Who’s Who in Parliament: the Sergeant-at-Arms

The Sergeant-at-Arms (or Serjeant-at-Arms) performs a dual role in the House of Commons, ceremonial and administrative.

An article in “The Table”, the journal of Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments, notes that in England people who were permanently retained by the Sovereign to perform certain services became known as Sergeants. It suggests that Sergeants-at-Arms were originally the King’s bodyguard.

The Sergeant-at-Arms was a personal attendant upon the King, especially charged with arresting those suspected of treason. Richard I had 24 with him on the Crusades. They were formed into a 20-strong Corps of Sergeants-at-Arms by King Edward I in 1278, as a mounted close escort. In 1399 King Richard II limited the corps to 30 Sergeants, and King Charles II had 16. The number was reduced to 8 in 1685 and gradually declined thereafter.

Around 1415, the British House of Commons received its first Sergeant-at-Arms. From that time onwards the sergeant has been a royal appointment, the sergeant being one of the Sovereign’s Sergeants-at-Arms.

There are several theories to account for the introduction of the Sergeant-at-Arms into Parliament, and later, the House of Commons. Some are presented below.

One theory holds that the assignment of a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Commons Speaker was a scheme by the King in 1415 to extend his power over Parliament. However, it is debatable if this was the true reason. In the early 15th century, the House of Commons was still quite subservient and certainly did not command enough power to warrant such a move by the King. More likely, the introduction of a Serjeant-at-Arms came at the request of the House of Commons itself in order to enforce parliamentary privilege. By virtue of the King’s insignia on his mace, the Serjeant-at-Arms was empowered to exercise royal authority over ordinary citizens through the instructions of the Speaker. When Parliament was not sitting, he returned to duty in the Royal Household.

The article in The Table proposes that since Parliament met where the King lived (the Palace at Westminster), it was only natural that he should have seconded two Sergeants-at-Arms to attend upon the Houses. A pamphlet written about 1322 suggests that the function of the first parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms was that of a door-keeper.

Another theory, one advanced by I.T.P. Hughes, a former British Sergeant-at-Arms, proposes the Sergeant-at-Arms was appointed to protect the Speaker. The demands placed on the Speaker by his master, the Commons, often conflicted with the demands placed on the Speaker by the King, who had appointed him. Violent disagreement was often the result. Richard II, therefore, appointed a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Speaker about 1391.

The position of Sergeant-at-Arms was obviously introduced during a critical stage in the evolution of Parliament. The House of Lords and the House of Commons were both trying to consolidate their powers at a time of great confusion over roles, authority and privilege, which explains why there is disagreement surrounding the Sergeant-at-Arms’ precise date and purpose of introduction.

Original Role of the Sergeant-at-Arms in Parliament

As mentioned above, the Sergeant-at-Arms was essentially a door-keeper, meaning that he was the Commons’ Usher, Keeper of the Doors, and Housekeeper. As the public became more aware of the activities of Parliament and began to attend sittings, someone was needed to maintain order.

The maintenance of law and order, and the execution of warrants were among the earliest functions of the Sergeant-at-Arms. In the 16th century, however, saw a shift in the authority of the position. Until then, it had come from the Sovereign, through the Speaker. Henry VIII now delegated the wielding of the Sergeant’s authority to the House of Commons.

Because he attended the Speaker, he was involved in all ceremonial functions connected with that office.

By the 17th century, the Sergeant’s department was fairly well established and consisted of the Vote Office (which was primarily concerned with the distribution of the journals of the day to Members), the Deputy Housekeeper, two door-keepers, four messengers and various watchmen and firelighters.

Role of the Sergeant-at-Arms today

The office of Sergeant-at-Arms continues to serve legislatures across the Commonwealth that adhere to British tradition. A sense of the position’s medieval origins persists, particularly in its ceremonial role in parliamentary proceedings. Over time and in many jurisdictions, maintaining order in the Chamber and housekeeping duties have evolved into responsibility for security beyond the walls of the Chamber and property management functions.

The Sergeant-at-Arms’ ceremonial duties involves carrying the House of Commons mace during the Speaker’s procession. This is when the Speaker and his staff walk to the House of Commons chamber before each sitting. The Sergeant-at-Arms occupies a desk at the Bar of the House when the House is sitting. In accordance with the Standing Orders, the Sergeant-at-Arms preserves order in the galleries, lobbies, and corridors and is responsible for taking into custody strangers who misbehave in the galleries. Under the direction of the Speaker, the Sergeant-at-Arms is also the Chief Security Officer responsible for the overall security within the Parliamentary precinct.

(Sources: House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Edition, The Table, Office of the Speaker, Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan website, Legislative Assembly of Ontario website, Wikipedia, Parliament of Australia House of Representatives website, UK Parliament website)

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On giving way

In the Canadian House of Commons, during any debate, each Member of Parliament (MP) who rises to speak does so uninterrupted for a pre-determined length of time, normally 10 or 20 minutes. During that time, a Member may only interrupt another Member for very specific, procedural reasons, for example, to:

  • call attention to a point of order;
  • call attention to a matter of privilege suddenly arising;
  • call attention to the lack of a quorum. etc.

Beyond these procedural reasons, however, no Member may interrupt a Member who has the floor to question some aspect of the remarks the speaking Member is making.

In the UK House of Commons (and in the New Zealand House of Representatives), however, the Member who has the floor can be interrupted by another MP who wishes to question a point the Member has just made. This is called “to give way” or “giving way”. The interjector seeks to rise during the course of another Member’s speech with a question or comment relevant to a point made by that member. The member who has the floor may “give way” and resume his or her seat temporarily (or refuse to do so) so that the question can be asked or the comment made.

If a member does give way to another, this can only be for the purpose of allowing the other to refer to matters raised by the member speaking. Giving way is a way of making an interjection, not a speech. It should only be for a brief period, after which the member with the call resumes speaking. Giving way is not a means of transferring the call or of developing a subject at length. If more than a reasonable time has been taken by the member who intervenes, the Speaker will interrupt and ask the original member to resume his or her speech.

As stated, the Member who has the floor can refuse to give way, or they can insist on delaying giving way in order to make more progress in their own remarks. Here is an example from a recent debate in the UK House of Commons on the subject of Lords Reform, where Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who opened the debate, both gives way and refuses to do so in order to progress with his opening remarks:

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has, say, six Members of the European Parliament floating around, as he puts it, in his area already, and I assume that relations are perfectly cordial. I do not want to cast aspersions on the future reformed House of Lords by comparing it too directly to the European Parliament, but the idea that politicians with different mandates, elected on different cycles and different systems, cannot co-exist, is patently not the case. It happens now, and I think it will happen in the future.

By reforming the upper House so that it is more legitimate but still independent, we can ensure that it continues to function as an effective revising Chamber, able to hold Government to account, but with a new democratic mandate. We can preserve everything that is good about the other Chamber—expertise, independence and wisdom—but at the same time we can inject democracy into the mix and reform the Lords so that it is fit for modern times.

