On Speeches from the Throne and Prorogation

As is often the case – if you follow the right people! – a very interesting discussion transpired on Twitter over the matter of Speeches from the Throne and prorogation.

For the uninitiated, prorogation is, normally, a very mundane parliamentary procedure used to bring to an end one session of a Parliament so that a new session can begin.

If you read my post explaining the differences between a parliament, a session and a sitting, you will recall that a parliament lasts from one election until it is dissolved for a new election. In Canada, this tends to be about four years, with a constitutional maximum duration of five years. After an election, the new parliament begins with a Speech from the Throne, wherein the Government will outline what it hopes to achieve during the upcoming session. Once the Government feels it has achieved the goals it identified in the Speech from the Throne, it may decide to prorogue that session – bring it to an end – and start a new session with a new Speech from the Throne identifying new goals and priorities. Sometimes, a Government might feel a need to prorogue because circumstances may have changed since the last Speech from the Throne. Perhaps the global (or domestic) economy has dramatically changed – such as occurred in 2008. The Government may realize that it won’t be able to carry out some of the initiatives it had promised in the Throne Speech; or it might believe a new budget is required. There are many legitimate reasons why a Government would want to bring one session to an end and start afresh with a new one.

In Canada, there is no set number of sessions per parliament, nor is there any maximum or minimum length set out for the duration of a session. Some parliaments have had only one session, a couple have had seven. The shortest session lasted 0 days (18th parliament, 6th session, 1940), the longest (to date) ran 1,325 days (32nd Parliament, 1st session, 1980-83 – note that this is the total number of calendar days from the opening of the session to prorogation; it is not the total number of sitting days, which was 591 for the House of Commons and 329 for the Senate). You can compare the length and number of sessions of each parliament here.

Because the Canadian parliament doesn’t have a tradition of regularly-timed prorogation, the Government’s agenda as outlined in the Speech from the Throne tends to be very general. It may sometimes identify a few key priorities that it hopes to achieve, but for the most part, the Speech from the Throne is long on rhetoric and short on specifics. This isn’t the case in other countries, however. Many legislatures prorogue annually, and usually for a very short time, sometimes less than a day. It is not uncommon to have the legislature prorogue in the morning and a new session start in the afternoon. The UK parliament prorogues annually in the spring, for about two weeks. Because of this, the Queen’s Speech in the UK tends to be very short and quite specific when compared to Canadian Speeches from the Throne, as I explained in this post. The Government of the day will put forward a list of bills it plans to introduce and there is none of the rather pointless rhetoric extolling the virtues of the Government one finds in Canadian Throne Speeches.

Against this background, you will now appreciate the following discussion which occurred on Twitter. Former Canadian House of Commons procedural clerk Thomas Hall (@ThomasHall17) asked a simple question: “Are Throne Speeches outdated relics of the past? They were supposed to set out the Government’s agenda, but this is no longer really true.” He elaborated, explaining that if we got rid of all throne speeches except the one after an election, the “issue” of prorogations would also disappear.

Emmett Macfarlane (@EmmMacfarlane), a professor at the University of Waterloo disagreed, arguing that they still provided a good outline of the government’s main objectives, to which Hall replied that this could be achieved by other means – such as a ministerial statement in the House, for example, like the Budget Speech.

Professor Philippe Lagassé (@pmlagasse) pointed out that constitutionally, the Speech from the Throne highlights where the ministry’s authority flows from, and that it is a helpful symbol that the executive operates independently of Parliament, but must account to Parliament. Hall acknowledged that this was a good point, that symbols are important. What Lagassé means is that the ministry’s authority comes from the Crown. The constitutional and parliamentary nature of prorogation is described in the following passage from Erskine May (24th ed., p. 144):

The prorogation of Parliament is a prerogative act of the Crown. Just as Parliament can commence its deliberations only at the time appointed by the Queen, so it cannot continue them any longer than she pleases.

At this point in the discussion, E (@freezingkiwi) commented on Hall’s suggestion of having only the one Throne Speech at the start of a new parliament, noting that this was the common approach elsewhere – it was just to set the agenda at the start of each new Parliament. He added that he didn’t recall any mid-Parliament Throne Speeches in New Zealand.

