On forcing out a party leader

As touched on in my first post on the Reform Act, some critics of the bill argue that formal rules establishing a procedure by which a party caucus could initiate a vote of confidence in, followed by the possible removal of, its leader aren’t necessary since caucuses already have that power. Alice Funke, for example, writes:

there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

Today on Twitter, Ms. Funke linked to this article which describes how the British Columbia Social Credit Party caucus forced their leader (and at the time Premier) Bill Vander Zalm out in 1991.

It is certainly true that even without formal guidelines or rules in place, a caucus can exert enough pressure to force a leader to resign, or at least agree to a leadership review at a party conference, but the process can be a lengthy, messy and often very public one which can end up being quite detrimental to the party in the long run. One only needs to think of the Chrétien-Martin divide which hurt the Liberal Party of Canada long after the fact, or the Blair-Brown divide which similarly plagued the UK Labour Party.

The Vander Zalm case is, in fact, a good example of why specific rules would be a good idea. Because the party itself did not have a process in place to allow the caucus to trigger an internal leadership vote of confidence, the party members had to resort to using a parliamentary procedure to achieve what they could not: they planned to table a motion of non-confidence in their own government. Ultimately, the motion wasn’t needed as Vander Zalm was found guilty of violating conflict guidelines and stepped down voluntarily.

There are a number of problems in using this example to prove that caucuses don’t really need formal rules to trigger for possible leadership change. First of all, simply put, I can’t help but think that this is a misuse of the Confidence Convention. The SoCreds were unhappy with their leader, not the fact that their party formed the Government. Confidence of the House is given to a Government; who heads that government is an internal matter for the governing party to decide. Related to this, this option is one that could only be used by a party that formed the government. Opposition parties cannot move want of confidence motions in the House against themselves or their own leader – they can only move want of confidence motions against a sitting government. Consequently, an opposition party unhappy with its leader can’t go this route.

Another problem is that it isn’t necessarily guaranteed to result in a change of leadership. As I explained in my previous post, the tradition in Canada for governments which lose confidence votes is not to resign, but to seek dissolution and trigger a new election. In the article, it appears as if the Social Credit caucus kept the Lt.-Governor informed of what was transpiring, explaining that they planned to “withdraw majority support from Vander Zalm and delegate it to another of their number.” And apparently the Lt.-Governor agreed that he would ask Vander Zalm to resign rather than agree to a dissolution. But what if the Lt.-Governor had not agreed to listen to the caucus? What if the premier had decided to pre-empt his caucus and seek a dissolution and new election? To put it simply, the party should not have had to go this route; if they were unhappy with their leader, they should have simply been able to resolve that internally without resorting to moving a want of confidence motion in the Government.

I am not a constitutional expert, but a lot of this sounds like involving the Crown in the internal machinations of a political party and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. As per House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed., “no act of the monarch (or Governor General as the monarch’s representative) is carried out without the formal advice and consent of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.” There is no mention of carrying out the advice of a party caucus. I will leave that issue to persons better qualified to comment on.

Many critics of the Reform Act worry that an empowered caucus will lead to chaos, with party leaders being shown the door on a regular basis. Is this necessarily what happens?

In Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders in the Anglo Parliamentary Democracies, William Cross and André Blais compare leadership procedures in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is important to know that of these five countries, Canada is the outlier, the only one where political parties have no specific entrenched procedures available to caucuses to challenge their leader. Chapter 5 looks at how and why party leaders’ tenure in office ends. This normally occurs in one of three ways: the leader resigns (either voluntarily, or under pressure), they are forced from office, or either they, or their party, die.  Cross and Blais examined the departures of 110 leaders between January 1965 and January 2008 and found that most (76%, or 84 of 110) resign, and the majority of those who resign (59, or 54%), did so under pressure. It probably goes without saying that most of these leaders who resigned under pressure did so to avoid being forced out. (p. 97)