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I am probably in a minority on the Government Benches, but I support a democratic House of Lords. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise, however, that the complications that he has already put in place in the 20 minutes that he has spoken so far will help opponents of reform to frustrate what he is trying to achieve, whether it be 15-year terms, a partly elected or fully elected Chamber, or a proportional representation system? It is literally seven and a half weeks since the people of this country, in a plebiscite, had a chance to say, overwhelmingly, that they did not want a PR system in our Parliament. How can he possible consider that this is the right way forward for democratising the House of Lords?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The two issues are wholly separate. More than that, if my hon. Friend has other ideas about how we can arrive at our shared objective of a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords, that is precisely why we are now creating a Joint Committee. That is precisely why we have published not a final Bill but a draft Bill with a White Paper and why that followed a process of cross-party discussion in a Committee that I chaired, and which in turn built on many recommendations of a cross-party nature over the years and the decades. It was not just an invention of this Government. The Wakeham commission, the Straw committee and others came up with many of the recommendations that we are now suggesting. If he thinks they are too complicated, I look forward to his suggestions about how they can be made simpler.

Mr Gray: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If I may make a little progress, because I know many others wish to speak.

Our proposals are a comprehensive blueprint for change—there are 68 clauses and nine schedules. There is a lot to discuss. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) will respond to points raised in the debate in his closing speech.

The next stage, as I have just mentioned, is pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill and White Paper on a cross-party basis by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am sure that the Committee will take note of today’s debate in its deliberations, and we look forward to hearing its conclusions in due course. The Government’s plan is then to introduce a Bill next year in order to hold the first elections to the reformed House in 2015. There is clearly a lot of detail to be hammered out between now and then, and I hope that both sides of this House and of the other place will work together constructively as we move forward.

The truth is that no one seriously supports the status quo. [Interruption.] The vast majority of people do not support the status quo. I am delighted, by the way, by the enthusiasm for change from Opposition Members, which is excellent progress compared with the previous debate. Everyone has committed to change and we must now be pragmatic on the detail, never losing sight of the basic principle at stake: in a modern democracy, people must choose their representatives. Let us complete the long journey of Lords reform once and for all.

The practice of giving way or yielding did exist in the Canadian House of Commons up until 1982, when questions and comments were introduced. Prior to 1982 and the advent of the questions and comments period following most speeches, a Member wishing to ask a question during debate had first to obtain the consent of the Member who was speaking. The Member allowing the interruption was under no obligation to reply, and was often reluctant to do so, as the time taken up in this way was subtracted from his or her speaking time. Questions and Comments is a procedure during the course of certain debates that allocates 5 or 10 minutes (depending on how the time limit for Members’ speeches in the debate) following Members’ speeches to be used by other Members to comment on or question the contents of the remarks just made and for the speaking Member to respond. This rule was introduced to provide an opportunity for exchanges between Members in the spirit of debate without Members’ losing speaking time by having to yield to other Members during the time allocated for them to speak during a debate.

Having frequently observed debates in both the Canadian and UK Houses of Commons, I personally find the UK debates, with their practice of giving way somewhat more fluid and more like actual debate and discussion. The Canadian format, with each Member having a specific block of time during which they speak, uninterrupted, followed by a 5 or 10 minute time during which there may or may not be any questions and comments from other Members feels more stifled or artificial.

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Ministerial responsibility

Ministerial responsibility takes two forms — collective cabinet responsibility (or ‘cabinet solidarity’) and individual ministerial responsibility. Both concepts are governed by conventions inherited from Westminster and both are central to the working of responsible government.

Cabinet is collectively responsible to the people, through the Parliament, for determining and implementing policies for national government. Broadly, it is required by convention that all Ministers must be prepared to accept collective responsibility for, and defend publicly, the policies and actions of the Government. Part of this, of course, requires that the loss of a vote on a no-confidence motion or on a major issue is expected to lead to the resignation of the whole Government. You may want to have a look at this post on collective ministerial responsibility and coalition government.

What I want to look at in this post, however, is the matter of individual responsibility.

As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed., p. 32):

The individual or personal responsibility of the Minister derives from a time when in practice and not just in theory the Crown governed; Ministers merely advised the Sovereign and were responsible to the Sovereign for their advice. The principle of individual ministerial responsibility holds that Ministers are accountable not only for their own actions as department heads, but also for the actions of their subordinates; individual ministerial responsibility provides the basis for accountability throughout the system. Virtually all departmental activity is carried out in the name of a Minister who, in turn, is responsible to Parliament for those acts. Ministers exercise power and are constitutionally responsible for the provision and conduct of government; Parliament holds them personally responsible for it.

We’ve seen some good examples of this with the Coalition government in the United Kingdom. By my count, there have been at least four such instances during the Coalition’s first year in power. It isn’t that surprising that the Coalition has had a bit of a rocky start – few in cabinet have had previous government experience, and the merging of two very different parties was bound to create a few headaches along the way. What is interesting to me, however, is that the apologies have occurred promptly after the incident that triggered them.

The first minister to issue a full apology was Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, on 7 July 2010. On 5 July, Gove had made a ministerial statement to the House announcing the cancellation of a Schools Rebuilding Fund, which meant that many schools would see planned renovations cancelled. Accompanying his statement, Gove tabled a list of the affected schools. It turned out that many schools had been miscategorized, which caused great confusion and consternation among local councils across the country. In his 7 July statement before the House, Gove apologised for the way information accompanying his earlier statement was provided to Members, for the inaccurate information provided, and for the confusion caused by the inaccurate information and  media speculation over the nature of his apology.

On 17 February 2011, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, apologised for the Government’s plan to sell off public forests. According to many accounts I’d read, the policy in itself was a good one; the initial problem was how the government presented it and its failure to communicate it effectively, allowing environmental activists to mount strong opposition. Spelman took full responsibility “for the situation” and ended her statement with “I am sorry we got this one wrong, but we have listened to people’s concerns.”

A couple of weeks later, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for botched attempts to rescue UK citizens from Libya. The House was not sitting at the time, so his apologies were made to the press. Cameron stated:

Of course I am incredibly sorry. They have had a difficult time. The conditions at the airport have been extremely poor.

There are going to be lessons to be learned from this and we will make absolutely sure that we learn them for the future but, right now, the priority has got to be getting those British nationals home. (…)

This is not an easy situation to deal with. It is immensely frustrating for the people on the ground and we will do everything we can to get those people home.

Cameron also delivered a full statement to the House of Commons when it met again on 28 February 2011. He didn’t apologise, but updated Members on the situation in Libya and the Government’s response.

