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Parliament and Ethics

The Use of Governor General Special Warrants During an Election Period

Alex Smith

Issue | In the absence of Parliament’s adoption of an appropriation bill, how is the federal government’s spending authorized during an election?

Synopsis | The federal government used Governor General special warrants to authorize its spending following the dissolution of Parliament for the 41st federal general election. The use of special warrants was narrowed in 1997; it remains unclear what criteria are used to determine eligible payments under a special warrant.

Timing | The federal government presents to Parliament within 15 days of its return a statement on its use of special warrants. Parliament will also need to adopt an appropriation bill to authorize government expenditures shortly after its return.

One of Parliament’s principal roles is to review, approve and exercise control over the federal government’s expenditure of public funds. This oversight occurs primarily through the estimates process, whereby the government presents its spending plans to Parliament and Parliament subsequently adopts appropriation bills that authorize the government’s expenditures.

When Parliament was dissolved on 26 March 2011 for the federal general election on 2 May 2011, Parliament had not yet adopted appropriation bills for the Supplementary Estimates (C), 2010–11 or interim supply for the fiscal year 2011–2012. Parliament was dissolved before the government received parliamentary authorization to spend money.

Given this situation, the government has used Governor General special warrants to authorize its expenditures during the election period. Special warrants authorize government spending during an election without the normal procedures of parliamentary scrutiny. Shortly after Parliament’s return, parliamentarians will have the opportunity to review the government’s statement on its use of special warrants during the 41st federal general election.

Image: © Corbis.

Rules Governing the Use of Special Warrants

If necessary, the government obtains authority for expenditures during an election, and shortly thereafter, through section 30 of the Financial Administration Act. This section allows the Governor in Council (i.e., Cabinet) to direct the preparation of a special warrant, to be signed by the Governor General. The warrant authorizes payments for government expenditures.

The Act stipulates three conditions that must be satisfied before a special warrant can be issued:

Special warrants may continue to be issued until 60 days following the date fixed for the return of the writs after a federal general election. The date for returning the writs for the 41st general election was 23 May 2011.

The spending period of a special warrant is not specified in the Act. According to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, by convention the period is usually 30 days, with the exception of the final special warrant, which typically has a spending period of 45 days in order to allow Parliament sufficient time to adopt an appropriation bill upon its return.1

Special warrants cannot be used during a prorogation of Parliament, and they cannot confer an authority that requires the approval of Parliament, such as transferring funds between organizations. Notices of special warrants must be published in the federal government’s Canada Gazette within 30 days of being issued, and the President of the Treasury Board must present to Parliament within 15 days of its return a statement of special warrants issued. The amounts appropriated in special warrants are deemed to be included in the next appropriation bill passed by Parliament.

Narrowing the Use of Special Warrants

Prior to 1997, the government could use special warrants whenever Parliament was not in session or was adjourned for an extended period. However, there was concern that the government could use special warrants to avoid convening Parliament.

After the 33rd federal general election, Parliament was convened on 12 December 1988 for two weeks, during which the government did not request Parliament’s approval of an appropriation bill. The session was adjourned on 30 December 1988. As the government subsequently required funds, it used special warrants in January, February and early April of 1989. Parliament was reconvened on 3 April 1989.

In order to limit the government’s ability to use special warrants, a private member’s bill was presented and eventually adopted in 1997 to restrict the use of special warrants to election periods.2

Criteria for Appropriate Payments

Under the Financial Administration Act, the appropriate minister must attest that payments sought through special warrants are “urgently required for the public good.” The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat interprets this phrase to mean that the government’s core operations are essential and must be maintained. However, it is not clear what criteria are used to determine which payments can and cannot be included in a special warrant.


  1. Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Statement of the Use of Governor General Special Warrants for the Fiscal Years Ending March 31, 2006 and March 31, 2007, Ottawa, 2007, p. 14.
  2. Bill C-270: An Act to amend the Financial Administration Act (session of Parliament), 2nd Session, 35th Parliament. More information about the controversy in 1989 can be found in Peter Milliken, “Appropriation Acts and Governor General’s Warrants,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1990, pp. 22–24.

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