What we are most interested in, however is how many leaders were actually forced from office. Over the 43-year period studied by Cross and Blais, only 17 leaders in those five countries were forced out: New Zealand 5, Australia 7, the UK 3, Ireland 1, and Canada 1. The Canadian case – John Diefenbaker, is the only one removed by “a process involving the extra-parliamentary party.” (p. 106) Additionally, it is important to note that most of these forced leadership changes occurred among opposition parties. During that same time frame, only 3 sitting Prime Ministers were forced out by their own caucus – Margaret Thatcher (1979-1991) in the UK, and Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and John Gorton (1968-71) in Australia. (p. 98) Thatcher had been in power since 1979, but by late 1990, the Conservatives had been trailing Labour for 18 months in the polls. These same polls showed that a change in leadership would give the Tories a lead over Labour. Bob Hawke’s popularity had been in decline from the late 80s, and while he led Labor to a narrow re-election in 1990, his party lost faith in his ability to counter the resurgent Liberal Party. John Gorton simply proved to be a poor choice for leader, and in his first general election as Prime Minister (1969), saw the Coalition’s 45-seat majority over Labor that he had inherited reduced to only a 7-seat majority. He was forced out as leader of the Liberal Party not long afterwards.

These examples demonstrate two important points. First, the caucuses of parties that are in government aren’t likely to force a leader (and Prime Minister) out if the party is doing well in the polls. The three Prime Ministers forced to resign by their caucuses were forced out due to declining polls or poor election results. The second point is that it is parties in opposition which are more likely to force a leader out, and these are the parties which would not be able to use the want of confidence approach to leadership change described in the Vander Zalm piece or as postulated by Dale Smith.

Of course, Cross and Blais’s research does not take into account the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership spills of 2010-2013, but even by Australian practice as described in Politics at the Centre, that chapter was an anomaly. And as I stated in my earlier post, Labor has now changed its rules governing challenging a sitting leader; consequently, we will never seen anything like that occur again.

I admit that I still don’t quite understand the arguments of those who insist that formal rules for triggering a leadership change aren’t at all needed. I think Canadian political parties would benefit from having formal rules in place. Is the process outlined in Chong’s Reform Act the best way to proceed, perhaps not. I am not comfortable with these rules being incorporated into the Elections Act; I think they should be adopted by parties and included in party constitutions. And I certainly fail to understand how anyone can insist that the confidence convention is a viable option for parties to effect leadership change. It isn’t, and even if it were, it would only work for a party in government. Parties in opposition would be left with no clear options. Hopefully this short international context I’ve provided will help calm a few fears. The process isn’t abused by political parties. It doesn’t result in political chaos. If anything, it might avoid it.

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The length of two swords

Recently, the brilliant UK actor Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, State of Play, Mad Dogs, Hidden, etc.) was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in connection with his latest role, that of Chief Government Whip in the play “This House“, which is set in 1974, when Labour had a shaky minority government.The discussion turned to the innately adversarial nature of politics in the UK House of Commons, with Marr noting that the play was in some ways an attack on the British parliamentary tradition, that of two sides against each other, and that underneath, there was a dream of a better way of doing things, a call for politics to be more consensual. Glenister noted that UK was “one of the few democracies, just by the layout of our parliament… it’s in a rectangular shape as opposed to in the round. It’s only one of two in the world.”

If Glenister is correct, and there are only two democracies in the world with rectangular Chambers which force government and opposition to face off against each other on opposing sides, then the Canada is the other one. The Canadian House of Commons, the Senate and most of the Canadian provincial and territorial legislatures are also rectangular, the exceptions being the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut and the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

What is being implied here is that layout of the Chamber, government on one side, opposition parties on the other, makes our politics more adversarial because it imposes an “Us vs Them” feel from the outset. This is the same argument put forward by architects in this very interesting article, “The Shape of Debate to Come“.

However, it is debatable to what extent the shape of the chamber might influence how adversarial or consensual debate will be. As Professor White notes in the above article, countries which end up with a more consensual approach to politics also tend to use some form of proportional representation rather than First-Past-the-Post:

But, in an email, he said there was “pretty much zero” chance of more co-operative behaviour in Canadian legislatures. And he put the differences in approach in legislatures such as Wales and Scotland more down to mixed electoral systems, not just first-past-the-post.

He said: ”Unquestionably the opposing rows of benches in standard Westminster parliaments reinforces the adversarial nature of the place; for my students I liken it to opposing armies or sports teams squaring off. At the same time, I see seating arrangements as very much secondary to underlying political culture and prevailing political norms.

“The Manitoba [legislature], which is semi-circular, has exceedingly nasty, adversarial partisan politics, and the US Congress these days is hardly a paragon of non-partisanship.”