The norm in both Australia and New Zealand is one Throne Speech (or Governor-General’s Speech as it is called in Australia) and only one session per Parliament. This is in large part because, unlike Canada and the UK, parliaments in Australia and New Zealand last only three years. And because of this, prorogation – while still a procedural option available to governments in both countries – has largely disappeared in practice. As explained in House of Representatives Practice (5th ed., chapter 7), Australian Parliaments have often consisted of only one session without a prorogation intervening, and this is now the norm:

The history of the Australian Parliament in respect of prorogations is marked by inconsistency. In 1957 the Leader of the House stated that in future annual sessions of Parliament would be held, and this practice continued until the end of 1961. Subsequently, the division of a Parliament into more than one session by means of regular prorogations appears to have been regarded as either inconvenient or unnecessary.

This isn’t to say that prorogation doesn’t occur, but it occurs only when necessary, usually triggered by an extraordinary event. There have been only four prorogations in Australia since 1961, each one occurring for a very specific reason:

  • the 1968 prorogation followed the death of Prime Minister Holt and the formation of a new Ministry;
  • the 1970 prorogation was caused by a general election being held on 25 October 1969, resulting in the Parliament being forced to meet, under section 5 of the Constitution, prior to Christmas; the Parliament met for one sitting day but the Government found that it was not able to have the Governor-General announce fully its proposed program at that time; the program was announced at the opening of the second session; and
  • the Parliament was prorogued in 1974 and 1977 to enable the Queen to open the new session in each case.

The situation is very similar in New Zealand, which reduced the maximum length of its parliaments from 5 years to 3 years in 1879. As explained in McGee’s Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (chapter 9):

Until 1984 there was usually one session of Parliament held in each calendar year during the course of each Parliament; though there were occasionally more than this when a special session was held, as in 1977 on the occasion of the visit of Her Majesty the Queen. It was exceptional for a session (like the ones of 1921–22 and 1941–42, for example) to extend over more than one calendar year. Since the 1984 session was brought to an end for a snap election, sessions have been more variable and lengthier. There were, for example, only two sessions in each of the three Parliaments after that. Since 1984 there has no longer been a presumption that a session will correspond with a calendar year. Since the forty-fourth Parliament (1993–1996) there has been only a single session lasting the entire life of the Parliament and this has now become the norm.

If the maximum duration of a Parliament is only three years, there is little need for more than one session to be held. It would be much easier for a governing party to put forward a legislative agenda to cover roughly 2.5 years – Canadian governments do that fairly regularly.However, if Canada, with its 4-5 year parliaments, followed the UK Parliament’s example and prorogued annually, that would force the Government to deliver far more focused Throne Speeches. If each session lasted only a year, then the Government would have to outline very specific initiatives it planned to bring forward during the course of that year.

However, the Canadian Parliament does not prorogue annually. The reality is that, at the start of a new Parliament, the Government has no idea how long the session will last. It could be a year, it could be two, it could last the entire parliament. This is why Canadian Throne Speeches take the form they do – favouring vagueness over specifics.

I personally would prefer annual sessions and prorogations – of a short duration (e.g. a few days or certainly no longer than the two weeks the UK Parliament usually stands prorogued). This would force the Government to be more focused and specific in what it hoped to achieve, and probably make it easier for the Opposition to hold them to account. I don’t think doing away with Throne Speeches over the course of a four to five year Parliament is a good idea. Inevitably, the Government will need to reset itself at some point during that time. Alternatively, shorten the duration of a Parliament to three years like Australia and New Zealand. A three-year Parliament would work fine with only one session, meaning one Speech from the Throne and, most likely, an end to prorogation (unless absolutely necessary given some extraordinary event).

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The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

I frequently refer to the “Westminster system of parliamentary government” in posts, and thought it might be a good idea to fully explain how the Westminster system of government works.

The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

The Westminster System is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom, as used in the Palace of Westminster, the location of the UK parliament. The system is a series of conventions and procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once also used, in most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations. There are other parliamentary systems, for example those of various European countries, whose procedures differ considerably from the Westminster system.

Aspects of the Westminster system include:

  1. a head of state, who is different from the head of government, and who may possess reserve powers, which are not normally exercised, and whose role is largely ceremonial. In most countries, this is either a monarch or a representative of the monarch (e.g. Governor General), or a president;
  2. a head of government (usually called the Prime Minister or Premier or First Minister) who is appointed by the head of state, but who, by convention, must have the support of the majority of the Members of Parliament;
  3. an executive branch, usually called the Cabinet, made up of Members of the legislature and led by the head of government;
  4. the presence of opposition parties;
  5. an elected legislature, or a system in which one house is elected and the other appointed, although in some countries with bicameral systems, both Houses are elected;
  6. the confidence convention, by which the lower House can dismiss a government by either withholding Supply (not passing the budget) or via a vote of non-confidence (either by passing a motion of non-confidence or defeating some other measure which was deemed a matter of confidence);
  7. parliamentary privilege, which allows the legislature to discuss any issue deemed by itself to be relevant, without fear of consequences stemming from defamatory statements or records thereof;
  8. a parliament which can be dissolved and elections called at any time, even when there exists fixed election dates.