This contrasts sharply with Canada’s own problems rescuing Canadians from Libya. Neither the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense nor the Minister of External Affairs apologised for the problems, and in some interviews, the Minister of Defense seemed to be laying the blame on External Affairs (which violates the convention of collective responsibility) and denied planes had left Tripoli empty. The Prime Minister also announced sanctions and other measures, not in the House of Commons, but in a televised address.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, on 7 March 2011, Foreign Secretary William Hague took full responsibility for what had gone wrong with a special forces’ mission to Libya. Hague didn’t apologise, but he did assume full responsibility for the botched mission.

In Canada, on 25 May, 2010, following requests that ministers’ staff members appear before committees to testify, the Government House Leader stated in the Canadian House of Commons that:

In our system of government, the powers of the Crown are exercised by ministers who are, in turn, answerable to Parliament. Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the government. They are supported in the exercise of their responsibilities by the public servants and by members of their office staffs.

It is the responsibility of individual public servants and office staff members to provide advice and information to ministers, to carry out faithfully the directions given by ministers, and in so doing, to serve the people of Canada. These employees are accountable to their superiors, and ultimately to their minister, for the proper and competent execution of their duties.

Ours is a system of responsible government because the government must retain the confidence of the House of Commons and because ministers are responsible to the House for everything that is done under their authority. We ministers are answerable to Parliament and to its committees. It is ministers who decide policy and ministers who must defend it before the House and ultimately before the people of Canada.

Accordingly, responsibility for providing information to Parliament and its committees rests with ministers. Officials have no constitutional responsibility to Parliament, nor do they share in that of ministers. They do, however, support ministers in their relationship with Parliament, and to this extent, they may be said to assist in the answerability of ministers to Parliament.


There is a clear case to be made that the accountability of political staff ought to be satisfied through ministers. Ministers ran for office and accepted the role and responsibility of being a minister. Staff did not.

Interestingly, the new version of the “Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State” published in May 2011, contains the following passage:

Ministerial accountability to Parliament does not mean that a Minister is presumed to have knowledge of every matter that occurs within his or her department or portfolio, nor that the Minister is necessarily required to accept blame for every matter. (p. 3)

When a minster does take responsibility and apologises to the House, there are frequently calls for the minister to resign. Many are quick to assume that if a minister apologises, then there was some error or wrongdoing that occurred, otherwise, the minister wouldn’t apologise. And if some wrongdoing occurred, then the minister is ultimately responsible, and should therefore resign. However, ministerial responsibility is not that black and white. Taking responsibility for mistakes made by staff does not mean the minister is directly responsible for those mistakes occurring. It simply means the minister acknowledges that mistakes were made in his or her deparment, the department regrets that fact, and the matter will be corrected.

Unless there is very clear evidence linking the minister directly to whatever departmental wrongdoing has come to light, ministers can accept responsibility, but lay the blame on department staff. What is far more likely to bring down a minister is a matter of personal misconduct. Sexual or financial scandals, rather than administrative failure, have been far more likely to destroy a ministerial career.

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What’s what in Parliament: the Bar of the House

On April 17, 2002, angry with the outcome of a vote on his private Member’s bill, a Canadian Member of Parliament grabbed hold of the Mace. This action was considered to be in contempt of the House and a prima facie breach of privilege was found. A week later, the House adopted a motion calling not only for the Member to appear at the Bar of the House, but also to apologize for his actions. The next day, the Member appeared at the Bar and apologized to the House.

What is the Bar of the House? It is, quite literally, a barrier at the entrance into the Chamber which marks its boundaries. In the UK, the Bar is actually a white line across the width of the floor of the  Chamber of the House of Commons. In the Canadian House of Commons, the Bar of the House is a brass rod extending across the floor of the Chamber inside its south entrance. In the Australian House of Representatives, the Bar is a cylindrical bronze rail which can be lowered across the entrance. In New Zealand, the Bar is a brass rod that can be placed across the entry to the chamber of the House of Representatives. Other chambers also have Bars, the above are but a few examples.

The Bar plays an important symbolic role. It is a barrier past which uninvited representatives of the Crown, including Members of the Upper Chamber, and other non-Members are not welcome. Strangers – which includes everyone who is not a Member of the House or an official of the House, are not allowed on the floor of the Chamber. They must remain behind the Bar. The Bar is a point outside which no Member may speak to the House or over which no visitor may cross and enter the Chamber unless invited by the House.

The Bar also has a procedural role. In theory a person may be brought to the Bar of the House to receive thanks, to provide information or documents, to answer charges or to receive punishment. When an individual – be it a Member or a stranger – is found to be in contempt of the House, meaning guilty of an offense against the dignity or authority of Parliament, they may be summoned to the Bar of the House to answer to the authority of the House, or to be reprimanded by the Speaker in the name of the House. This was fairly common procedure in the early days of Parliament, but happens rarely now. In the Canadian House of Commons, it has occurred only twice since 1913. It has occurred only once in the Australian House of Representatives, in 1955.

In Australia in 1921, the Prime Minister of the day put forward a proposal that the House of Representatives allow a Senate Minister to address the House on the administration of his department from the floor of the House.  The Speaker stated that he knew of no authority which would permit anyone who wasn’t a member of the House to address the House from the floor of the Chamber, but that if the members agreed, the Senator could address the House from the Bar. After much debate, the Prime Minister decided not to proceed with the proposal. (Source: House of Representatives, Debates, (2.12.21) 13585.)

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On debating bills (Canada)

(Note: this post is not intended as a detailed explanation of the legislative process. For an explanation of how a bill becomes law (in Canada), please click here. For an explanation of how a bill becomes law in the UK, click here.)

For a bill to become law, it must receive three readings. Anyone who has paid any attention to parliamentary debate will be familiar with terms such as “second reading debate of bill XYZ”, for example.

However, while we refer to these three stages of a bill as readings – first, second and third reading,  the bill is never actually read in the House of Commons:

The practice of giving every bill three separate readings derives from an ancient parliamentary practice which originated in the United Kingdom. At that time, when the technology was not yet available to reproduce large numbers of copies at low cost, bills were introduced in handwritten form, one copy at a time. In order for Members to discern the content of the bill, the Clerk read it to them; thus, the idea of “reading” the bill was originally taken literally.

Today, while a bill is no longer read aloud, the readings have remained as formalities. When the Speaker declares that the motion for first reading has passed, a clerk at the Table rises and announces “First reading of this bill”, thus signifying that the Order of the House has been obeyed. This scenario is repeated when the House has ordered a second and then a third reading of the bill. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed., p. 735)

Not only is the bill not read in the House, it may surprise many to learn that the bill itself is not ever the subject of debate on the floor of the House of Commons. While each bill must proceed through the aforementioned three stages (first reading, second reading and third reading), it does so via a series of motions. It is these motions, not the bill, that the House debates and then adopts (or defeats).

These motions, that the bill be read a first (or second, or third) time may seem similar, but they each have very different meanings.