Because PR makes it very difficult for any one party to form a majority government on its own, this means that coalition government tends to be the norm in countries which use some form of PR, and that reality alone will require parties to work harder to find some sort of consensus. As Prof. White points out, despite sitting in the round, politics in both Manitoba and the US Congress are very partisan and adversarial, and both jurisdictions use FPTP. The Australian House of Representatives is horseshoe-shaped, and politics Down Under is every bit as partisan as it is up here, particularly in the current minority parliament. Australia uses the Alternative Vote to elect its MPs, a voting system which requires voters to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, and to win the seat, a candidate must gain over 50% of the vote, either outright, or through transferred preferences. AV, like FPTP, is not at all proportional, which may explain why political debate in the House of Representatives is partisan and adversarial.

This summer, it was reported that the UK Parliament could be closed for five years for extensive refurbishment, with MPs and Lords “convened in a replica chamber or a conference centre for the duration of the repair work, which could start in 2015.” This immediately alarmed some. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson raised the threat of some advocating that a new, refurbished chamber would be “a chance to move the MPs to a lifeless, European style semi-circular chamber that supposedly encourages them to co-operate.” Fraser comments on how deathly boring debate is in the Scottish Parliament, which is circular. He does not mention that Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) are elected using Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP).

But is the electoral system alone enough to determine how consensual or adversarial politics will be in a given jurisdiction? Thomas Carl Lundberg, in his paper “Politics is Still an Adversarial Business: Minority Government and Mixed-Member Proportional Representation in Scotland and New Zealand“, concluded that while both nations introduced MMP in part to bring about a “new politics”, in the end, “the impact of institutional engineering upon the behaviour of politicians has been limited.” New Zealand adopted MMP in 1996, Scotland in 1999. New Zealand has seen the formation of mostly minority governments under MMP (albeit minority coalition government rather than single-party minority government) supported by other smaller parties through confidence and supply agreements, while Scotland has experienced two terms of majority coalition government, one term of single-party  minority government, and most recently, to the surprise of most, a single-party majority government.

The reasons why MMP has had limited success in curbing adversarial politics in Scotland and New Zealand, according to Lundberg are varied. Long before New Zealand adopted MMP, it had a very strong two-party system (Labour on the left and the National Party on the right) and a long history of single-party majority government. With the introduction of MMP in 1996, that didn’t really change. Politics remained quite adversarial between Labour and the National Party, but both of the main parties learned to work with the much smaller parties in order to form governments.

Scotland on the surface may appear more consensual, but there are other tensions at work. Scotland has a true multiparty system, that is one in which “there are three to five relevant parties which are not separated (polarised) by a large or intense ideological distance” (which isn’t the case in New Zealand). Rather, Scotland’s party system “is characterised by two significant cleavages” – class divisions and “the process of building the UK (with England at the centre dominating the periphery composed of Scotland, Wales and Ireland) in the latter.” The two largest parties in Scotland are Labour and the Scottish National Party – both are centre-left, and they have a long, adversarial relationship dating back before devolution, or to quote the former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: “there is a level of visceral hatred between the Nationalists and Labour to this day. So, it just transferred from London to Edinburgh … we just so massively underestimated how important it is for people to have good, personal relationships across all parties.”

Simply put, how adversarial or consensual politics might be in a given democracy will depend on many factors. While the shape of the debating chamber and the voting system used to elect members undoubtedly play a part, changing one or both will not necessarily bring about more polite politics.

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Parliaments, PMOs and Social Media

On Tuesday, 31 January 2012, Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared before the House of Commons Education Committee. It is the Committee’s mandate to monitor the policy, administration and spending of the Department for Education and its associated arms length bodies, and having the Minister give evidence allows them to scrutinize his work, performance and policies.

This in and of itself is not remarkable. What is different about this meeting is that in advance of the session, the Committee asked the public to suggest questions via twitter. By all accounts, this rather novel approach was a huge success:

“We have been overwhelmed by how many there have been… For the last few days, there have just been hundreds and hundreds and ultimately thousands, I think, of questions.”

Over 5000 questions were received via Twitter, and the last hour of Gove’s appearance before the committee was used for questions submitted that way. You can watch the proceedings here, if interested. Both the UK Parliament and Government have embraced social media tools (defined as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc.) to a far greater extent than have parliaments in other Commonwealth jurisdictions. I would like to use this post to highlight some of these initiatives. Please note that I will be focusing here primarily on the use of social media by national parliaments and Offices of the Prime Minister/cabinet, but not on government departments. I will also look at the parliaments of sub-national jurisdictions, such as the Canadian provincial legislatures and Australian state parliaments, but not in as great detail, nor will I focus on the use of social media by individual MPs. It is highly possible that I may miss something, and if this is the case, I will update the post as needed, should such an omission be brought to my attention.