Most of the procedures of the Westminster system originated with the conventions, practices and precedents of the UK parliament, which are a part of what is known as the British constitution. Unlike the UK, most countries which use the Westminster system have codified the system in a written constitution. However convention, practices and precedents continue to play a significant role in these countries, as many constitutions do not specify important elements of procedure: for example, older constitutions using the Westminster system (e.g. Canada’s) may not even mention the existence of a head of government or Prime Minister, with the office’s existence and role evolving outside the primary constitutional text.

Operation

The pattern of executive functions within a Westminster System is complex. The head of state exercises a largely ceremonial role, even though they are the de jure source of executive power. The head of state does not normally exercise their executive powers; rather, these powers are exercised in their name by the head of government (Prime Minister),  the Cabinet and other junior ministers. For example, in the UK, the Queen theoretically holds executive authority, even though the PM and the Cabinet effectively implement executive powers. In a parliamentary republic like India, the President is the de jure executive, even though executive powers are essentially instituted by the PM and his Council of Ministers.

In a Westminster system, some members of parliament are elected by popular vote, while others may be appointed. Most Westminster-based parliaments which are bicameral have a House of Commons or House of Representatives, comprised of local, elected representatives of the people, and an upper house, which can come in a variety of different forms, such as the British House of Lords (with membership previously determined only by heredity, but changed to a mixed appointment-heredity system), or the Canadian Senate (appointed by the Prime Minister), or the Australian Senate (elected using a proportional system, the Single Transferable Vote). In Britain, the Commons is the de facto legislative body, while the House of Lords practices restraint in exercising its constitutional powers and serves as a consultative body. In other Westminster countries, however, the equivalent upper house of parliament can sometimes exercise considerable power. The head of government is usually chosen by being invited to form a government by the head of state or the representative of the head of state (e.g. the Governor General), not by parliamentary vote. There are notable exceptions to the above in the Republic of Ireland, where the President of Ireland has a mandate through direct election, and the Taoiseach (prime minister) prior to appointment by the President of Ireland is nominated by the democratically elected lower house, Dáil Éireann. In two of the Canadian territories, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which don’t have political parties but a system of consensus government, the Premier is elected by the other Members of the legislature.

The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister, must be able to either control a majority of seats within the lower house,  or to ensure the existence of no absolute majority against his or her government. If the parliament passes a motion of no confidence or if the government fails to pass a major bill such as the budget, then the government must either resign, so that a different government can be appointed, or seek a parliamentary dissolution so that new elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny their mandate. In bicameral jurisdictions, government is formed in the lower house alone. Although the dissolution of the legislature and the call for new elections is formally done by the head of state, by convention the head of state acts according to the wishes of the head of government.

Cabinet Government

Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy. All Cabinet decisions are normally made by consensus. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet, or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. A cabinet member may be forced to resign, or may choose to resign, if they oppose one aspect of a government’s agenda. The power to appoint ministers to the Cabinet – and to dismiss them – is perhaps the single most powerful constitutional power which a Prime Minister has in the political control of the Government in the Westminster system.

Linked to Cabinet government is the idea, at least in theory, that ministers are responsible for the actions of their departments. It is no longer considered to be an issue of resignation if the actions of members of their department, over whom the minister has no direct control, make mistakes or formulate procedures which are not in accordance with agreed policy decisions. One of the major powers of the Prime Minister under the Westminster system is to be the arbitrator of when a fellow minister is accountable for the actions of his or her department.

The Official Opposition and other major political parties not in the Government, will mirror the governmental organisation with their own Shadow Cabinet made up of Shadow Ministers.

Consequences

The Westminster system is characterized by the presence of well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual for a legislator to vote against their own party, whether they are part of the governing party or an opposition party, and in which no-confidence votes are very rare occurrences, usually occurring only during times of minority government. Also, Westminster systems tend to have strong cabinets. Conversely, legislative committees in Westminster systems tend to be weak, though they often have the ability to force a government to reveal certain pieces of information. The degree to which this is true varies from one jurisdiction to another, of course. Party discipline is extremely strong in Canada and Australia, but much less so in the United Kingdom. Also, recent reforms of select committees in the UK have given committees there much more independence and influence.