Motion for First Reading

The motion for first reading of a bill allows a bill to be formally brought before the House, printed and distributed to all Members. It is also assigned specific bill number. Passing the motion for first reading does not commit the House to anything beyond agreeing that the bill be made available for the information of Parliament and the public. There is no debate or discussion at this stage.

Motion for Second Reading

Second reading debate is perhaps the stage of the bill that people are most familiar with and may consider the most important. There is a perception that this is the stage where MPs will argue for or against the measures put forward in the bill. Some may even think that amendments to the bill will be made during this stage of debate. This is not the case.

Second reading debate is a general debate on the principle of the bill. This means that the debate must focus on the principle of the bill and not on its individual provisions. Debate on second reading begins when the Minister or Member, as the case may be, rises when the Order of the Day is read for the second reading of the bill and moves the motion “That Bill (number and title) be now read a second time and referred to the (name of committee) Committee”.

During second reading debate, the bill itself cannot be amended. The motion for second reading, however, can be amended. Only three types of amendments can be moved without notice: a three or six months’ hoist; a reasoned amendment; and a motion for referral of the subject matter to a committee.

Committee Stage

After second reading debate, a bill is normally referred to a Committee. It is in committee that the actual provisions of the bill will be studied, debated and possibly amended. When the Committee has finished its study of the bill, it is reported back to the House for the “report stage”. At this stage, Members may, after giving written notice, propose amendments to the text of the bill as it was reported by the committee. Those motions are then debated.

Motion for Third Reading

Third reading is the final stage through which a bill must pass in the House of Commons. It requires that Members decide whether the bill should be adopted by the House. Often regarded as a formality, third reading is in fact a decisive stage in the legislative process. The motion for third reading of a bill also calls for the passage of the bill. The debate begins when the Minister or Member, as the case may be, moves: “That the bill be now read a third time and do pass”. Debate at this stage of the legislative process focuses on the final form of the bill.

As stated in the note at the outset, this post is not a comprehensive overview of the legislative process – I have deliberately left out many aspects, including such procedures as referring a bill to committee before second reading, and how bills at committee stage are handled somewhat differently depending on whether they have received second reading or not, consideration by the Senate, royal assent, etc. My purpose here is to point out that bills are not really read in the House of Commons, nor are they actually debated. Motions to move a bill through its various stages are the subject of debate, and each motion for each stage has a different purpose. The actual contents and provisions of a bill are really only debated in committee.

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Filibusters in the House of Commons, part 2

In my first post on this topic, I explained that filibusters are very rare in the Canadian House of Commons because various rules have been introduced over time to both strictly regulate proceedings in the Chamber, and to allow Government to introduce measures to curtail debate when they deem it necessary to do so. As stated in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, “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.” (p. 647)

While filibusters are rare, and certain procedural loopholes have been closed over time, this does not mean that Opposition parties cannot drag out debate for days, even weeks, if they so choose simply by taking advantage of existing rules. They can do so, but rarely choose to. Filibusters are most commonly instigated when a Government tries to move a controversial bill rapidly through the legislative process, usually by time allocating some or all aspects of the bill.

Normal procedure for a bill is that notice of motion for leave to introduce a bill is placed on the Order paper. At least two days later, the bill is given first reading, when the bill is introduced into the House. There is no debate at this stage. Because normally no bill can pass through more than one stage in the same sessional day, the bill won’t be called again until at least the next day to begin second reading debate. This debate stage can last up to 10 hours, not including the time given to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who can both speak for as long as they want. This 10 hours usually occurs over several days, even weeks or months, depending on how often the Government will call the bill during Orders of the Day. Following second reading debate, the bill is then usually referred to Committee for consideration. This is when the bill can be amended. Committee stage also can take several days or weeks. The bill is then returned to the House and then at least two days later, House will then consider any changes made by the Committee (report stage debate). Once the Bill has passed the report stage, the motion for third reading is called. The rules for third reading debate are the same as for second reading debate. Once the bill has received third reading, it then goes to the Senate.  Please note that this explanation of the legislative process is greatly simplified. For a more detailed explanation of the legisative process, please click here.

In some instances, however, a Government may want to expedite the passage of a piece of legislation. It might introduce a time allocation motion to by-pass the committee stage, or to set very specific time limits on how long second reading debate and/or the committee stage will last. Sometimes it will seek to have a bill pass through two or more stages in a single day. It is usually moves by a Government to limit debate and speed passage of a bill that will prompt Opposition Members to try to halt the inevitable by filibustering. For example, with regards to the bill to end the strike by Canada Post workers that provoked the filibuster which began on June 23, 2011, the Government moved the following motion:

That, notwithstanding any Standing Order or usual practice of the House, a bill in the name of the Minister of Labour, entitled An Act to provide for the resumption and continuation of postal services, shall be disposed of as follows: (a) commencing when the said bill is read a first time and concluding when the said bill is read a third time, the House shall not adjourn except pursuant to a motion proposed by a Minister of the Crown; (b) the said bill may be read twice or thrice in one sitting; (c) after being read a second time, the said bill shall be referred to a Committee of the Whole; and (d) during consideration of the said bill, no division shall be deferred.

As we can see, this motion does several things to circumvent the usual legislative process. It specifies that debate will begin with first reading; that the House will not adjourn until the bill has received all three readings; that it may be read two or more times in one sitting; that the bill will be referred to Committee of the Whole rather than a Standing Committee following second reading; and during consideration of the bill, any divisions required will not be deferred. (Committee of the Whole House is the entire House of Commons sitting as a committee and is presided over by the Deputy Speaker rather than the Speaker. The Speaker’s chair remains empty.) If the Opposition parties had been in agreement with the bill to resume postal service, it could have passed in the House of Commons in a matter of hours. For example, legislation to end a strike by Toronto transit workers was passed by the Ontario Legislative Assembly in half an hour on April 27, 2008.

There are no rules for filibustering. A filibuster occurs when MPs use existing procedural rules to purposefully delay government business for as long as possible. As I stated in my first post, while most Members speaking to a motion or bill have strict time limits on how long they can speak, usually 20 minutes, sometimes 10, there are a couple of exceptions. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Official Opposition do not have any time limits in many cases. Similarly, a Minister moving a government motion (or the Parliamentary Secretary speaking on his or her behalf) and the Member speaking in reply both have unlimited time. In these instances, the Leader of the Official Opposition or the Member speaking in reply to the Minister moving a government motion could simply talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. This is called extended remarks and is, in a way, a one-person filibuster. However, Fidel Castro notwithstanding, there are limits to how long a single person can speak, and so opposition parties tend to favour other procedural options.

A favourite, and one that is easily implemented, is simply to get every MP in the opposition party’s caucus to speak to the motion. Under normal circumstances, only some members from each party will speak to a bill or motion when it is being debated. If a party has 120 MPs, and each MP is allowed to speak for 20 minutes, followed by a 10 minutes questions and comments, this will drag out debate over at least a couple of days.

