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 legitimizes both 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, while parliamentary procedure based on the Westminster model stems from an understanding and acceptance of how things have been done in the past, it is also embedded in a 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 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 on Canadian parliamentary history have noted that, over the years, the ideal of “protecting the minority” has adapted 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 greatly increased the ability of a government majority 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 the rules and practices which have been adopted in Canada originated in the United Kingdom, while others were inspired by pre-Confederation legislative assemblies.8 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 and practices have remained virtually unchanged for the last 400 years;10 others have evolved over time. 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 of the House of Commons are founded on the Constitution and statutes, the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, Speakers’ rulings and House practice.