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House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

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5. Parliamentary Procedure

Photo of high relief entitled “House of Commons” from the British North America Act series of the Heritage Collection in the Chamber of the House of Commons.







The authority of the Chair is no greater than the House wants it to be. When the rules are clear and offer precise guidance to the Speaker, the authority of the Chair is absolute and unquestioned, for this is the will of the House. On the other hand, when there are no rules to fall back on, the Speaker must proceed very cautiously indeed. The most the Chair can do is to lay the matter before the House which can then itself create a new precedent.

Speaker Jeanne Sauvé

(Debates, March 18, 1982, p. 15556)

Parliamentary procedure has been described as a “means of reaching decisions on when and how power shall be used”.[1] According to such a definition, procedure is at once the “means” used to circumscribe the use of power and a “process” that legitimizes the exercise of, and opposition to, power. Parliamentary procedure has also been described as “a combination of two elements, the traditional and the democratic”.[2] In other words, parliamentary procedure based on the Westminster model stems not only from an understanding and acceptance of how things have been done in the past, but is embedded in a particular culture that evolves along democratic principles. These principles, known as “parliamentary law”,[3] were summarized in the following manner by John George Bourinot, an authority on parliamentary procedure and Clerk of the Canadian House of Commons from 1880 to 1902:

The great principles that lie at the basis of English parliamentary law have … been always kept steadily in view by the Canadian legislatures; these are: To protect the minority and restrain the improvidence and tyranny of the majority, to secure the transaction of public business in a decent and orderly manner, to enable every member to express his opinions within those limits necessary to preserve decorum and prevent an unnecessary waste of time, to give full opportunity for the consideration of every measure, and to prevent any legislative action being taken heedlessly and upon sudden impulse.[4]

Commentators of Canadian parliamentary history have argued that, over the years, the ideal of “protecting the minority” has had to adapt to the modern dictates of an efficient legislative body.[5] Closure and time allocation rules, adopted in 1913 and 1969 respectively, as well as other rules adopted by the House, have long since given the government majority greater ability to advance its legislative program over the objections of the minority. Nevertheless, it remains true that parliamentary procedure is intended to ensure that there is a balance between the government’s need to get its business through the House, and the opposition’s responsibility to debate that business without completely immobilizing the proceedings of the House.[6] In short, debate in the House is necessary, but it should lead to a decision in a reasonable time.

The proceedings of the House of Commons are regulated by a vast body of parliamentary rules and practices—practice being that part of procedure which developed spontaneously and became regarded as the usual or regular way of proceeding, though not written into the rules (the Standing Orders).[7] As described in Chapter 1, many of these rules and practices originated in the United Kingdom, while others were inspired by pre-Confederation legislative assemblies[8] and subsequently adopted in Canada. According to May, “some [of the forms and rules of practice] were no doubt invented in Parliament itself, but others have been traced to analogies in the medieval courts of law and in the councils of the Church”.[9] Some rules have remained virtually unchanged for the last four hundred years;[10] others have evolved to become, in time, conventional practices. Finally, the origins of some of the earliest practices of parliamentary procedure “are lost in history”.[11]

As will be seen in this chapter, the parliamentary procedures and practices of the House of Commons are founded on the Constitution and statutes, the Standing Orders of the House, Speakers’ rulings and House practice.

[1] Franks, C.E.S., The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 116.

[2] Wilding, N. and Laundy, P., An Encyclopaedia of Parliament, 4th ed., London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1972, p. 605.

[3] Black, H.C., Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed., edited by B.A. Garner, St. Paul, Minnesota: Thomson West, 2004, p. 1148, defines parliamentary law as “[t]he body of rules and precedents governing the proceedings of legislative bodies and other deliberative assemblies”.

[4] Bourinot, J.G., Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada, 2nd ed., rev. and enlarged, Montreal: Dawson Brothers, Publishers, 1892, pp. 258‑9.

[5] According to C.E.S. Franks, three modern developments have led to a more rigid set of rules: the ever increasing amount of business before the House; the Member’s job becoming a full‑time occupation; and the increasing willingness on the part of the opposition to use dilatory tactics (Franks, pp. 128‑9).

[6] In 2007, during the minority Thirty-Ninth Parliament (2006‑08), Speaker Milliken stated: “… neither the political realities of the moment nor the sheer force of numbers should force us to set aside the values inherent in the parliamentary conventions and procedures by which we govern our deliberations” (Debates, March 29, 2007, p. 8136).

[7] May, T.E., Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 23rd ed., edited by Sir W. McKay, London: LexisNexis UK, 2004, pp. 3‑4.

[8] In testimony to the validity of pre‑Confederation experiences, a few days into the First Parliament, a special committee was appointed to assist the Speaker in framing permanent rules and regulations for the House and, in its deliberations, was to study the “Rules and Standing Orders of the Imperial House of Commons, of the Legislative Assembly of the late Province of Canada, and of the Houses of Assembly of the Provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick” (Journals, November 15, 1867, p. 16).

[9] May, T.E., Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 22nd ed., edited by Sir D. Limon and W.R. McKay, London: Butterworths, 1997, p. 4.

[10] See, for example, Sir Thomas Smith’s 1560 “De Republica Anglorum”, which contains an impressive list of procedural rules and practices that, after more than 430 years, have barely changed. Quoted in Redlich, J., The Procedure of the House of Commons: A Study of its History and Present Form, Vol. I, translated by A.E. Steinthal, New York: AMS Press, 1969 (reprint of 1908 ed.), pp. 26‑51.

[11] Griffith, J.A.G. and Ryle, M., Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures, 2nd ed., edited by R. Blackburn and A. Kennon with Sir M. Wheeler‑Booth, London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2003, p. 252.

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