The Speaker’s Seat

In an earlier post, I wrote about some aspects of the UK House of Commons Procedure Committee’s report reviewing the election process for certain positions in the House of Commons. One part of the report which I did not comment on concerned the brief discussion of creating a “Speaker’s Seat”.

As I have previously mentioned in other posts, unlike Speakers in other Commonwealth countries, the MP elected Speaker of the UK House of Commons resigns from his or her political party. They also run for re-election as “the Speaker” and not as a member of a party. There is a long-standing convention in the United Kingdom by which the three main parties do not run a candidate against a Speaker seeking re-election; however smaller parties will contest the seat.

There has been a proposal raised at various times to create a Speaker’s Seat specifically for a Speaker seeking re-election:

The concept of a Speaker’s seat (sometimes referred to as St Stephen’s seat) envisages that any Member once elected by the House to the Speakership would cease to represent a normal parliamentary constituency, resulting in a by-election, and would be automatically returned at the next General Election, if he or she so chose, to stand in the Speakership election.

In other words, once elected Speaker, that MP would, in effect, cease to be an MP with a constituency to represent. A by-election would be called and a new MP would be elected to represent the constituency from which the Speaker hailed. In a general election, the incumbent Speaker would be automatically returned to the House from this “St. Stephen’s seat”, which, since it isn’t associated with an actual constituency, would not be contested by any other candidate.

The idea of a Speaker’s seat has been proposed time and again in the United Kingdom to counter a couple of perceived issues. The first is that constituents in the Speaker’s riding are, to a certain degree, not represented in the House of Commons to the same extent because their MP, the Speaker, cannot speak on their behalf in the House. Also, because the Speaker resigns from his or her political party upon being elected Speaker, and because the major parties do not contest that seat during general elections, voters are, to a certain degree, disenfranchised. Their only options are to re-elect the Speaker, or to vote for candidates from minor and fringe parties.

It is certainly true that Speakers are constrained in how they can represent their constituents. They cannot participate in any debates in the House, they cannot bring forward petitions, they cannot engage in any activity which might be perceived as partisan. This is true (to varying degrees) of all Speakers in all Commonwealth countries. However, this does not mean that they cannot represent their constituents and work on their behalf. For example, they can still raise their constituents’ concerns with the relevant agency or government department, and because they are the Speaker, they will often receive replies far more quickly than would be the case for a backbench MP. They can also attend events and undertake visits of a non-party political character throughout the constituency.

As for the question of voters being disenfranchised, this one is more problematic, as it is certainly true that voters in the Speaker’s constituency will not be able to cast ballots for candidates from any of the major parties. The Committee notes that the question of creating a Speaker’s seat was studied at length on at least three occasions: in 1938, 1963 and again in 1982. In each instance, the proposal was rejected largely on the grounds that “it was wrong in principle to create a new category of membership of the House, especially one that introduced indirect election, and that it would reduce the accountability of the Speaker to the Commons.” Speaker Lloyd is quoted in the report, stating in his farewell address to the House in 1976:

“I firmly believe that the Speaker should be elected for a constituency, as are other hon. Members, so as to keep personally in touch with the hopes and fears and the personal and individual needs of many thousands of ordinary men and women, meeting them face to face from time to time and to know the problems of the area which he represents”.

While the Committee did not undertake a detailed examination of this issue, they did conclude from their review of the arguments and history of the debate that the perceived advantages of creating a special Speaker’s Seat were outweighed by the disadvantages:

There are great benefits to the House and to the Speaker in the Speaker’s retaining responsibility for a normal constituency and being thereby fully aware of the issues currently causing concern to constituents. The access that the Speaker, like Ministers who are also unable to speak out in debates, gains to the Government in order to raise matters relating to his or her constituents compensates in no small measure for the lack of a constituency voice on the floor of the House. We are also concerned that the proposal would remove the important democratic check on the re-appointment of a Speaker by either the public or the House and would create a new separate, distinctive and privileged category of Member to the detriment of the House. Finally, we recognise that the existence of a Speaker’s seat could lead to worse consequences for a returning Speaker, if not re-elected by the House, than at present since there could be no possibility of a return to the backbenches in such circumstances and the traditional honour of a seat in the Lords could cease to be available in the foreseeable future. For all these reasons, we do not support the concept of a St Stephen’s seat for the Speaker.