Opposition parties can also introduce amendments and subamendments to a motion being debated. Each amendment then needs to be debated and voted on before debate resumes on the main motion or bill. The introduction of a new question into the debate, which is what an amendment does, means that Members who have already spoken on the main motion can speak again on the amendment and/or subamendment.

I referred to hoist and reasoned motions in my first post. Members can also move dilatory motions. Dilatory motions are superseding motions (which are moved for the purpose of superseding (or replacing) the question before the House) intended to dispose of the original question before the House either for the time being or permanently. Although dilatory motions are often moved for the express purpose of causing delay, they may also be used to advance the business of the House. Thus, dilatory motions are used both by the government and the opposition. Dilatory motions can only be moved by a Member who has been recognized by the Chair in the regular course of debate, and not on a point of order. Dilatory motions include motions:

  • to proceed to the Orders of the Day;
  • to proceed to another order of business;
  • to postpone consideration of a question until a later date;
  • to adjourn the House; and
  • to adjourn the debate.

Dilatory motions used to be debatable, but the rules were changed in 1913. Now, however, a recorded division is usually demanded and the bells ring for a maximum of 30 minutes to summon the Members, thus delaying debate on other matters before the House.

In the earlier post, I also referred to Members raising frequent points of order and questions of Privilege. Both of these delay debate because each point of order or question of Privilege has to be heard and dealt with by the Speaker. Points of order are usually quite brief and easily ruled on by the Speaker, but questions of Privilege can be quite lengthy and often require the Speaker to recess the House in order to consider the matter and return with a ruling. I referred to the Progressive Conservative party using this tactic in 1981, and successfully dragging out debate on constitutional reforms for over two weeks. At the outset of this filibuster, the Speaker, Jeanne Sauvé, gave opposition Members 20 minutes to make their case. After five days, this was reduced to 10 minutes, then she continued to progressively shortened the length of time for questions of Privilege as the filibuster dragged on. She eventually warned the Opposition that if they couldn’t convince her that they had a legitimate question of Privilege in their first two sentences, she wouldn’t hear them any further. (Source: Her Excellency Jeanne Sauvé, by Shirley Woods, p. 167)

Most, if not all, of these various procedural manoevres can be repeated at each stage of the debate but eventually, all filibusters come to an end, and the will of a majority government will prevail.


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Filibusters in the Canadian House of Commons

(See follow-up post here.)

I discussed the issue of filibusters in a previous post, focusing primarily on the UK House of Lords as it tried to filibuster the Government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill earlier this year. In that post, I wrote that filibusters in the Canadian Parliament were quite rare.

The reasons why filibusters are rare in Ottawa is that over the years, various changes have been made to the Standing Orders that have resulted in very orderly, tightly orchestrated proceedings with very specific time limits in place for most proceedings during the course of the parliamentary day.

Indeed, if one looks at the order paper for the day’s proceedings in the House of Commons, the timetable governing debates and other measures is quite clearly specified. For example, from today’s Order Paper (uploaded as a PDF for future reference), we see that the day’s  business begins at 11:00 a.m. with an Opposition motion. The length of speeches for all Members is clearly listed at 20 minutes maximum and subject to a 10-minute question and comment period, voting on the motion will take place not later than 15-minutes before the expiry of the time provided for Government Orders, and if a recorded division is requested, the length of the bells will be a maximum 15 minutes. Following that, there is statements by Members, from 2:00 to 2:15 p.m., and the statements are not to exceed one minute each. Oral Questions begins not later than 2:15. Routine Proceedings then follows at 3:00, and among those, Petitions must not take up more than 15 minutes, etc. With these specific time limits in place, it becomes very difficult for the Opposition to hijack proceedings and cause a filibuster.

As well, other measures have been adopted which allow the government of the day to curtail debate and limit certain tactics previously employed by opposition parties to filibuster pieces of Government legislation. To quote from House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.), pp. 648-9:

At Confederation, few rules existed to curtail debate. Even then, it was recognized that unlimited debate was not desirable and that some restraint would have to be exercised or some accommodation reached in order for the House to conduct its business with reasonable despatch. For the first 45 years following Confederation, the only tool at the government’s disposal was the previous question, (…) Not only was there no other way of putting an end to a specific debate within a reasonable time, but there were no formal time limits of any kind on debates. The length of speeches was unlimited. The conduct and duration of proceedings in the House were based largely upon a spirit of mutual fair play where informal arrangements, or “closure by consent”, governed the debate. In the words of Prime Minister Robert Borden:

… at a definite stage in a debate, when, in the judgment of the leading men of both sides of the House, it has proceeded far enough, it has been the practice for a consultation to be held and a date to be fixed; and members who are not able to catch the Speaker’s eye within the period so fixed are, by arrangements made on both sides of the House, practically excluded from taking part in the debate on that subject and the question is brought to an issue in that way. (Debates, April 9, 1913, col. 7391.)

In the early days of Confederation, the main business of the House involved the consideration of private bills and other business sponsored by private Members. Because the government played only a minor role in the economy, government business made up only a small part of the House’s workload. After 1900, the changing nature of the business coming before the House, especially the growing volume of business initiated by the government, led to a steady increase in the time that the House set aside for Government Orders. The time of the House became a precious commodity and a source of sometimes fierce partisan contention. This was manifested by a growing propensity on the part of the opposition to thwart the passage of government bills through delay and obstruction.

These changes in parliamentarians’ attitudes and in the government workload led the House to adopt rules and practices that would, on the one hand, facilitate the daily management of its time and, on the other, limit debate and expedite the normal course of events in cases deemed of an important or urgent nature.

One of the first changes made was the introduction of the closure rule in 1913. Closure is a procedural device used to bring debate on a question to a conclusion by a majority vote in the House, even though all MPs who wanted to speak to the matter have not had the chance to do so. This rule has remained virtually unchanged since its adoption in 1913, and has been used more than 60 times. Talk of repealing the closure rule has surfaced on occasion, but no action has ever been taken in that regard. However, in October 2001, the House adopted a new Standing Order which allowed for a questions and answers period of at most 30 minutes following the moving of a motion of closure. The purpose of this questions and answers period is to promote ministerial accountability and allow the government to justify the use of this measure. Closure can be invoked on any debatable matter, including bills and motions, but not on proceedings in committees.

Also in 1913, the House adopted amendments to existing Rule 17 which restricted the number of debatable motions, and provided that on two days of the week certain motions which would ordinarily be debatable, specifically, motions for the House to resolve into the Committee of Supply or into the Committee of Ways and Means, would not be debatable.

