At times, the House may choose to depart from the rules it has made for itself by obtaining the consent of all Members present in the Chamber. Such a suspension of the rules or usual practices is done by what is termed “unanimous consent”. When unanimous consent is sought, the Chair takes care to determine that no voice is raised in opposition; if there is one single dissenting voice, there can be no unanimity. Whenever the House proceeds by unanimous consent, the fact is noted in the official record.
Perhaps the most common application of unanimous consent is to escape the notice provisions of the Standing Orders. For example, unanimous consent is sought to waive the notice requirement applicable to a substantive motion and, once it is granted, the motion is put forward for a decision. Similarly, a committee report may be presented and, by unanimous consent, concurred in on the same day. Unanimous consent has also been sought to move, without notice, a motion proposing changes to the Standing Orders.
For the most part, unanimous consent is used as a means of expediting the routine business of the House or as a means of extending the courtesies of the House. During debate, unanimous consent has been sought to:
The arrangement of House business is also commonly accomplished by unanimous consent. This may involve changes to the Order of Business, the suspension of sittings, alterations in adjournment hours or sitting days, and special orders respecting procedures for individual events.
With unanimous consent, bills have been advanced through more than one stage in a single day, have been referred to a Committee of the Whole rather than a standing committee, and have even been amended.
During divisions, unanimous consent has been sought to apply the results of one vote to another vote or to apply Members’ votes to subsequent divisions. By unanimous consent, recorded divisions have been deemed demanded and deemed deferred. A private Member may seek unanimous consent to table a document referred to in debate, which is not the usual practice.
There are two Standing Orders that explicitly recognize the use of unanimous consent. The first, Standing Order 64, provides that “a Member who has made a motion may withdraw the same only by the unanimous consent of the House”. The substance of this rule is based on the principle that any motion once moved becomes the property of the House. It also applies to amendments and subamendments.
The second rule, Standing Order 56.1, provides that if, at any time during a sitting of the House, unanimous consent is denied for the presentation of a “routine motion”, then a Minister may request, during Routine Proceedings, that the Speaker propose the question on the motion. This request can be made later in the same sitting or at a subsequent sitting of the House. When the request is made, the question is put forthwith on the motion without debate or amendment. If 25 or more Members rise to oppose the motion, it is deemed withdrawn; otherwise, it is adopted.
Despite the variety of uses to which it has been put, it should not be assumed that unanimous consent can be utilized to circumvent any and every rule or practice of the House. Limitations do exist. For example, unanimous consent may not be used to set aside provisions of the Constitution Act or any other statutory authority.
The mechanics of requesting and granting unanimous consent must be carefully observed. The Chair must be meticulous in presenting the request for unanimous consent to the House.
For example, a Member wishing to waive the usual notice requirement before moving a substantive motion would ask the unanimous consent of the House “for the following motion”, which is then read. The Speaker then asks if the House gives its unanimous consent to allow the Member to move the motion.
If a dissenting voice is heard, the Speaker concludes that there is no unanimous consent and the matter goes no further, though it is possible to make further attempts to receive unanimous consent.
If no dissent is detected, the Speaker concludes that there is unanimous consent for the moving of the motion, and then asks if it is the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion. At this point, the practice has been for the House to make its decision on the motion, though technically, debate on the motion is still possible.
Nothing done by unanimous consent constitutes a precedent. However, orders or resolutions presented or adopted by unanimous consent express the will of the House and are as binding as any other House order or resolution. Unanimous consent provides a means for the House to act immediately; for example, once unanimous consent is granted to move a motion without notice, the House must then decide on the motion in the same way it would for any other motion before it.