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Comparing UK and Canadian House of Commons procedure

Going by the keyword search activity on this blog, there seems to be much interest in comparisons of parliamentary procedure in Canada and the United Kingdom. I have written many posts about various parliamentary proceedings which differ notably in both countries, and so I thought I would regroup that information into one post, with links to the more detailed posts for those who wish to find out more. Please note that this is not a comprehensive explanation of all of the differences between the two countries – I am looking only at major areas of interest. Read more

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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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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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Speaker Bercow and accusations of bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Perceptions of parliamentary procedure: is the grass really greener?

Last week’s appearance by Rupert and James Murdoch before the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport (which you can view here if you missed it) as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement in the House of Commons the following day (viewable here) received global media attention. Many Canadian journalists who normally report on proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons seemed enthralled by the often small, yet significant differences in how the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons function – the very same differences which I have been writing about here for over a year now.

CBC reporter Kady O’Malley, who regularly liveblogs proceedings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, has since written two posts outlining some of the differences which she observed and, for the most part, would like to see adopted in Canada (first post on committee procedure, second post on procedure in the House of Commons). One highly respected political commentator, Andrew Coyne, national editor of Macleans Magazine, tweeted on July 20 “Everyone should be watching the UK phone-hacking debate, if only to see what a real parliament looks like”.

O’Malley’s post on committee procedure ignores one very important difference between Canadian and UK House of Commons committees: the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs. This applies to departmental committees and the Environmental Audit, Political and Constitutional Reform, Procedure, Public Administration and Public Accounts committees. Canadian committee chairs are elected by that committee’s members. Similarly, committee members in the UK are elected by their respective caucuses, while members of Canadian committees are appointed by their party whips. I have discussed this in detail in this post, and so I won’t repeat myself here, but it should be fairly obvious to most why having elected chairs and committee members would make for a more responsive and less partisan committee.

There are also a couple of other inaccuracies in O’Malley’s post on committee procedure. UK select committees do allow witnesses to make opening statements or general comments. Some witnesses decline to do so, but others take advantage of the offer. To her credit, Kady notes:

The following observations were inspired by what I saw when I was liveblogging the Home Affairs and Culture Select committees on Tuesday; as we are so often reminded, committees are, of course, masters of their own respective destinies, which means it is distinctly possible that other select committees operate on slightly – or even substantially – different rules.

O’Malley also writes that there aren’t time limits for questions and answers, nor on the length of time witnesses are expected to stick around to answer. Again, this isn’t entirely true. Each committee hearing has a set duration, for example, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30. The committee may well decide to go on longer, or to cut proceedings short. Some witnesses do have to leave at a certain time because of other commitments, and so the committee knows it has only a half hour, or an hour, etc., with that specific witness. It is true, however, that unlike the Canadian House of Commons committees I have watched, the UK committees don’t have time limits for questions and answers.

While Kady O’Malley highlighted some key differences (based on having observed one committee hearing), a recent piece on the BBC website questions if MPs are really up to the task of questioning witnesses, stating that “[T]here had been criticism of earlier hearings for not asking sharp enough questions, or following up lines of enquiry.” One MP defended MP inquiries this way:

“We are asking questions as non-experts, as representatives of the public.

“You can’t prepare those questions in advance because you can’t always anticipate the way that the discussion will go.”

The comment by UK MP Nicola Blackwood that MPs are asking questions “as non-experts” also reminds me of former Prime Minister John Major’s recent calls for reforms to increase the number of MPs with expertise in specific areas, which I discussed in this post.