Ceremonies and Traditions

Parliaments using the Westminster system are greatly influenced by, and continue to follow many very ancient British customs. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long, rectangular room, with rows of seats or desks on either side. The chairs are positioned so that the two sides are facing each other. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to create a visual representation of the adversarial nature of parliamentary government. Traditionally, the opposition parties sit on the side to the left of the Speaker, and the government party will sit to the Speaker’s right. This is how the UK House of Commons and the Canadian House of Commons are laid out, but the Australian House of Representatives and New Zealand parliament are not. Those two chambers both adopted a horseshoe arrangement, but the government side is still to the right of the Speaker and the opposition parties to the left. Tradition holds that the distance between the to sides in the UK House of Commons is that of the length of two swords although no documentary evidence exists to support this and in fact, weapons have never been allowed in the Palace of Westminster at any time.

At one end of the room sits a large chair, for the Speaker of the House. The Speaker usually wears a black robe, and in many countries, a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between the two rows of seats.

Other ceremonies sometimes associated with the Westminster system include an annual Speech from the Throne (or equivalent) in which the Head of State gives a special address (written by the government) to parliament about what kind of policies to expect in the coming year, and lengthy State Opening of Parliament ceremonies that often involve the presentation of a large ceremonial mace carried by the Sergeant-at-Arms.

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Sittings, sessions and parliaments

This post will explain what is meant by the terms “a parliament”, “a session” and “a sitting”.

A parliament can refer to an institution, e.g. the Parliament of Canada, but it also refers to the period of time during which the institution of Parliament exercises its powers. A parliament, at least in the UK and Canada, does not exceed five years. A parliament begins with the proclamation of the Sovereign (UK) or Governor General (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) calling for the formation of a new Parliament and setting the dates for a new election and the day the new Parliament will first meet. A Parliament ends with the proclamation announcing its dissolution.

As stated, traditionally and constitutionally, a Parliament does not exceed five years. Some legislatures have introduced fixed-term election legislation which sets the life of a parliament at four years. A parliament can end before the four or five year limit, however. If the government of the day loses the confidence of the House, and no other government can be formed to take its place, the parliament will be dissolved. This happens most frequently during times of single-party minority government.

A session is a period of time between the summoning of a Parliamentand its prorogation. How many sessions are there during the course of a single Parliament? That can vary. Some legislatures prorogue regularly, every fall or spring. The UK Parliament prorogues every spring, usually in May, and begins a new session a couple of weeks later. In Canada, the federal Parliament does not follow this tradition; consequently, there is no set length for or number of sessions during a single Parliament. The number of sessions have ranged from one to seven. Each new session begins with a Speech from the Throne.

During each session of Parliament, there are a number of sittings. The Standing Orders will usually provide the times and days for the sittings of a legislature. For example, the Canadian House of Commons normally sits five days a week (but not every week) as follows:

Mon: 11:00-18:30
Tue: 10:00-18:30
Wed: 14:00-18:30
Thu: 10:00-18:30
Fri: 10:00-14:30

It is important to note, however, that a sitting does not necessarily equal a calendar day. There can be two sittings in a single day, or a single sitting can last more than one day. To extend a sitting, the House has to agree to a motion to do so. These motions can be moved by Ministers as well as Members. Similarly, sittings which last more than one day are rare, and occur mainly as the result of events such as filibustering by the opposition parties; a motion to extend the sitting beyond the normal adjournment in order to consider a specific item of business; to continue an emergency or take-note debate past the normal hour of adjournment; to complete all remaining stages of a bill, or to allow all Members wishing to do so to speak on an item; and to hold recorded divisions at the report stage of a bill.

To summarize, a single Parliament will have or one or more sessions, and each session will have a number of sittings.

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On the origins of the Canadian Senate

A reader queried as to the origins of the Canadian Senate – why was it decided that the upper chamber should be unelected, why is it based on regional representation rather than equal provincial representation, etc.

I would refer readers to an excellent paper prepared by the Senate’s own Committees and Private Legislation Directorate entitled A Legislative and Historical Overview of the Senate of Canada. I will highlight the main points made in the study.

According the paper’s author(s), the upper House was critically important to those negotiating Confederation. Back in the 1800s, all of the British North American colonies, except British Columbia, were bicameral – meaning they had two chambers, a legislative assembly and a legislative council. The legislative councils were the model for the Senate. The paper notes that much of the Quebec Conference of 1864 was devoted to the creation of an upper house. The Conference lasted 14 days, and six of those 14 days were devoted to discussions of the second chamber.

