Rules of Debate
Freedom of speech is one of the most important privileges enjoyed by Members of Parliament. This freedom is limited, however, by the necessity to maintain order and decorum when debate is taking place. Thus, the right to speak is tempered by the written rules of the House which are, in general, limitations on what may be said, when, by whom and for how long.
The Speaker is charged with maintaining order in the Chamber by ensuring that the House’s rules and practices are respected, including rules related to:
- proper attire;
- the quoting and tabling of documents in debate;
- the application of the sub judice convention to debates and questioning in the House; and
- the civility of remarks directed towards both Houses, Members and Senators, representatives of the Crown, judges and courts.
In addition, the Speaker has the duty to maintain the orderly conduct of debate by repressing disorder when it arises, either on the floor of the Chamber or in the galleries, and by ruling on points of order raised by Members.
The Speaker’s disciplinary powers ensure that the debate is focused and permit him or her to remove Members who persist in behaving inappropriately. Nonetheless, while it is the Speaker who is charged with maintaining the dignity and decorum of the House, Members themselves must take responsibility for their behaviour and conduct their business in an appropriate fashion.
Recognition to Speak
There is no official order laid down in the Standing Orders for the recognition of speakers. The written rules simply authorize the Speaker to recognize for debate any Member seeking the floor by rising in his or her place. The Speaker relies on the practice and precedents of the House when recognizing Members to speak.
Although the Whips of the various parties often provide the Speaker with lists of Members wishing to speak, these lists are used only as a guide. The Speaker usually recognizes Members from opposite sides of the House in a reasonable rotation, bearing in mind the proportions of membership of the various recognized parties in the House and the nature of the proceedings.
The Speaker’s decision regarding who has the right to speak during debate may be altered by the adoption of a motion that another Member “be now heard”. A decision on this motion settles the order of debate immediately.
No Member may speak twice during debate on any motion, though the mover of a substantive motion may speak a second time to close the debate (the “right of reply”). A motion, an amendment and a subamendment are three separate questions and are treated as such for the purposes of this rule.
Any Member who wishes to participate in the proceedings must stand and be in his or her designated place in order to be recognized and to speak. A Member may rise and speak from any seat during emergency debates, during take-note debates, during the adjournment proceedings or when the House sits as a Committee of the Whole.
Any Member participating in debate must address the Speaker. Since one of the basic principles of procedure in the House is that the proceedings be conducted in terms of a free and civil discourse, Members are less apt to engage in direct heated exchanges and personal attacks when their comments are directed to the Chair rather than to other Members.
While there is no Standing Order setting down a dress code for Members participating in debate, Speakers have ruled that to be recognized to speak, tradition and practice require all Members, male or female, to dress in contemporary business attire. The contemporary practice and unwritten rule require, therefore, that male Members wear a jacket and tie as standard dress.
Practice holds that when addressing the House, Members should not read from a written, prepared speech. A Member may, however, use notes when delivering a speech. The purpose of this rule is to maintain the cut and thrust of debate, which depend upon successive speakers addressing, to some extent, the arguments put forward in the speeches of other Members.
Speakers have consistently ruled out of order displays or demonstrations of any kind used by Members to illustrate their remarks or emphasize their positions. Similarly, props of any kind have always been found unacceptable in the Chamber. Members may hold notes in their hands, but they will be interrupted and reprimanded by the Speaker if they use papers, documents or other objects to illustrate their remarks. Exhibits have also been ruled inadmissible.
Rules Regarding the Contents of Speeches
References to Members
During debate, Members may not refer to one another by their names but rather by title, position or constituency name in order to guard against all tendencies to personalize debate. A Minister is referred to by the name of the portfolio that he or she holds. Parliamentary Secretaries, House Leaders and party Whips are typically designated by the posts they hold. All other Members are referred to by their constituency name. The Speaker will not allow a Member to refer to another Member by name even if the Member is quoting from a document such as a newspaper article.
It is unacceptable to allude to the presence or absence of a Member or Minister in the Chamber. The Speaker has traditionally discouraged Members from signalling the absence of another Member from the House because there are many places that Members have to be in order to carry out all of the obligations that go with their office, including attendance at parliamentary committees.
A direct charge or accusation against a Member may be made only by way of a substantive motion, for which notice is required. Remarks directed specifically at another Member that question that Member’s integrity, honesty or character are not in order. A Member will be requested to withdraw offensive remarks, allegations, or accusations of impropriety directed towards another Member. The Speaker has no authority, however, to rule on statements made outside the House by one Member against another.
Reflections on the House and the Senate
Disrespectful reflections on Parliament as a whole or on the House and the Senate as component parts of Parliament are not permitted. Members of the House and the Senate are also protected by this rule. In debate, the Senate is generally referred to as “the other place” and Senators as “members of the other place”. References to Senate debates and proceedings are discouraged, and it is out of order to question a Senator’s integrity, honesty or character.