The United Kingdom - Parliaments

There is an official UK Parliament Twitter account (@UKParliament) which regularly tweets the upcoming business of the House of Commons and its various select committees, as well as other relevant news items. The House of Lords has its own Twitter account (@UKHouseofLords) which does much the same, but focusing only on the upper Chamber.

The UK Parliament also has a Facebook page, a Flickr account, and a YouTube channel. The UK Parliament has organized these videos in 10 playlists: PMQs (going back to 12 October 2011), Select Committees, Parliament Tours, 20 Years of Televised Commons, The Speaker, People and Parliament Inquiry, Virtual Tour of Westminster Hall, The House of Lords, Education Series, and Big Ben.

While not an initiative of Westminster, I would like to also mention Lords of the Blog, a collective blog authored by various members of the House of Lords. The blog launched in 2008 and is sponsored by the Hansard Society. You can also follow the blog on Twitter (@lordsoftheblog).

The Scottish Parliament has a Twitter account (@ScotParl), while the Welsh Assembly makes use of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube, as does the Northern Ireland Assembly (Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube). The Northern Ireland Assembly also maintains a blog, Assembly Round Up, which is described as being “not just about Assembly business, but also about some of the events, or behind-the-scenes activities.”

And while they don’t technically count as social media, I will mention that the Scottish and Welsh parliaments have online petitions schemes, although the Scottish Parliament’s e-petitions system is currently being overhauled, and so not active at the time of writing. And of course, I have written several posts about the e-petitions scheme launched by the UK Government in August 2011.

The United Kingdom – Prime Minister’s Office

On the Government side, the UK Prime Minister’s Office has an official Twitter account (@Number10gov), which bills itself as “The official twitter channel for Prime Minister David Cameron’s office, based at 10 Downing Street.” The website link associated with the account is to the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office (http://www.number10.gov.uk).

Consequently, the UK Prime Minister Twitter account is what I will be calling a “generic” account. By this I mean that it is associated with the Office of the Prime Minister and not specifically with the current incumbent of that office. Thus, if PM David Cameron left politics tomorrow, there would be no need to create a new Twitter account for whoever took over as the new Prime Minister. I mention this only because it presents a sharp contrast with the Twitter accounts of other prime ministers, as will be discussed below.

Number 10 also makes use of Facebook and Flickr. While the Flickr account, like the Twitter account is that of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Facebook page is David Cameron’s Facebook page, not a more generic Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Facebook page. There is also an “Official Number 10” iPhone app available, for the really diehard fans.

Cabinet Office also has a strong social media presence. There is a Twitter account (@cabinetofficeUK), Flickr account and YouTube channel. Cabinet Office supports the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, helping to ensure effective development, coordination and implementation of policy and operations across all government departments. It is headed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Clegg has a Twitter account, but it is Nick Clegg’s official Twitter account, not a generic Deputy Prime Minister Twitter account.

And while I stated at the outset that I would not be discussing individual MPs’ use of social media, I will single out one cabinet minister in particular, Foreign Secretary William Hague. Hague is an avid user of Twitter and frequently holds Q&A sessions on Twitter wherein he solicits and answers questions from people on various aspects of foreign policy and international events.

Canada – Parliaments

Overall, Canadian parliaments are lagging in their adoption of social media.

The Canadian House of Commons does not make use of any social media, however, the Canadian Senate recently launched a Twitter account, @SenateCA.

Three Canadian provincial legislatures have started using social media: Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. The Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island has both a Twitter account and a Facebook page, as does the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan (Twitter, Facebook). The Nova Scotia House of Assembly has  Twitter account.

Canada – Prime Minister’s Office

In contrast to the Canadian Parliament’s notable absence on social media, the Prime Minister’s Office has embraced social media whole-heartedly. Some of the social media accounts are generic – meaning associated with the Office and not more personally with the current incumbent, while other accounts are official but personal (or partisan) and could not be used by the next Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of Canada website features links to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, as well as Google+ and podcasts. The Twitter, Facebook and Flickr accounts are associated with the PMO and link back to the PMO website. However, the Prime Minister has another Twitter account (@pmharper) which is more personal and partisan as the associated link is to the Conservative Party of Canada website. Similarly, the YouTube channel is heavily branded by the individual, with Stephen Harper’s name dominant. It does link back to the PMO website, but would require a significant overhaul before it could be used by another PM. The Google+ account is clearly a more personal Stephen Harper account rather than an official, generic Prime Minister of Canada account.