There was discussion of having the second chamber elected, which was the position favoured by the representatives from Prince Edward Island. The PEI Legislative Council had been elective since 1862, and that of the Province of Canada (the union of Upper and Lower Canada) since 1857. However, this was not the popular option for one important reason – the elected second chambers “tended to be a second edition of the assembly, and because small in numbers and composed for the most part of citizens who had already made their mark in life, it might in the end have overshadowed the assembly, just as the Senate in the United States has overshadowed the House of Representatives.” (quote from Professor Robert MacKay, The Unreformed Senate of Canada, p. 31)

The resolutions adopted at the Quebec Conference on 10 October 1864 on the Senate stipulated, among other things, that for the purposes of the Legislative Council (what would become the Senate), the federated provinces would be composed as three “Divisions” 1) Upper Canada, 2) Lower Canada, 3) Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and each Division would have an equal representation of 24 Members each. There were also provisions for Newfoundland, British Columbia and the “North Western Territory”. Other resolutions established that the Members of the Council would be appointed for life by the Crown, and set out the qualifications for appointment to the Council.

What is perhaps the most interesting part of the paper are the excerpts from the Confederation Debates on the Quebec Resolutions which demonstrate their views on the decision to choose an appointed chamber over an elected upper House. Some examples:

Mr. Belleau, (Legislative Councillor): ” … the elective principle, as applied to the Legislative Council, becomes unnecessary in view of the numerical strength of Lower Canada in the federal Parliament, for the House of Commons is the body that will make and unmake ministers. Why have the elective principle for the Legislative Council, since we shall have it for the House of Commons, since we shall have a Responsible Government, composed of Members elected by the people?”

Sir E.P. Taché, (Legislative Councillor): “When the gentlemen who composed the (Quebec) Conference met, they had to lay down on a broad basis, as it were, for the foundation of the superstructure. Well, it so happened that the cornerstone was that which concerned the representation in both Houses. It was agreed on the one hand that in the House of Commons of the Confederate government representation should be according to numbers, and in the other branch of the Legislature it should be fixed that this representation should be equal for all the provinces – that is to say Upper Canada, Lower Canada and the Maritime Provinces, grouped into one, should each be allowed to send the same number of representatives, so as to secure to each province its rights, its privileges, and its liberties.”

George Brown, (Member of the Legislative Assembly): ” … It has been said that members of the Upper House ought not to be appointed by the Crown, but should continue to be elected by the people at large. On that question my views have been often expressed. I have always been opposed to a second elective chamber and I am so still, from the conviction that the two elective Houses are inconsistent with the right working of the British parliamentary system … [W]hen the elective element becomes supreme, who will venture to affirm that the Council would not claim that power over money bills which this House claims as of right belonging to itself? Could they not justly say that they represent the people as well as we do, and that the control of the purse strings ought, therefore, to belong to them as much as to us. It is said they have not the power. But what is to prevent them from enforcing it?”

Regarding the representation of each province in the Senate I will cite from the study directly:

(…) the Senate’s composition reflects both provincial and regional representation. As John A. MacDonald stated in the Confederation Debates, the principle of equality in the Upper House was “to protect local interests and to prevent sectional jealousies”. MacDonald saw the British North American colonies as three great sections – Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, each with different economic interests. It was on the basis of regional equality and not provincial equality that Senate representation was agreed to.

i) Quebec and Ontario – The only feasible scheme for the union of the British North American colonies in 1867, Professor MacKay writes “was a federal state in which Lower Canada (Quebec) should be protected in all its rights. Lower Canada must be a willing partner to any scheme of union since geographically it held the key to any union with the Maritime Colonies. And it could only be a willing partner by the grant of absolute guaranties for the protection of its institutions, its language, its religion, and its laws guarantees that must be clearly evident to all”.(MacKay, p. 34) Quebec was given equal representation in the Senate with Ontario – twenty-four seats. Section 24 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provided for a special representation in the case of Quebec: “each of the twenty-four Senators representing that Province shall be appointed for one of the twenty-four electoral districts of Lower Canada … “. These districts are specified in Schedule A to Chapter One of the Consolidated Statutes of Canada (1859).

