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House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

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There are occasions where Members will move, during a debate on a motion before the House, “That this question be now put”.[11] This motion, commonly known as the previous question, may be proposed to substantive debatable motions.[12] Although it does not necessarily put an end to debate, the previous question restricts debate and expedites the putting of the question in two ways.

First, the previous question precludes the moving of amendments to the main motion and, therefore, any debate that might have ensued on those amendments. It can only be moved, therefore, when no amendment to the main motion is under consideration. If the previous question is carried, the Speaker is obliged to put the question on the main motion forthwith.[13] When the previous question is moved and Members wish to speak, another period of debate begins. In fact, the previous question is viewed as a new question submitted to the House and it is debatable.[14] Members who have already spoken on the main motion or on any previous amendments may speak again on the previous question. When used in this manner, the previous question is a method of curtailing debate which has unpredictable results: at various times, the previous question has been carried without debate,[15] after a short debate,[16] and after several days of debate.[17] In instances where the previous question did not appear useful in bringing a motion to a vote, a motion to adjourn the debate[18] or a motion of closure[19] has sometimes been moved to end the debate. When a recorded division is demanded on the previous question, it may be deferred at the request of either the Chief Government Whip or the Chief Opposition Whip;[20] however, once the previous question is adopted, a recorded division on the main motion may not be deferred.[21]

Second, the previous question can have the effect of superseding a motion under debate since, if negatived, the Speaker is bound not to put the question on the main motion at that time. In other words, if the motion “That the question be now put” is not adopted, the main motion is dropped from the Order Paper. Unless it is revived on a future day and reinstated on the Order Paper,[22] the item will not be debated again. Over the years, the previous question has not been very successful as a mechanism for limiting debate by causing an item to be dropped from the Order Paper. Since Confederation, the motion “That the question be now put” has been negatived only four times, and in three of those four cases, the item was revived and eventually adopted, with or without amendment.[23]

All Members may move the previous question.[24] It is used by some in the hope that it will expedite a vote on the main motion, and by others in the hope that it will prevent the Speaker from putting the question now on a motion or a bill. Although the previous question can be both a method of forcing a decision on a motion and a way of postponing or delaying a decision, it has been used almost exclusively in recent years by the government to limit debate.[25]

In the past, the use of the previous question has been anything but predictable. Ministers have moved it on private Members’ motions[26] and on government motions and bills. Conversely, private Members have moved the previous question on motions moved by other private Members[27] or by the government,[28] on government bills[29] and on routine motions.[30]

Because of the many restrictions that regulate its use, as well as its sometimes unexpected outcome, the previous question has been described as the “most ineffective” method of limiting debate.[31]

[11] Standing Order 61. In Canada, the wording of the previous question has remained unaltered since it was first introduced in the House of Commons in 1867. In the Westminster version, the wording of the motion was changed to “That the question be not now put” in 1888 to avoid confusion with closure, which employs the same formula (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, p. 395).

[12] There are restrictions on the use of the previous question. For further information, see Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”.

[13] Standing Order 61(2). See, for example, Journals, May 4, 2005, pp. 698‑701.

[14] Standing Order 67(1)(c); Debates, December 13, 2001, p. 8251; October 23, 2002, p. 810.

[15] See, for example, Journals, December 5, 1996, pp. 968‑9.

[16] See, for example, Debates, October 23, 2002, pp. 810‑3.

[17] For example, on October 5, 2001, the previous question was moved on a motion for second reading of a government bill; the debate continued during that sitting and through the sittings of October 18 and 22. The question was put on October 22 and the vote was deferred to October 23 (Journals, October 5, 2001, pp. 698‑9; October 18, 2001, p. 728; October 22, 2001, p. 736; October 23, 2001, pp. 742‑3).

[18] See, for example, Journals, May 10, 1995, pp. 1458‑9; May 3, 2005, pp. 685‑7; May 10, 2005, pp. 726‑7.

[19] Beauchesne, A., Beauchesne’s Rules & Forms of the House of Commons of Canada, 6th ed., edited by A. Fraser, W.F. Dawson and J.A. Holtby, Toronto: The Carswell Company Limited, 1989, p. 160. See, for example, Journals, March 2, 1926, p. 123. In the following case, notice of closure was given, but the House ultimately concurred in the motion to be closured the next day: Journals, October 29, 1999, pp. 143‑4; November 1, 1999, p. 145. Occasionally, Members have used the previous question in combination with closure to dispose swiftly of an item, as well as to avoid having to vote on possible amendments. See, for example, the events leading up to the adoption of the motion recognizing the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada (Journals, November 24, 2006, p. 803; November 27, 2006, pp. 808, 811‑3).

[20] Standing Order 45(5).

[21] Standing Order 61(2).

[22] Beauchesne, 6th ed., p. 160.

[23] In 1869, the main motion was not presented to the House again. On the other three occasions, it was. In 1870 and 1929, the revived motions were adopted and, in 1928, no decision was taken (Journals, May 31, 1869, pp. 163‑4; April 28, 1870, pp. 254‑5; June 1, 1928, p. 489; April 15, 1929, p. 242). The previous question has also been withdrawn, on occasion, by unanimous consent. In 1983, for example, the mover of the previous question withdrew it, by unanimous consent of the House, to allow the matter under debate to be referred to a standing committee (Debates, February 9, 1983, pp. 22682‑6). See also Journals, May 10, 1990, p. 1685.

[24] In 1985, Speaker Bosley ruled that “there is no question in my mind from reading the rules that there is no restriction on the moving of this motion in terms of whether it be by a Minister of the Crown, a Parliamentary Secretary or a Private Member” (Debates, January 28, 1985, p. 1708).

[25] For further information on the frequency of use of the previous question, see Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”.

[26] See, for example, Journals, May 31, 1869, p. 163.

[27] See, for example, Journals, April 6, 1959, p. 289.

[28] See, for example, Journals, December 5, 1996, p. 968. The motivations for using the previous question have not always been the same and do not always involve curtailing debate. For example, opposition Members in favour of a government motion have moved the previous question not to cause the item to be dropped from the Order Paper, but to signal their support for the government initiative and limit debate “by consent”. In 1992, just before moving the previous question on a government motion to amend the Constitution, Opposition Leader Jean Chrétien stated that it was “with great pleasure that I support this motion” (Debates, December 11, 1992, pp. 15086‑7).

[29] See, for example, Journals, February 16, 2007, p. 1019.

[30] See, for example, Journals, November 3, 2004, pp. 190‑1.

[31] Dawson, p. 119.

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