This is a legitimate criticism of parliamentary committees. For example, there has been much criticism of one MP on the Culture, Media and Sports committee, Louise Mensch, for making some comments during the July 20 hearing accusing former News of the World Editor Piers Morgan of phone hacking because he had supposedly admitted to this in his autobiography. This led to a fierce row between Morgan and Mensch, who refused to repeat the allegations outside of Parliament, where she would no longer be protected by parliamentary privilege. Here in Canada, other committee investigative hearings have been less than stellar. In 2007, the Canadian House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics conducted an investigation into the Mulroney Airbus settlement. The questioning of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by MPs appeared often amateurish and boorish, and Mulroney’s legal counsel, Guy Pratte, described committee hearings as “damaging”:

“At a parliamentary committee there are absolutely no rules. Zero rules. At least at inquiry commissions some rules of fairness apply. Parliamentary immunity means things are said that never would be said if MPs were subject to defamatory libel.”

He remembers New Democrat MP Pat Martin saying to Mulroney: “I won’t call you a liar, but I don’t want anyone here to think that I believe you.” Pratte says, “That sort of thing would never be tolerated in a court of law. Never, never, never!” Mulroney fumed at the insult and his son Ben, the television host, had to be restrained in the audience. “Parliamentary committees play with peoples’ reputations sometimes in a very dangerous and damaging way,” says Pratte. “I understand they have work to do, and it is a political forum. I suppose there is a political advantage to be gained from getting a big headline the next morning.

“I’ve said it many times in the Mulroney affair. It should resemble an ordinary court.” Pratte says. “We should at least try to respect the basic principles of fairness. I wanted to present myself in politics several times, but my experience as much with Mr. Pelletier as Mr. Mulroney left me discouraged by the performance of certain, but not all, MPs and the lack of concern with which they threw out any sort of accusation.”

Kady O’Malley’s second post looked at differences between the UK and Canadian House of Commons in general. On Twitter on July 21, many Canadian journalists were enthralled by the ministerial statement delivered by David Cameron on the phone hacking scandal and the questions and debate which followed. I have also explored the vast differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements, O’Malley, for some reason, did not comment on that at all. While UK ministerial statements are always far more productive affairs than their Canadian counterparts, this one was quite noteworthy: Cameron took 136 questions from MPs during his statement.

It was interesting to see the many comments from Canadians on Twitter, some of whom lamenting that Canada doesn’t have a Prime Minister’s Questions (not that there was a PMQs on 20 July). It reminded me that only days earlier, the Independent had run an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of PMQs. The sub-headline of that article reads: “No other parliament has anything like Prime Minister’s Questions.” Quite a few readers took exception to that and rattled off a series of countries that they said had PMQs: Finland, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, to name a few. It was clear to me that people were confusing a general oral question period where all ministers, including the PM, take questions, which is what both Canada and Australia have, with a questions session where only the PM and no other ministers takes questions. It made me wonder if the Canadian journalists on Twitter, who were expressing such enthusiasm for PMQs, were aware of the UK House of Commons’ other daily questions – the department-specific oral questions, which I’ve written about in detail here. I don’t know if they’d be as impressed by those since they are such staid affairs when compared to PMQs. They should be, however, since again, they are far more productive than the Canadian version of Question Period for both getting information from the government and holding it to account.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I personally believe that the UK House of Commons functions far better than its Canadian counterpart, but as we all well know, the grass usually does look greener on the other side of the fence – or in this case, ocean. At least one very prominent figure in the UK believes there is still room for further reforms at Westminster.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow spoke to the Guardian and stated that while “MPs and peers have “rediscovered their collective balls” over the phone-hacking affair”, more could be done to strengthen Parliament. First on his list is finding a way to allow Parliament to compel witnesses to appear before committees.