ii) Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – The original agreement adopted at Quebec City in 1864 by the Fathers of Confederation stated that Nova Scotia would have ten Senators, New Brunswick ten and Prince Edward Island four. The record of the discussions which took place at the Quebec Conference shows that the Prince Edward Island delegates argued vigorously that the only safeguard the smaller Provinces would possess was in the Senate and raised the demand for equal representation for all the provinces in the Upper House. This position, MacKay writes “was farther than other Maritime delegations were prepared to go”.(MacKay, p. 37) P.E.I. alone dissented from the Quebec agreement and refused to come into the new federation. In order to retain the equality of sectional representation, the twenty-four maritime members were divided equally between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. When Prince Edward Island entered Confederation pursuant to the Prince Edward Island Terms of Union, 1873, it did so on the terms and conditions of the Quebec resolutions. Senate representation was therefore readjusted to ten Nova Scotia seats, ten New Brunswick seats and four from P.E.I.

iii) Newfoundland – The Fathers of Confederation regarded Newfoundland as a distinct region and its representation in the Upper Chamber an exception to the condition of equality. Sir John A. MacDonald felt the province “had an interest of its own … It, therefore, has been dealt with separately, and is to have a separate representation in the Upper House, thus varying from the equality established between the other sections”. Newfoundland entered Confederation only in 1949, pursuant to the Newfoundland Act, which confirmed the Terms of Union between the province and Canada. The Terms of Union provided for representation in the Senate by six members.

iv) Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia – The Quebec Resolutions stated that “the North Western Territory, British Columbia and Vancouver shall be admitted into the Union on such terms and conditions as the Parliament of the Federated Provinces shall deem equitable”. The Manitoba Act, 1870 provided that it shall “be represented in the Senate of Canada by two Members, until it shall have, according to decennial census, a population of fifty thousand souls, and from thenceforth it shall be represented therein by three Members, until it shall have, according to decennial census, a population of seventy-five thousand souls, and from thenceforth it shall be represented therein by four Members”. The British Columbia Terms of Union, 1871  stipulated that the province would be represented in the Senate by three members. The Alberta Act, 1905, and the Saskatchewan Act, 1905 each provided for four Senators with a proviso added “that such representation may, after the completion of the next decennial census, be from time to time increased to six by the Parliament of Canada”. By the Constitution Act, 1915, the West became recognized as a distinct section and was allotted a representation of twenty-four members equally with the other sections, six Senators being assigned to each of the four western provinces.

v) The Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory – Pursuant to the Constitution Act, 1975, the two territories were entitled to be represented in the Senate by one member each. Like the Province of Newfoundland, they were not added to an existing region but treated as an exception to the sectional divisions.

vi) The Nunavut Act of 1993 separated the new Territory of Nunavut from the Northwest Territories and granted it representation in the Senate by one member.

Again, I urge you to read the entire paper as it contains much more information about the origins of the Senate, including a discussion of its functions.

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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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Inside the New Zealand House of Representatives

Like its Australian counterpart, the New Zealand House of Representatives’ debating chamber is arranged in a horseshoe shape. The Chamber measures 19.3 by 13.12 metres, which is  smaller than the Canadian  and UK Houses of Commons. As in the other chambers, the Speaker sits at one end, on a dais, and the Clerk and other Table officers are seated at a Table in front of and below the Speaker’s Chair.

The Members sit at desks arranged in three to five tiers. The MPs who are members of the Government side sit on the Speaker’s right, with the members of the executive nearest to the Speaker. The members of the Opposition parties sit on the left, with the members of the shadow cabinet nearest the Speaker, as we can see in this image from Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:

The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and deputy to the Leader of the Opposition sit facing each other in recognised front bench seats. Their respective whips are seated immediately behind them. Other Ministers and members are allocated seats within the area of the Chamber occupied by the party to which they belong on a basis determined by the party. As far as practicable, each party occupies a block of seats in the Chamber, so that its members are seated contiguously. It is also a recognised practice that, if at all possible, every party leader should have a front-bench seat. Because New Zealand uses Mixed-Member Proportional voting rather than First-Past-The-Post, coalition government is the norm and so the government side of the House will include all of the parties forming the coalition.

In this image, we note that the horseshoe shape of the Chamber is divided at three points by gangways. One gangway at the far end of the Chamber leads beyond the bar of the House to an exit. The other two gangways are on either side of the Chamber. The one on the Speaker’s right leads into a lobby known as the Ayes Lobby, and the one on the left leads into the Noes Lobby. New Zealand MPs used to use these lobbies for divisions as is done in the British House of Commons, but since adopting MMP voting in 1996, the lobbies are used only for what are called “personal” votes. Party votes – which would be the equivalent of a whipped vote in other parliaments – don’t even require that all MPs be present. If a party indicates that is it voting in favour of a bill or motion, then a number of votes equivalent to the number of MPs that party has is attributed to the Ayes. Because of this, even the Speaker votes in New Zealand, which is not the case in other Westminster-style parliaments. The Speaker’s vote is included in any party vote cast and the Speaker votes in a personal vote, though without going into the lobbies personally – the Speaker’s vote is communicated to the teller from the Speaker’s chair. Because the lobbies are rarely used for divisions, they are now set aside for the exclusive use of members while the House is sitting as a place where they can go to relax.