In 1927, the House adopted its first rule to limit the speeches of a majority of Members to 40 minutes each. Further restrictions were imposed in 1955 when limits were placed on the length of the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne and Budget debates, on debates in Committee of the Whole and on debate on the motion for the House to resolve itself into the Committee of Supply. Permanent changes to the Standing Orders in 1962 provided further limitations on the Address and Budget debates and on debate during Private Members’ Business. In 1968, amendments were made to the Standing Order limiting speeches in a Committee of the Whole. In 1991, the duration of the Address and Budget debates was further limited to a maximum of six and four days respectively. In 2001, the House adopted rules allowing the study of budgetary appropriations again in Committee of the Whole. The maximum length of debate on a series of Votes was then five hours. Two years later, it was limited to four hours and at the same time Members’ speeches were reduced to a maximum of 15 minutes. In 2003, the House reduced the period allowed for the first speakers from each of the recognized parties to speak in debate at the second and third reading stages of government bills from 40 to 20 minutes.  A few years later, debate on the adoption of reports from standing or special committees was limited to three hours.

The current provisions in the Standing Orders concerning the length of Members’ speeches during debate are as follows. In most cases, the maximum length of a speech is either 20 minutes or 10 minutes. Members may speak for up to 20 minutes on:

  • on the motion for an Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne;
  • on a motion for second or third reading of a government bill, when the Member is the first to speak on behalf of their party or when participating in the first five hours of debate after the initial round of speakers;
  • on a motion regarding Senate amendments to a government bill;
  • on a motion considered under government orders, including opposition motions on allotted days and motions for concurrence of the estimates;
  • on a motion for concurrence in a committee report;
  • during the Budget debate;
  • during an emergency debate; and
  • on a motion in Committee of the Whole.

These 20-speeches are generally followed by a 10-minute period during which other Members may ask questions or comment briefly on the speech and receive a reply from the Member. The Standing Orders allow the Whip of a recognized party to indicate that Members of their party will split their 20-minute speaking time in two. In such cases, Members speak for 10 minutes, followed by a question and comment period of 5 minutes.

Members are limited to 10-minute speeches on the following:

  • on an item of Private Members’ Business;
  • on a motion or group of motions in amendment at report stage;
  • on a motion to refer a bill to committee before second reading;
  • on a motion to instruct a committee to prepare a bill;
  • on a motion for the second or third reading of a bill, when the Member is participating after the first five hours of debate following the initial round of speakers;
  • during a take note debate; and
  • on a motion regarding delegated legislation.

There are a few exceptions to the above, where Members are not subject to any time limit. For example, a Minister moving a government motion (or the Parliamentary Secretary speaking on his or her behalf) and the Member speaking in reply both have unlimited time. This also applies to consideration of motions relating to Senate amendments. In many cases, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are not subject to any time limit.

Another measure used to curtail debate is the time allocation motion. Time allocation came about because the closure motion alone was perceived as rather inflexible and inadequate for the demands of a modern Parliament. The time allocation rule allows for specific lengths of time to be set aside for the consideration of one or more stages of a public bill. The House began considering an alternative to the closure motion in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1969, after debate that lasted 12 sitting days was curtailed by a motion of closure, that the House adopted a report recommending a measure for allocation of time, a forerunner to the present rule:

In its simplest form, the newly adopted Standing Order envisaged three options under which a time allotment order could be made, ranging from agreement between all parties to the government acting alone after negotiation had failed to rally the support of any other party. Time allocation motions moved with the agreement of all parties were put immediately, without debate or amendment. Those called with the agreement of a majority of parties or no opposition parties could, however, be amended, and they could also be debated for up to two hours, at which point all questions necessary to dispose of the motions were to be put by the Chair.

Members of the opposition later expressed dissatisfaction with the interpretation of this Standing Order. The fact that negotiations were to be held between parties, thus excluding independent Members, was also raised. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed., p. 663)

Indeed, these concerns have gradually been addressed via various Speakers’ rulings, which have sought to clarify when and how time allocation motions can be used. In 2001, the House adopted a Standing Order allowing for a 30-minute questions and answers period (such as the one for closure motions) to be applied when a time allocation motion was moved without the agreement of any of the opposition parties, again to enhance ministerial accountability and allow the Government to justify the need for the time allocation motion.

What has happened over time is that whenever the opposition has found ways to use existing procedural rules to stymie the progress of Government business, the Standing Orders have been amended in order to either close that option or else introduce a new measure that would allow the Government to curtail it in some way. For example, in 1982, the Progressive Conservatives resorted to a filibuster tactic to block the Government’s Energy Security Bill. At that time, the Standing Orders provided no time limit for bells rung for unscheduled votes. A recorded vote was demanded on a motion to adjourn. The Opposition Whip refused to accompany the Government Whip into the Chamber to indicate to the Speaker their readiness to proceed with the vote. Consequently, the division bells rang continuously for over 14 days (Debates, March 2, 1982, pp. 15539-41; March 18, 1982, pp. 15555-7). As a result of this episode, the Standing Orders were amended so that now, division bells can ring for a maximum of either 15 or 30 minutes. Once they stop ringing, the vote proceeds, as long as the required quorum is present.

Another tactic used by Opposition parties in the past to cause a filibuster in the House of Commons is the constant raising of points of order and questions of Privilege. The Speaker must then rule on the length and relevancy of each point of order and question of Privilege raised. While most will be frivolous, this is not the point. The point is to stall debate for as long as possible. In 1981, the Progressive Conservatives employed such tactics in an attempt to block the Liberal Government’s constitutional reforms. Faced with the prospect of a time allocation motion to limit debate and force a vote, the PCs resorted to the aforementioned filibuster tactics. After two weeks of such manoeuvres, the Government moved a motion of closure.

There are few parliamentary procedures left that Opposition parties can exploit for the purpose of filibustering that can’t be countered by the Government. Apart from dragging out debate as long as possible by ensuring as many Members as possible speak and resorting to raising repeated points of order and questions of Privilege, there are also hoist amendments and reasoned amendments.

A hoist amendment is an amendment that may be moved to a motion for the second reading of a bill. Its effect is to prevent a bill from being “now” read a second time, and to postpone the reading for three or six months. If it is adopted, the bill is deemed withdrawn for the remainder of the current session. If it is defeated, the debate has nonetheless been extended as a result and Members enabled to speak a second time. Prior to 1920, because the House had so little time for Government business, it was the Government that resorted to hoist amendments. Since 1920, it has been used primarily by the Opposition as means of prolonging debate. However, only four have been successful, and all four where moved by the Government with the intent of disposing of a private Member’s bill.

A reasoned amendment, which may also be moved during debate on a motion for second reading, generally takes the form of a proposal that the House decline to give a bill second reading, for a specific reason. When a reasoned amendment is ruled in order, the House must dispose of it. To date, the House has never decided in favour of a reasoned amendment. Were it to do so, debate on the bill would end, as would debate on the motion for second reading of the bill. The order relating to the bill would then disappear from the Order Paper.

It should be noted that whatever filibustering still occurs in the House of Commons usually occurs in Committees, not in the House itself.

As stated in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, “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.” (p. 647) The key is to find a balance between the right to speak at as much length as seems desirable, and the right of parliament to make decisions. After all, while parliamentary Privilege gives Members freedom to say what they want without fear of legal prosecution, it does not grant them an unlimited right to speak.