Parliamentary committees (both in the UK and Canada and other jurisdictions) have the power to request witnesses to give evidence to them via an informal invitation issued by the committee clerk or the committee chair. They can also draw on their formal powers to summon witnesses via a Speaker’s warrant. That power is unqualified, “except to the extent that if conflicts with the privileges of the Crown and of Members of the House of Lords, or with the rights of Members of the House of Commons.” (Erskine May, 24th edition, p. 820). Should a witness fail to comply with such a warrant, however, they will be found in contempt of Parliament. In theory, the House of Commons has the power to send for persons whose conduct has been brought before the House on a matter of privilege by an order for their attendance. In practice, however, as Bercow notes, this isn’t really an enforceable power:

“If the Murdochs had refused the warrant to attend, we would have been in an extremely awkward situation. I don’t think there is much we could have done. There has been a complete ambiguity, a lack of clarity, an uncertainty about what our powers are.”

Bercow says select committees should have enforceable powers to compel witnesses in British jurisdiction to attend, and not, as at present, “depend on a toxic blend of bad publicity and the entirely implausible threat of imprisonment.

“I don’t think frankly it should be the Speaker on behalf of the house imprisoning a witness. We have got a creche in the parliamentary estate, but not so far as I know a cell.”

I sort of agree with Bercow that there probably needs to be a better way to compel witnesses to attend when summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee. Currently, the most likely outcome of a witness’s refusal to appear before a committee will be for that person to be found in contempt of Parliament. They may be called before the Bar of the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker or asked to apologize, but again, there is no way to compel them to do so:

The problem is that the sanctions – involving fine or imprisonment – to enforce any punishment are constitutionally somewhat rusty. Vernon Bogdanor, the former professor of government at Oxford University, has suggested they may have fallen into “desuetude” [disuse]. The House of Commons is not believed to have fined anybody since 1666 and has not “committed anyone to custody”, apart from temporarily detaining them, since the 19th century.

The last time the Commons attempted to reprimand anyone at the bar of the house was in 1957 when the Sunday Express editor John Junor was criticised after offending MPs by publishing an editorial accusing them of abusing their petrol allowances. “Such a sanction would now appear high-handed,” the recent standard and privileges committee report acknowledged.

Another MP, Adrian Bailey, who chairs the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has called for new laws to be introduced to force witnesses to appear before select committees. In the US, a federal act makes contempt of Congress a misdemeanor “punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 nor less than $100 and imprisonment.., for not less than one month nor more than twelve months.” Perhaps something along these lines would be what Bailey and Bercow have in mind.

Bercow also would like to see witnesses before committees examined under oath “as a matter of course”. Committees do have the power to administer oaths to witnesses, however, more often than not, they aren’t. This too has ramifications. If a witness was not sworn in before testifying, and then found to have provided false evidence or misled the committee, the worse that will happen is that they may be found in contempt. However, again according to Erskine May (p. 824), “[B]y the Perjury Act 1911, s 1, where evidence is given upon oath, the giving of false evidence is punishable as perjury. The power of either House to punish for false evidence is not, however, superseded by this Act.” Meaning that it would still be up to the house to administer any punishment – the range of which are similar to those available for anyone deemed to be guilty of contempt. And again from Erskine May:

it should be borne in mind that in 1978, the House of Commons resolved to exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible, and only when satisfied that it was essential to do so. Thus many acts which might be considered to be contempts are either overlooked by the House or resolved  informally.  (p. 251)

And while Canadian journalists and political watchers were so enthralled by PMQs, that item of business remains a source of great frustration and embarrassment for Bercow:

“I cannot think of any business that would put its worst product in the shop window and in some respects it’s our worst product. I think the level of heckling, the extent of catcalling, the sheer decibel level, are not conducive to reasoned debate.”

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Opening of Parliament: Electing the Speaker (Canada)

The 41st Parliament of Canada will open on Thursday, 2 June 2011.

The opening of a Parliament is also the opening of the first session of that Parliament. Two procedures distinguish it from the opening of subsequent sessions. These are the taking and subscribing of the oath of allegiance by Members and the election of a Speaker. The general practice is for Members to be sworn in prior to opening day, after the Clerk has received the certificates of election returns from the Chief Electoral Officer.

The first real order of business is the election of the Speaker.