Ministerial advisers are able to converse with their Minister from a bench situated immediately to the right of the Speaker’s chair (not shown in the diagram). Immediately to the left of the chair there are seats available for former members of Parliament, heads of diplomatic missions and visiting members of overseas parliaments.

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Inside the UK House of Commons

In an earlier post, I described the interior of the Canadian House of Commons. In this post, I will provide readers with an overview of the layout of the British House of Commons.

The Chamber of the House of Commons is at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster; it was opened in 1950 after the Victorian chamber had been destroyed in 1941 and re-built under the architect Giles Gilbert Scott. The Chamber measures 14 by 20.7 metres, which is smaller than the Canadian Chamber (16 by 21 metres). This is noteworthy because there are more than twice as many MPs elected to the UK House of Commons (650). It is impossible for all MPs to sit in the Chamber at the same time; indeed, only about 427 MPs can be accommodated at any one time. Another noteworthy difference between the Canadian and British Chambers is that British MPs do not have individual desks or assigned seats; rather, all MPs sit on benches.

Legend

1. Speaker’s Chair
2. Table of the House
3. Despatch boxes
4. The Mace
5. The Bar of the House
6. Aye division lobby
7. No division lobby
8. Division Clerks’ Desks
9. Entrances to lobby
10. Exits from lobby
11. Petition bag
12. Prime Minister
13. Government Whips
14. Other ministers
15. Parliamentary Private Secretaries
16. Government backbenches
17. Leader of the Official Opposition
18. Opposition whips
19. Shadow ministers
20. Opposition backbenches
21. Third party
22. Other smaller parties
23. Clerks at the Table
24. Serjeant at Arms
25. Public servants
26. Strangers

The above schematic is how the Chamber would normally look when there is a single-party majority government in place. For example, when Labour formed the government, the parties were arranged thusly:

As we can see, the Government side, indicated in red, occupies most of the right side of the Chamber, except for one small area which is seating for members from smaller parties [#22]. The Opposition side was dominated by the Conservative party (blue), who formed the Official Opposition, and the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in the House, were seated to left of the Conservatives [#21].

Because the current government is a coalition government comprised of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, the government side would be both blue and yellow. The front bench [#14] would consist of both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, as would the section reserved for parliamentary private secretaries [#15]. On the government backbenches, however, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs tend not to intermingle, with the Lib Dems MPs sitting as a block to the right of the Conservatives. On the Opposition side of the House, the section numbered 21 is now occupied mostly by Labour MPs as the third party, the Lib Dems, are now on the Government side of the Chamber. (See this interactive guide from the BBC for a better view of the current seating arrangements.)

Another interesting difference between the Canadian and British chambers is the presence of division lobbies. Because not all MPs can be present in the Chamber at one time, MPs do not stand to vote in their place as they do in Canada. Voting is done in division lobbies [#6 and #7]. MPs have to walk through the two Division Lobbies on either side of the House and give their name to the Division Clerks [#8] at the end of the respective Lobbies to vote. They are then counted by the Tellers as they leave the Lobby. After all members have voted in the lobbies, the vote totals are written on a card and the numbers are read out to the House by the Tellers. The Speaker then announces these numbers a second time, announcing the final result by saying ‘The Ayes/Noes have it, the Ayes/Noes have it’.

Other differences include the despatch (or dispatch) boxes and the Petition Bag. The despatch boxes are two ornate wooden boxes [#3], one box on the Government side and one on the Opposition side of the table [#2] that divides the opposing frontbenches. Whereas backbenchers in both Parliaments generally deliver addresses to the chamber while standing at their seat, frontbenchers (ministers and shadow ministers) deliver their addresses from their side’s despatch box. For this reason, the expression “speaking from the despatch box” is often used to describe the performance of a member of parliament (even backbenchers) in addressing the Chamber. Here is a photo showing both despatch boxes, as well as the Mace [#4]:

The Petition Bag [#11] hangs on the back of the Speaker’s Chair [#1]. MPs present petitions by either giving a short statement in the Chamber or by simply placing the petition in the Petition Bag. The Bar of the House [#5], is not an actual bar as it is in the Canadian House of Commons, but simply a white line painted on the floor of the Chamber.