(Click here for Part 2)


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You can’t say that!

While parliamentary privilege grants Members of Parliament the right to exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings, there are still certain rules in place that curtail what an MP can say and how they can say it. Some of these restrictions are age-old parliamentary conventions and exist in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., while others are country-specific. Here is a quick overview.

In general, the following rules governing the content of speeches exist in most Westminster-style parliamentary parliaments.

Members cannot refer to each other by their names. They must refer to another Member by their title, position or constituency name. The purpose of this rule is to make debate less personal and avoid the direct confrontation of Members addressing one another as “you”. Indeed, only the Speaker can be addressed as “you”. A degree of formality helps the House remain more dignified and tolerant when political views clash and passions may be inflamed. There are some variations to this rule. For example, in the UK House of Commons, the Speaker calls on Members to speak by their name, while in other Commonwealth countries, the Speaker calls on Members by their constituency name. In Australia, it is the practice of the House that, when appointments to committees or organisations are announced by the Speaker or a Minister, the name of a Member is used.

Members must not cast disrespectful reflections on Parliament as a whole or on the upper and lower chambers individually. In Canada and the UK, the upper Chamber (the Senate in Canada, the House of Lords in the UK) is usually referred to as “the other place” and Senators or Lords as “members of the other place.” I haven’t found a similar restriction on naming the other place in Australian parliamentary practice. Offensive words cannot be used against either the Senate or Senators in the Australian House of Representatives, but I haven’t found any indication that the Senate must be referred to as “the other place.”

Members must not cast reflections on the conduct of the Speaker or other presiding officers. It is unacceptable to question their integrity and impartiality. Such comments have been ruled breaches of privilege.

Members are also prohibited from speaking disrespectfully of the Sovereign, Royal Family, and in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., the Governor General. Attacks on judges and courts by Members in debate are also considered unparliamentary.

Members are discouraged from reviving a debate that has concluded, unless the remarks are relevant to the current matter under discussion. In the past, reference to prior debates of the current session were generally discouraged in order to conserve the time of the House. Similarly, they are not to speak against or reflect on any decision of the House. This stems from the well-established rule which holds that a question, once put and carried in the affirmative or negative, cannot be questioned again. Such reflections are not in order because the Member is bound by a vote agreed to by a majority.

The use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the House is forbidden. Personal attacks, insults and obscenities are not in order. This is because proceedings of the House are based on a long-standing tradition of respect for the integrity of all Members. Similarly, all imputations of improper motives to a Member and all personal reflections on other Members, the misrepresentation of the language of another Members and the accusation of misrepresentation are considered to be highly disorderly. Members are not to accuse another Member of lying. One can criticize their statement as being contrary to the facts, but no imputation of intentional falsehood is permissible. In the Canadian House of Commons at least, Members are also not to call attention to the absence of another Member or Members, since there are many legitimate reasons why a Member may have to attend to other parliamentary duties.

Matters that are currently before the courts should not be discussed. This convention is called the sub judice convention. The origin of the convention appears to have been the desire of Parliament to prevent comment and debate from exerting an influence on juries and from prejudicing the position of parties and witnesses in court proceedings. It is by this self-imposed restriction that the House not only prevents its own deliberations from prejudicing the course of justice but prevents reports of its proceedings from being used to do so.

Most chambers also have rules concerning repetition and relevance in debate. To quote House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.):

The requirement that speeches remain relevant to the question before the House flows from the latter’s right to reach decisions without undue obstruction and to exclude from debate any discussion not conducive to that end. The rule against repetition helps to ensure the expeditious conduct of debate by prohibiting the repetition of arguments already made. To neglect either rule would seriously impair the ability of the House to manage its time efficiently.

Repetition is prohibited in order to safeguard the right of the House to arrive at a decision and to make efficient use of its time. (…)

Although the House now has rules to limit the length of speeches, at one time there were few limits and debate often strayed beyond the subject in question. In 1882, J.G. Bourinot, then Clerk of the House, felt the need to add this comment to his overview of parliamentary practice:

A just regard to the privileges and dignity of Parliament demands that its time should not be wasted in idle and fruitless discussion; and consequently every member, who addresses the house, should endeavour to confine himself as closely as possible to the question under consideration.

This advice still applies today as the business of government grows ever more complex and the time of the House is limited.

These are some of the main rules commons to most, if not all, Commonwealth jurisdictions which govern the rules of debate and what can and cannot be said in the House. It isn’t by any means exclusive, but should still help readers understand why debate takes the form it does.

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Keyword post: Some answers to search results

This post will provide answers to actual search engine queries that led people to this blog. None of these would really make a full blog post on their own, which is why I’ve decided to answer a few in one post.

1. How many people did/didn’t vote for David Cameron?

This one is very easy to answer. Exactly 23,796 people did not vote for David Cameron in the May 2010 general election. Cameron stood for election in the constituency of Witney, opposed by nine other candidates. Voter turnout in that riding was 57,769 (73.8%), and of that, 33,973, or 58.8% voted for Cameron, meaning 23,796 voters voted for other candidates.

It is important to remember that in parliamentary systems such as those we have in the UK, Canada, Australia, etc., people do not vote directly for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is simply whichever MP is also leader of the party which forms the government. Please see this post for more information.

2. Has the fixed term parliaments bill passed/been defeated?

The fixed term parliaments bill received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011. You can track the progress of any bill currently before Parliament on the Bills before Parliament page of the UK Parliament’s website.

3. What is the procedure to recall a Canadian Member of Parliament (MP)?

There is no procedure to recall MPs in Canada. There is only one jurisdiction in Canada (indeed, in the entire Commonwealth) which has recall legislation, and that is the province of British Columbia. The UK Coalition Government has introduced a draft bill on MP recall. You can read more about how recall works in British Columbia in this post.

4. How does one address the Lieutenant Governor in a speech?

“Your Honour” first, then “Sir” or “Madam” or “Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss (name)”.

Everything you ever wanted to know about styles of address can be found here. You may want to consult this post for other useful political resources.

5. How many people voted for the NDP?

For any elections-related questions, your first stop should always be Elections Canada. In the 2 May 2011 general election, 4,508,474 voters across the country cast votes for an NDP candidate, or 30.63% of voters who bothered to turnout for the election (turnout was 61.4%).

6. Does the government know what questions will be coming forward in question period?

Yes and no. In Canada, the opposition does not usually provide the government with advance notice of what questions it intends to ask, however, there is nothing preventing it from doing so. Indeed, if there is a question that an opposition MP feels the government might not expect to have come up, he or she might inform the Minister concerned beforehand that they intend to raise the matter during oral questions. In general, the government will have a good sense of what questions to expect because the opposition will hone in on any topic that is currently in the news. As well, the government carefully scripts the questions asked by its own backbenchers, so those questions (and their answers) are quite carefully rehearsed.