The Constitution Act, 1867 requires that a Speaker be elected at the beginning of a Parliament and at any other time when a vacancy occurs. While the Constitution requires that the Speaker be elected by the House of Commons, traditionally this amounted to the rubber-stamp approval of a Member nominated by the Prime Minister. In 1986, however, the Standing Orders were changed and now the Speaker is elected by secret ballot.

At the first sitting of a new Parliament, the Members of Parliament (MPs) assembled in the House are summoned to the Senate Chamber. There they are are informed that the business of the new Parliament may not officially commence, nor the Throne Speech be read, until the House of Commons has elected a Speaker.

The Members then return to the House and immediately proceed to elect a Speaker by secret ballot.

Candidates

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.

Prior to the election, the Members who are candidates may make introductory speeches of no more than five minutes. Following the speeches, the House suspends its proceedings for one hour before the election is held.

Conduct of the Election

The election is presided over by the “Dean of the House”, the Member with the longest unbroken record of service in the House who is not a Cabinet Minister, party Leader, House Leader or Whip.

The election is conducted by secret ballot using voting booths placed on the Table in front of the Speaker’s chair. During the election, no debate is allowed, no motion is accepted and no question of privilege may be raised.

When the first ballot is completed and counted, the bells are rung and the Members are called to hear the results. All candidates who receive 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 votes drops off. This continues, with a one hour break between ballots, until one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.

The winner is escorted to the Speaker’s chair by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Official Opposition. The newly elected Speaker, by tradition, feigns reluctance as he or she is “dragged” to the chair in a practice dating from the days when British Speakers risked execution if the news they reported to the King was displeasing.

The Speaker takes the Chair, thanks the Members for electing him or her and then adjourns the House until the next day.

There were eight MPs entered in the race for Speaker: Denise Savoie, Andrew Scheer, Lee Richardson, Ed Holder, Barry Devolin, Merv Tweed, Bruce Stanton and Dean Allison. Of those, only Savoie was from the Opposition benches. Andrew Scheer was elected Speaker on the 6th ballot. At 32, he is the youngest Speaker in House of Commons’ history.

The Deputy Speaker

In addition to the Speaker, a Deputy Speaker, also known as the Chair of Committees of the Whole or “Chair of Committees”, is elected at the beginning of each parliament to act in place of the Speaker when the latter is unavailable. Under the Standing Orders, the Speaker, after consulting with each of the party leaders, nominates a candidate for Deputy Speaker to the House, which then votes on that nomination. The Deputy Speaker presides over daily sessions of the House when the Speaker is not in the chair. The Deputy Speaker also chairs the House when it sits as a Committee of the Whole. Other presiding officers, the Deputy Chair of Committees and the Assistant Deputy Chair of Committees, are chosen each session to occupy the chair when the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are not available. The Deputy speaker and the other presiding officers are members of the Panel of Chairs, and can therefore be selected by the Speaker to chair legislative committees. Like the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker has a role in administering the House.

See this post for an overview of the role of the Speaker. For anyone interested in watching the election of the Speaker, it will be broadcast on CPAC in Canada (check your local listings), and livestreamed on the CPAC website (possibly subject to regional restrictions -viewers outside of Canada might be unable to view this feed). Proceedings of the House of Commons are also available for viewing online on ParlVu.

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Who’s who in Parliament: the Speaker

The term Speaker is a title often given to the presiding officer (chair) of a deliberative assembly, especially a legislative body. The Speaker’s official role is to moderate debate, make rulings on procedure, announce the results of votes, and the like. The Speaker decides who may speak and has the powers to discipline members who break the procedures of the house. The Speaker often also represents the body in person, as the voice of the body in ceremonial and some other situations.

In most Westminster-style chambers, the Speaker does not have a deliberative vote, but only a tiebreaker, called the casting vote. The Speaker is also expected to remove him or herself from politics, and remain as neutral as possible. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where in the House of Representatives and in state legislatures and local government councils, the speaker is usually selected by the members of the majority party and functions as a leader of that party. Thus, though speakers are supposed to be fair, they use procedural rulings to advance the agenda of their own party. Ceremonially, the speaker represents the whole house, but politically is the legislative voice of the party in power.

