PARLIAMENT of CANADA
House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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14. The Curtailment of Debate

… the whole study of parliamentary procedure over the years, indeed over the decades, has been an endeavour to find a balance between the right to speak at as much length as seems desirable, and the right of parliament to make decisions.

Stanley Knowles, m.p. (Winnipeg North Centre)
(Debates, May 20, 1965, p. 1530)

O

ne of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to an unimpeded decision in a reasonable time. [1] Although what seems reasonable to one party may arguably appear unfair to another, few parliamentarians contest the idea that, at some point, debate must end. [2]  While an overwhelming majority of House business is concluded without recourse to special procedures intended to limit or end debate, certain rules exist to “curtail debate” in cases when it is felt a decision would otherwise not be taken in reasonable time, or not taken at all. Despite the fact that Standing Order changes have made systematic obstruction on the part of the opposition less frequent, a good understanding of parliamentary procedure still enables Members to extend debate on a given item considerably.

The rules pertaining to the “curtailment of debate” invite the House as a whole to pronounce itself on the issue of limiting debate on a particular item of business beyond what the normal rules would otherwise allow. A distinction, however, must be made between “freedom of speech” and a Member’s opportunity to take part in “debate”. The question of a Member’s freedom of speech — a basic parliamentary privilege — has no relevance to this process. (In a parliamentary sense, “freedom of speech” refers to a Member’s immunity from legal prosecution for words stated during debate in the House and its committees, rather than the general notion of an unlimited opportunity to speak.) When asked to deal with the receivability of a motion to limit debate, the Speaker does not judge the importance of the issue in question or the “reasonableness” of the time allowed for debate, but strictly addresses the acceptability of the procedure followed. [3]  Speakers have ruled that a procedurally acceptable motion to limit the ability of Members to speak on a given motion before the House does not constitute prima facie a breach of parliamentary privilege. [4] 

At Confederation, few rules existed to curtail debate. Even at that time, it was recognized that unlimited debate was not possible and that some restraint would have to be exercised or some accommodation reached in order for the House to conduct its business with reasonable despatch. [5]  For the first 45 years following Confederation, the only tool at the government’s disposal was the previous question. [6] Not only was there no other way of putting an end to a specific debate in “reasonable time”, but there were no formal time limits of any kind on debates and the length of speeches was unlimited. Working relations in the House were based largely upon a spirit of mutual fair play where informal arrangements, or “closure by consent”, governed the conduct of debate. In the words of Prime Minister Robert Borden:

… at a definite stage in a debate, when, in the judgment of the leading men of both sides of the House, it has proceeded far enough, it has been the practice for a consultation to be held and a date to be fixed; and members who are not able to catch the Speaker’s eye within the period so fixed are, by arrangements made on both sides of the House, practically excluded from taking part in the debate on that subject and the question is brought to an issue in that way. [7] 

The early rules governing the business of the House apportioned a major share of time to the consideration of private bills and other business sponsored by private Members. The government’s role in the economy being limited, government business was but a small part of the House’s workload. [8]  After 1900, the changing nature of the business coming before the House, especially the growing volume of business initiated by the government, led to a steady increase in the time that the House set aside for Government Orders. The time of the House became a precious commodity and a source of sometimes fierce partisan contention. This was manifested by a growing propensity on the part of the opposition to thwart the passage of government legislation through delay and obstruction. [9] 

These changes in parliamentarians’ attitudes and government workload led the House to adopt rules and practices that would, on the one hand, facilitate the daily management of its time [10]  and, on the other hand, limit debate and expedite the normal course of events in cases deemed of an important or urgent nature. This chapter focusses on this latter aspect and examines how debate is curtailed through the use of the previous question, closure, time allocation, the moving by a Minister of a “routine motion” to bypass the requirement for unanimous consent, [11]  and the moving of a motion to suspend certain Standing Orders in relation to a matter considered to be of an urgent nature. [12] 


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