 

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Inside the Canadian House of Commons

(Note: If you’re looking for information about the British House of Commons, see Inside the UK House of Commons.)

I have written a number of posts explaining the role and purpose of various persons and objects in the House of Commons, but some readers want to know how the House of Commons is arranged – who sits where, who are those people at the table in the centre, etc.  The Canadian and UK Houses of Commons follow a similar lay-out, with government and opposition facing off on either side of the Chamber, while the Australian and New Zealand chambers have members seated in more of “U” lay-out. I will begin with a description of the lay-out of the Canadian House of Commons.

This diagram from House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.) shows the House of Commons as viewed from the Bar of the House at the south end looking into the Chamber up towards the north end of the Chamber. The Speaker sits on a Chair on a dais [#2 in the diagram], and the Government side is on the Speaker’s right [#5] (but on the left in this image), and the Opposition parties sit on the Speaker’s left (but on the right in the image) [#3, 4 and 6]. You can see that the opposition side is divided between the opposition parties. The front bench of the Official Opposition party sits directly opposite the front bench of the Government party, with the Leader of the Official Opposition [#3] sitting directly opposite the Prime Minister [#1]. The other opposition parties are seated based on the size of their caucus (in decreasing order) in the House [#4]. Independent members wlll occupy the seats on the opposition side which are the furthest away from the Speaker.

Canadian House of Commons - lay-out
Unlike in the UK House of Commons, MPs in the Canadian House of Commons have individual desks assigned to them and must speak and vote from their assigned seat. The desks are equipped with microphones, an electrical outlet for laptop computers, access to the Internet, and a locked compartment in which Members may store belongings.

As stated, the Speaker sits on a Chair on a dais at the north end of the Chamber. The Speaker’s Chair is an exact replica of the original Speaker’s Chair at Westminster, made circa 1849, and then destroyed when the British House of Commons was bombed in 1941. It is approximately four metres high, surmounted by a canopy of carved wood and the Royal Coat of Arms. The oak used for the carving of the Royal Arms was taken from the roof of Westminster Hall, which was built in 1397. House of Commons Procedure and Practice also informs us that:

In recent years, the Chair has undergone some minor renovations. Microphones and speakers have been installed and lights placed overhead. The armrests now offer a writing surface and a small storage space. A hydraulic lift was also installed to permit more comfortable seating for the various occupants of the Chair. At the foot of the Chair, visible only to its occupant, is a computer screen which allows the Chair Occupant to see information generated by the computers at the Table, the countdown timer used to monitor the length of speeches and interventions when time limits apply, and a portion of the unofficial rotation list for Members wishing to speak. The screen also displays a digital feed from the television cameras in the Chamber, allowing the Speaker to see the image being broadcast.

The pages sit at the foot of the Speaker’s Chair [#20]. Pages are first-year university students who work for the House of Commons. They deliver messages and documents to MPs during sittings. The Table referred to above [#7] is where the Clerk of the House, chief procedural advisor to the Speaker, sits with other Table Officers. The Mace [#9] rests on the south end of the Table when the House is sitting.

The Proceedings and Verification Officers (PVOs) [#19] are part of the Hansard team, tasked with capturing Debates in the House. They are the eyes and ears of the production team, capturing details such as the name of the Member speaking, the item of business being discussed, the name of the occupant of the Chair, and using a stenomask to dub names of speakers, off-mike comments and other information that might be reflected in the Official Report.

The Canadian House of Commons conducts business in both English and French, and thus enclosed booths for interpreters are located in the corners of the Chamber opposite the Speaker’s Chair [#21]. Members’ desks are equipped with interpretation devices in order to receive simultaneous interpretation of the proceedings into French or English. Visitors in the galleries also have access to the sound reinforcement and interpretation systems and may choose to listen to the proceedings with interpretation in the official language of their choice, or without interpretation. Proceedings in the House have been broadcast on television since 1977, and TV cameras [#22] are located throughout the Chamber. Since 2003, proceedings are also carried over the Internet via the Parliament of Canada website.

There are several galleries from which proceedings can be watched and which can accommodate about 500 people [#11-18]. Some are reserved for specific purposes, such as visiting dignitaries, members of the diplomatic corps, parliamentary delegations, etc., Senators, departmental officials, and the press, while others are open to the public.

The Sergeant-at-Arms sits at the south end of the Chamber [#8], near the Bar of the House [#10].

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Sin binning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keyword Post: Answers to Questions on Election Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more than the candidate who finishes second.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. What happens if a minority government is defeated?

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

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