Speakers in Westminster-style chambers traditionally have three main areas of responsibility: presiding officer of the legislative body, administrative duties, and ceremonial. While these roles and duties will vary in each jurisdiction, they can generally be summarised as follows.

Presiding over the conduct of business in the legislative body

The Speaker guides the legislative chamber through its deliberations by calling the items on the daily agenda, reading aloud the text of the motions before the House, recognizing Members who wish to participate in debate and putting the question to the House for decision. If a Member feels that a subject requires urgent attention, the Speaker may be asked to schedule an emergency debate. During consideration of bills, the Speaker is responsible for determining the procedural acceptability of amendments proposed by Members. During oral questions, when the Government is held to account for its policies and conduct, the Speaker ensures that it is conducted in a civil manner and that Members have a chance to participate.

The Speaker is empowered to rule motions brought before the House to be contrary to the rules and privileges of Parliament and hence “out of order”. Members may also raise a point of order or a question of privilege for the Speaker’s consideration. Upon the Government’s request, the Speaker also has the power to recall the House when it is not otherwise scheduled to sit.

The Speaker has full authority to make sure MPs follow the rules of the House during debates. This can include:

  • directing an MP to withdraw remarks if, for example, they use abusive language
  • suspending the sitting of the House due to serious disorder
  • suspending MPs who are deliberately disobedient – known as naming
  • asking MPs to be quiet so Members can be heard

Administrative duties

In Westminster-style parliamentary systems, the control and administration of the parliamentary precincts is vested in the Speaker on behalf of the House, whether Parliament is in session or not. While the specifics will vary in each jurisdiction, in general, the Speaker may be  deemed the “responsible Minister” for a number of offices of state which report to the legislative body (examples could be the Auditor General, Ombudsman, Privacy Commissioners, etc.). He or she also oversees the finances of the legislative body. Each jurisdiction has various Acts that outline the specific administrative duties and responsibilities of the Speaker.

Ceremonial duties

As representative of the legislative body, the Speaker has a number of traditional, ceremonial or diplomatic duties.  The Speaker is the spokesperson for the House in its dealings with upper chambers (as the case may be) such as the House of Lords or the Senate, the Crown and other bodies outside Parliament.

In the UK

The Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom is perhaps the most impartial. The Speaker is elected by Members of the House of Commons by secret ballot, and an absolute majority is required. Elections by secret ballot for the position of Speaker are a recent thing, with the first Speaker elected this way occurring in June 2009. Speakers must be politically impartial. Therefore, on election the new Speaker must resign from their political party and remain separate from political issues even in retirement. However, the Speaker will deal with their constituents’ problems like a normal MP.

Speakers still stand in general elections. They are generally unopposed by the major political parties, who will not field a candidate in the Speaker’s constituency – this includes the original party they were a member of. During a general election, Speakers do not campaign on any political issues but simply stand as ‘the Speaker seeking re-election’. In a new Parliament, one of the first orders of business is to re-establish the Speaker if he or she plans to continue in the role or to elect a new Speaker. If the Speaker indicates they wish to continue in the role, the question that he or she do take the Chair of this House as Speaker is moved by a Member and the question put. If the House is in agreement, the Speaker resumes his or her duties. If the motion is negatived, then an election for a new Speaker will proceed.

The advantage of the UK system is that it enhances independence by removing the Speaker from party politics and election concerns.

In Canada

In the Canadian parliament, which is also based on the Westminster system, the Speaker of the House operates under similar rules. He or she is elected by the Members of the House in a secret ballot, does not participate in debates and casts only a deciding vote if there is a tie. While the Speaker is required to perform his or her office impartially, he or she does not resign from his or her party membership upon taking office, as is done in the United Kingdom.

In the  1968 general election, Speaker Lucien Lamoureux decided to follow the custom of the Speaker of the British House of Commons and ran as an independent. Both the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party agreed not to run candidates against him. The New Democratic Party, however, declined to withdraw their candidate. Lamoureux was re-elected and continued to serve as Speaker. However, in the 1972 election, the opposition parties did not come to an agreement and ran candidates against him. Lamoureux was again returned but future Speakers would not repeat his attempt to run as an independent.