Australia – Parliaments

There are four Twitter accounts associated with the Australian Parliament. The Australian House of Representatives and Senate both have Twitter accounts (@AboutTheHouse and @AuSenate). The Hansard services also has a Twitter account (@AUS_Hansard), as does the Parliamentary Library (@ParlLibrary).

Four of Australia’s six states and two territories have social media presence. They are:

Australia – Prime Minister’s Office

The social media accounts listed on the website of the Prime Minister of Australia would appear to be personal accounts rather than generic accounts for the post of PM rather than the current incumbent. The Facebook page is Kevin Rudd’s page, the Twitter account (@KRuddMP) is associated with the Kevin Rudd’s personal website, not the website of the Office of the Prime Minister. The video page on the Prime Minister of Australia website are hosted by Kevin Rudd’s YouTube account.

New Zealand – Parliament

The New Zealand Parliament has a Twitter account (@NZParliament).

New Zealand – Prime Minister’s Office

Prime Minister John Key has a Twitter account (@johnkeypm), but like the Australian PM’s account, it isn’t a generic Office of the Prime Minister account. It links to John Key’s Facebook page, and to his political website.

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Some interesting links

1. The Big Society

The Canadian media has recently been reporting that the current Conservative Government is considering emulating the UK Coalition Government in adopting David Cameron’s Big Society. Some of what has been written here in Canada is critical of this, which is their perogative, but I found that they often failed to adequately explain the plan. See, for example, this post by Murray Dobbin, in which he dimisses the initiative as “social engineering from the right” and pointing out that the Big Society “scam” has been “widely ridiculed” but makes little effort to explain how it’s supposed to work. I am not argueing for or against this initiative, but I did think some Canadians (and perhaps some Brits) might be interested in learning more about it via David Cameron himself. Cameron appeared before the UK House of Commons Liaison Committee earlier this week and answered questions on a variety of issues, but a lot of the focus was on the Big Society. Canadians unfamiliar with the UK will not always understand exactly what he is talking about or referring to, but there is still enough information provided to perhaps provide some insight into what Cameron hopes the Big Society will be. You can either watch proceedings here, or read a transcript.

As a side note, this might be of added interest to Canadians who are likely to find the sight of a PM answering questions before a House of Commons committee for 90 minutes a rather mind-boggling affair.

2. New Zealand referendum on its electoral system

New Zealand adopted Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in 1996, and in the 2008 election, the National Party promised to hold another referendum asking New Zealanders if they were satisfied with MMP or if they wished to change it. That referendum will take place on 26 November, and Australian elections expert and blogger Antony Green will be going to New Zealand for the last week of the campaign and will provide more details on the referendum and the election over the next two weeks. His first post on the referendum looks at New Zealand’s view of Preferential Voting, which is the voting system Australia uses. Those interested in electoral reform may want to bookmark Antony’s blog to keep track of his future posts. For those unfamiliar with the debate in New Zealand, you might find this piece of interest.

3. Rules of Royal Succession

At the recent meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, the leaders of the member nations agreed to change the succession rules and give female members of the Royal Family the same rights to the throne as men, and to end the ban on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics. This hasn’t prompted much debate in Canada, but if you’re interested in the constitutional aspects of these changes, you might find this meeting of the UK House of Commons Constitutional and Political Reform Committee worth a listen. The witnesses are Professor Robert Blackburn, Kings College London, and Dr Robert Morris, Constitution Unit, University College London. While most of the discussion is focused on the UK, they do raise some of the issues facing Commonwealth jurisdictions, including Canada.

4. A UK Clarity Act?

According to this article in the Independent, the UK is considering adopting its own version of Canada’s Clarity Act in order to counter the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP)’s drive towards a referendum on independence for Scotland.

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On pairing

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

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

UK House of Commons

As explained on the UK Parliament website,

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

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

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

Canada House of Commons

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

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

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

Australia House of Representatives

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

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

New Zealand Parliament

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

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On electing a Speaker

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

Canada: House of Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The United Kingdom: House of Commons

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

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

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

Australia: House of Representatives

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand: House of Representatives

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

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

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

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

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

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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)

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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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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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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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