Reflections on the Speaker
Reflections must not be cast on the conduct of the Speaker or other presiding officers. It is unacceptable to question the integrity and impartiality of a presiding officer, and if such comments are made, the Speaker will interrupt the Member and may request that the remarks be withdrawn. Only by means of a substantive motion, for which 48 hours’ written notice has been given, may the actions of the Chair be challenged, criticized and debated.
References to the Sovereign, Royal Family, Governor General and Members of the Judiciary
Members are prohibited from speaking disrespectfully of the Sovereign, the Royal Family or the Governor General. In the same way, a reference to any one of these persons is also prohibited when it appears to be used to influence the work of the House.
All attacks and censures of judges and courts by Members in debate have always been considered unparliamentary and, consequently, treated as breaches of order. While it is permissible to speak in general terms about the judiciary or to criticize a law, it is inappropriate to criticize or impute motives to a specific judge or to criticize a decision made under the law by a judge.
Reference by Name to Members of the Public
Members are discouraged from referring by name to persons who are not Members of Parliament and who do not enjoy parliamentary immunity. The Speaker has ruled that Members have a responsibility to protect the innocent, not only from outright slander but also from any slur directly or indirectly implied, and has stressed that Members should avoid as much as possible mentioning by name people from outside the House who are unable to reply and defend themselves against innuendo.
The use of offensive, provocative or threatening language in the House is strictly forbidden. Personal attacks, insults and obscene language are not in order.
In dealing with unparliamentary language, the Speaker takes into account the tone, manner and intention of the Member speaking; the person to whom the words were directed; the degree of provocation; and, most importantly, whether or not the remarks created disorder in the Chamber. Thus, language deemed unparliamentary one day may not necessarily be deemed unparliamentary on another day.
Although an expression may be found to be acceptable, the Speaker has cautioned that any language that leads to disorder in the House should not be used. Expressions that are considered unparliamentary when applied to an individual Member have not always been considered so when applied “in a generic sense” or to a party.
Should the Speaker determine that offensive or disorderly language has been used, the offending Member will be requested to withdraw the unparliamentary word or phrase. The Member must rise in his or her place to retract the word(s) unequivocally.
Repetition and Relevance in Debate
Rules respecting relevance and repetition are difficult to define and enforce. The rule against repetition can be invoked by the Speaker to prevent a Member from repeating arguments already made in the debate by other Members or the same Member. The rule of relevance, on the other hand, is used to keep a Member from straying from the question before the House or committee.
It is not always possible to judge the relevance (or the repetitive nature) of a Member’s remarks until he or she has made some progress in or completed his or her remarks. In practice, the Speaker allows some latitude—if the rules are applied too rigidly, they have the potential to severely curtail debate.
The Sub Judice Convention
During debate, in the interests of justice and fair play, restrictions are placed on the freedom of Members of Parliament to refer to matters actively before the courts. Such matters are also barred from being the subject of motions or questions in the House.
While precedents to guide the Chair exist, no attempt has ever been made in Canada to codify the practice known as the “sub judice convention”. The interpretation of this convention is left to the Speaker since no rule exists in the Standing Orders to prevent the House from discussing a matter that is sub judice, that is, “under the consideration of a judge or court”. While the Speaker has ruled out of order questions concerning criminal cases, a presumption exists in favour of allowing debate and against the application of the convention, and the approach of most Chair Occupants has been to discourage comments on sub judice matters.
Powers of the Chair to Enforce Order and Decorum
The Speaker ensures that debate conforms to the rules and practices the House has adopted in order to protect itself from excesses. Indeed, the Standing Orders state explicitly that the Speaker shall preserve order and decorum, and decide questions of order. In addition, the Standing Orders empower the Speaker to call a Member to order if the Member persists in repeating an argument already made in the course of debate or in addressing a subject that is not relevant to the question before the House.
Accepted conventions of parliamentary conduct and respect for the authority of the Speaker are normally sufficient guarantees that order and decorum will be maintained during debate and other proceedings. However, if a rule of debate is being breached, the Speaker will intervene directly to address a Member or the House in general and to call to order any Member whose conduct is disruptive.
Members rarely defy the Speaker’s authority or risk evoking his or her disciplinary powers. The Speaker has recourse to a number of options if a Member challenges the authority of the Chair by refusing to:
- obey the Speaker’s call to order;
- withdraw unparliamentary language;
- cease irrelevance or repetition; or
- stop interrupting a Member who is addressing the House.
The Speaker may recognize another Member, or refuse to recognize the Member until the offending remarks are retracted and the Member apologizes. As a last resort, the Chair may “name” a Member, the most severe disciplinary power at the Speaker’s disposal.
Naming describes a disciplinary measure invoked against a Member who persistently disregards the authority of the Speaker. If a Member refuses to heed the Speaker’s requests to bring his or her behaviour into line with the rules and practices of the House, the Speaker has the authority to name the Member, that is, to address the Member by name rather than by constituency or title as is the usual practice, and to order his or her withdrawal from the Chamber for the remainder of the sitting day. Alternatively, the Speaker may prefer to let the House take any supplementary disciplinary action it may choose. In either case, naming is a coercive measure of last resort.