In Australia

The Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Federal Parliament of Australia is held by a Member of the house who is elected to Parliament in the usual way. At the beginning of each term of office of the Parliament the first item of business is the election of the Speaker. Once elected, the Speaker is expected to detach him or herself from government activity, and to run the the House impartially. Like other members, the Speaker will usually be a member of a political party but after his or her appointment, the Speaker does not take part in the debates of the Parliament or vote. If the votes for or against a motion are tied, the Speaker, however, holds a casting vote. Because the Speaker does not vote in ordinary divisions of the House means that the political party to which she or he belongs, loses a vote on the floor in daily sittings.

Traditionally, the party which forms Government supplies the Speaker, but the problems associated with this arrangement were illustrated in the formation of the first Parliament after the 2010 Federal election. Neither the Coalition nor the Labor Party had a majority, but Labor gained sufficient numbers to form Government after receiving the support of the Greens and two independent members in the lower house. This minority government has two more votes in the lower House than the opposition.

Before government was formed, both major parties had agreed that the Speaker would be “paired”, that is, that because the vote of the speaker cannot be cast on behalf of his or her party, one member from the opposing party would refrain from voting. However, after Labor formed government, the Liberal party argued that this pairing arrangement would be unconstitutional. After some delay, Labor member Harry Jenkins was voted Speaker of the House, and Liberal member Peter Slipper the deputy Speaker. Commentators have pointed out that in a close vote on the floor of the house, the Speaker would be able to force a pairing arrangement by temporarily excusing himself from the Chair, forcing the deputy Speaker to step in and so lose his vote.

In New Zealand

The Speaker in New Zealand does not sever all links with a political party, as does the Speaker of the UK House of Commons. Nor is the Speaker guaranteed any continuity of office over more than one Parliament. There is no tradition of re-electing the member who served as Speaker in the preceding Parliament even if the Government changes following a general election as there is, for instance, in the United Kingdom. With two exceptions, throughout the course of the twentieth century all Speakers came from the governing, or a governing, party. The member who is elected Speaker does not thereby become a non-party member of Parliament. However, the Speaker does not play a politically partisan role and exercises restraint in the speeches or comments he or she makes outside the House.

Whether the Speaker attends weekly party caucus meetings held while the House is sitting is a matter for the Speaker to decide. Practice has differed between Speakers of different parties and between Speakers of the same party. Speakers from the National party have generally not attended caucus. On the other hand, Labour Speakers until recent years did attend caucus. However, since 1984 most Labour Speakers have not attended caucus during sitting weeks.

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. As its presiding officer, the Speaker never participates in debate in the House. When the Speaker has charge of a local or private bill, another member moves the stages of the bill on the Speaker’s behalf. The Speaker may speak and vote in a committee of the whole House. Nowadays the right to speak in committee is usually exercised only when changes to the Standing Orders are under consideration or the Speaker is answering questions on the estimates of an office for which the Speaker is responsible. The Speaker may, and indeed often does, serve on select committees, such as the Officers of Parliament Committee and the Standing Orders Committee, but it would not be in keeping with the position for the Speaker to serve on a committee considering a party-politically contentious matter. Where the Speaker does chair a committee written questions relating to matters for which the Speaker has responsibility in that capacity, may be lodged.

(Sources: Office and Role of Speaker (UK), The Election of a Speaker (UK), The Speaker – House of Commons Canada, The Roles of the Speaker of the House of Representative and the President of the Senate (AUS), Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand: Chapter 4)

For Further Reading:

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On report stage debate

I have already discussed the casting vote of the Speaker, albeit not in detail. It is worth revisiting the matter in light of the debate surrounding a pending vote in the Canadian House of Commons expected later this month.

Background

I will not debate the pros and cons of Bill C-391, nor get into any of the partisan debate surrounding what has become a very contentious issue in Canada. There are plenty of bloggers writing about the issue and a quick Google or visit to Progressive Bloggers will provide any interested parties with a taste of how the debate is being framed.