In the UK, questions for departments must be submitted three days in advance, specifically to give the concerned minister the time to prepare answers. However, the last 10-15 minutes of each day’s questions are reserved for “topical questions”, which aren’t submitted ahead of time, so the minister will not know exactly what questions to expect (although he or she, like their Canadian counterparts, can assume they will be on more current matters). Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) aren’t submitted ahead of time, although loyal government MPs will often give Downing Street advance notice of their question, or try to ask something ‘helpful’ – possibly to try to impress the PM or those looking out for future ministerial talent. But the PM can be asked about anything at all for which the government is responsible, which means they have to be up to speed on all areas of policy.

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On Australia’s Question Time

I don’t write much about Australia, not because of lack of interest in how parliamentary politics unfolds in that country, but because there is rarely ever any coverage of Australian politics here in Canada. I can access online news coverage of course, but not being very familiar with the key players and parties makes it that much more difficult to get a feel for how politics play out. It’s enough of a challenge to follow British politics from Canada, and at least I have access to BBC World, lots of British friends I can consult, and I regularly follow House of Commons debates and parliamentary committee hearings online. Plus, there are simply more similarities between Canada and the UK, what with our unelected upper houses and what appears to be a stronger adherence to older parliamentary traditions.

That said, I read a most interesting piece on the BBC recently about Question Time in Australia’s House of Representatives. The article turns out to be the result of a heavily edited interview UK blogger Iain Dale did with the BBC World Service after he tweeted: “The UK House of Commons is often accused of behaving like a playground. It has nothing on the Aussie House of Reps. Unbelievable behaviour.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have written a few posts highly critical of Question Period as it unfolds here in the Canadian House of Commons (see for example here, here and here and one post about Oral Questions in a provincial legislature). I find the UK version of oral questions far more productive, PMQs notwithstanding.

Australia’s Question Time is similar to Canada’s in that questions are addressed to any minister, including the PM. In the UK House of Commons, as I’ve explained many times in other posts, the PM answers questions once a week only, Wednesdays at noon, for a half hour. Every day, however, there is a ministry-specific oral question period where the ministers responsible for that department field questions for 15 minutes to a full hour, depending on the department in question, with smaller departments grouped together to fill the entire hour. PMQs is like Canada’s Question Period – it’s usually full attendance, and tends to be quite rowdy at times. The department questions are much calmer, quieter affairs.

Australian Question Time is also a very rowdy affair. I was most intrigued by Dale’s impression that the Speaker was perhaps partly responsible for that state of affairs:

When the prime minister is answering questions, and the speaker is shouting “order! order!”, she does not sit down but carries on, ploughing through it. It is a great spectacle but not a very edifying one.

In Canada, the UK and Australia, when the Speaker stands, whichever MP has the floor, be it the PM or some backbencher, they sit down immediately and everyone shuts up. At least, they’re supposed to. In the Canadian House of Commons and some provincial legislatures (perhaps all, I can’t say for certain):

Each Member’s desk, as well as the Speaker’s Chair, is equipped with a microphone. A microphone switching console, staffed by console operators, is located at the front of the gallery at the south end of the Chamber. Individual microphones are activated when a Member is recognized by the Speaker. Only the Speaker has the power to activate his or her own microphone (it may also be activated by the console operator); when the Speaker’s microphone is activated, the Members’ microphones will not function. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Ed.)

Consequently, when the Speaker stands, all other microphones are turned off. MPs can still yell at each other across the floor of course, but what they say isn’t picked up very well or at all.

I am not exactly certain if things work quite the same way in the UK House of Commons, since members do not have individual desks or seats, but sit along benches. Microphones are suspended from the ceiling of the Commons, rather than placed on individual desk, and I don’t know if these are turned off when the Speaker rises.

You can watch Australian Question Time on the House of Representatives website, and I decided to do just that to see for myself. I have to say, I agree with Iain Dale. I don’t think the Speaker helps matters at all. According to House of Representatives Practice (5th Ed.), only the microphone of the Speaker is live all the time. The nearest microphone to Member is switched on when he or she is making a speech. As I stated above, the rules of debate in Australia, as in Canada and the UK, state that when the Speaker stands, whoever was speaking stops talking and sits down.

During Question Time, it seems, the Speaker doesn’t bother to get up. He simply orders people to come to order and behave more respectfully. Because he doesn’t stand, as Dale notes, whoever has the floor keeps on talking. The Speaker’s microphone is live too, so his admonitions to other members carry live over top whichever Member is also speaking. It creates a huge jumble of noise, with at least two people talking on top of each other (the Speaker and the Member who has the floor), plus other Members catcalling in the background.

One blogger objected to Dale’s assessment of Question Time, but seems to have missed the essential point Dale was making, which was that the Speaker wasn’t properly controlling the situation. If he stood, which, in theory, would stop whoever was speaking from speaking, rather than simply remain seated and talk over the Member speaking by ordering others to come to order, it would be a less chaotic affair. I do appreciate that it is a hung parliament and a very partisan one at that – Canada is no stranger to such a state of affairs – but I have to say that even the Canadian House of Commons at its worse in recent years never got as bad as what I’ve watched of the Australian Question Time.

Dale isn’t alone in his assessment of Australia’s rowdy parliament, but according to this article from the Financial Times, the current state of affairs is a big improvement over how things used to be:

The system seemed desperately in need of reform, but that’s exactly what has just happened. Questions are now limited to 45 seconds and answers to four minutes. Four minutes is a short time as a warning of nuclear destruction; it’s an eon when listening to Julia Gillard.

“If you had seen it before, you’d understand what’s been achieved,” says Rob Oakeshott, the independent whose vote was crucial in returning Gillard to power and one of those imposing change. “Before, she might have been standing up for 20 minutes and talking about whatever she wanted. The speaker has actually sat the prime minister down and said ‘You’re not being relevant.’ That hasn’t happened in a hundred years.” One other aspect of reform is that the minor parties are allowed to get a word in edgeways – but only after 3pm, when the main television broadcast has finished.

From what I can tell, Australia’s Question Time shares one unfortunate thing in common with Canada’s Question Period: it is scripted and heavily controlled by the party Whips. Members are told by party leaders what questions they will ask, and the Speaker is told which Members to call on. However, unlike the Canadian House of Commons, at least there is more time allocated for both questions and answers. In the previous Parliament, the parties in the Canadian House of Commons had agreed to 35 seconds for each. I don’t know if the new Parliament has changed that.

I am not writing this as a put down of Australia’s system and perhaps I’ve been “lucky” and managed to view some of the worst examples of Question Time. It simply stands in stark contrast to what is more familiar to me, Canada’s question period and UK Questions. I do disagree with the blogger who was upset by Iain Dale’s observations when he dismisses oral question periods in the 21st century as no longer being about accountability, but simply being media events. That may well be the case, but it shouldn’t be, and it doesn’t need to be.


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