about Mr. Flello’s perceived lack of disrespect for House rules.

The blog post’s author, Matthew Barrett, cites Erkine May, the “bible” of Parliamentary procedure:

This seems to be very much the opinion of Mr Speaker Bercow. Erskine May specifically says:

“The Speaker has also stated that it is the custom for gentlemen members to wear jackets and ties.”

It appears that Mr. Barrett doesn’t have the most current edition of Erskine May, which was published this year. In the 24th edition, it states:

It remains the custom for gentlemen Members to wear jackets and ties, but the Speaker has not enforced the practice in all circumstances. (p. 451)

Examples cited of Speakers not enforcing this practice pre-date Speaker Bercow, and so contrary to comments made by readers and Mr. Barrett’s insinuation, this isn’t simply the opinion of Speaker Bercow, who has been criticized by some for shunning the Speaker’s traditional garb and wig. Here is one such example from 1989:

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes) :On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I clearly heard you call the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). It is the third time in the past half hour that you have called him. We are in danger of a precedent being set as not only is he not wearing a jacket when you have called him, but he has his shirt sleeves rolled up. Will you please ask him to withdraw from the Chamber until he is properly dressed, or not call him again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I know that Mr. Speaker has dealt with this matter on a number of occasions. He has requested normal dress in the Chamber, but he has never said that it is an absolute condition for an hon. Member being called. He has merely deprecated abnormal dress. I call Mr. Nellist.

The Canadian House of Commons has a similar tradition. As we learn from House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.), p. 603-4:

While the Standing Orders prescribe no dress code for Members participating in debate, Speakers have ruled that all Members desiring to be recognized at any point during the proceedings of the House must be wearing contemporary business attire. Current practice requires that male Members wear jackets, shirts and ties. Clerical collars have been allowed, although ascots and turtlenecks have been ruled inappropriate for male Members participating in debate. The Chair has even stated that wearing a kilt is permissible on certain occasions (for example, Robert Burns Day). Members of the House who are in the armed forces have been permitted to wear their uniforms in the House. Although there is no notation to this effect in the Journals or in the Debates, a newly-elected Member introduced in the House in 2005 wore traditional Métis dress (including a white hooded anorak bearing an embroidered seal emblem) on that occasion without objection from the Chair.

In certain circumstances, usually for medical reasons, the Chair has allowed a relaxation of the dress standards allowing, for example, a Member whose arm was in a cast to wear a sweater in the House instead of a jacket.

Interesting to note that Members who are in the armed forces can wear their uniform in the Canadian House of Commons, but Erskine May states that “the wearing of military insignia or uniform inside the Chamber is not in accordance with the long-established custom of the House.”

New Zealand and Australia also have specific guidelines governing proper attire for their elected representatives. In the Australian House of Representatives, while the standard of dress is left to the individual judgement of each Member, the ultimate discretion rests with the Speaker. In 1983, the Speaker explained that his rule in the application of this discretion was “neatness, cleanliness and decency.” In 1999, another Speaker noted that Members traditionally chose to dress in a manner similar to that generally accepted in business and professional circles. It was generally accepted that the standards should involve “good trousers, a jacket, collar and tie for men and a similar standard of formality for women” but that he would not apply these standards rigidly. For example, should the air conditioning fail, it would be acceptable for male Members to remove their jackets. Clothing with slogans, however is not generally allowed (House of Representatives Practice, p. 157).

In New Zealand, while there are no fashion codes prescribed, the Speaker normally takes issue with any Member not dressed in appropriate business attire. However, the Speaker regularly polls male Members regarding their attitude to wearing a jacket and tie in Chamber. (Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, p. 125)

Related Posts:

Page 11 of 17« First...910111213...Last »