I will, however, provide some context to the debate. Bill C-391 is ostensibly a Private Member’s bill aimed at repealing Canada’s long-gun registry. It was introduced by a Government backbencher. The current governing party, the Conservatives, is the only party in the House of Commons which opposes the long-gun registry and promised to abolish it. The other three parties represented in the House, the Liberals, the New Democrats (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois (BQ) all officially support the registry. The bill has survived first and second reading and was sent to committee for study. Both the Liberals and NDP did not whip their vote against the Bill at second reading, which they would have done had it been a Government bill, because traditionally, votes on Private Members’ business are free votes. Eight Liberal MPs and 12 NDP MPs voted in favour of the bill at second reading. The BQ whipped its vote and voted against it. There are reports that the Conservatives also whipped their vote.

However, opponents of the Bill have argued that Bill C-391 is a Private Member’s bill in name only; the reality, they argue, is that this is a case of the Government trying to pass through the back door a policy they could never get passed as a Government bill. There is a strong case supporting this position, but I will not comment on that. Suffice it to say, during the summer recess, the Liberals have reversed their position and the next vote on the bill will be whipped. This leaves only the NDP still allowing a free vote on the matter.

The Issue

The opponents of Bill C-391 have been attacking the NDP for not whipping the vote and for sticking with the “it’s a private member’s bill” argument. The NDP, however, plan to table their own private member’s bill which would propose amendments to improve the long-gun registry, addressing the issues that have vexed some rural gun owners. Opponents of Bill C-391 argue that there is no point in doing so, because by the time the bill is tabled, the vote on C-391 will have taken place and there will be no long-gun registry to fix. Over the past couple of weeks, some NDP MPs who voted in favour of the bill on second reading have announced they will now vote against it. Current consensus is that the vote will be extremely close, perhaps forcing the Speaker to cast the deciding vote.

The Confusion

The debate has become increasingly confused primarily due to a combination of sloppy media reporting and a failure on the NDP’s part to clarify one important fact: the upcoming vote on Bill C-391 will not be the final vote.

The Bill was sent to committee in May, where it was studied. The Committee reported back on June 9, 2010. The next vote on Bill C-391 is the vote on the report stage. Once a bill has been examined in a committee, it is considered by the whole House. At this stage, Members may, after giving written notice, propose amendments to the text of the bill as it was reported by the committee. Those motions are then debated.

At the end of report stage of a bill that has already been read a second time, as is the case for C-391, the motion for concurrence at report stage is put forthwith, without amendment or debate. If no motion in amendment is moved at report stage, no debate takes place and consideration of report stage becomes the simple adoption (or rejection) of the motion for concurrence at report stage, before proceeding to third reading.

Third reading debate will not occur immediately, unless unanimous consent is obtained to do so, meaning after this upcoming vote, there will be another vote on Bill C-391, which will be the final vote on the Bill in the House (but it will continue on to the Senate).

In the Event of a Tie

Should the vote on report stage end in a deadlock, the Speaker will cast the deciding vote. In this instance, the Speaker would vote in favour of the bill, the rationale being to allow for further debate (third reading). However, if there are proposed amendments, and the vote on any (or all) of the amendments results in deadlock, the Speaker would vote against the amendment. The reason would be to maintain the bill in its existing form.

Motion for Third Reading

Should the vote following third reading of the bill result in a tie, then the Speaker would vote No because important decision should not be taken except by a majority in the House. It also allows for the matter to be brought back before the House at a future date.

The only thing that is important to remember here is that the vote expected on Bill C-391 later this month will not be the final vote on the bill. Contrary to what many bloggers are arguing, the vote expected next week will not be the vote that kills the long-gun registry. It is not third reading debate, it is report stage debate. As well, amendments could be proposed by MPs that would significantly alter the bill, for example, opting to improve the registry rather than repeal it, as the NDP claims it wants to do. With a minority government in place, the Opposition parties would have sufficient numbers to do just this.

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