House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne

Designating a Day for Consideration

Traditionally at the beginning of a session, when the House returns from the Senate after the Speech from the Throne, a day is designated for the consideration of that Speech. The Prime Minister moves a motion to consider the Throne Speech either later that day or at the next sitting of the House. [1]  This motion does not require notice and, though generally moved and adopted without debate, is debatable and amendable. [2] 

Initiating Debate

On the day specified in the motion for the consideration of the Speech from the Throne, a government backbencher moves that an Address be presented to the Governor General (or, depending on who delivered the speech, to the Sovereign or to the Administrator of the Government of Canada) “to offer our humble thanks… for the gracious speech which Your Excellency has addressed…”. This allows for wide-ranging debate on the government policies announced in the Throne Speech, thus providing a rare opportunity for Members to address topics of their choice.

From 1867 to 1893, the motion for the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne typically consisted of several paragraphs, each of which received separate consideration. The paragraphs collectively formed a resolution which was adopted and referred to a select committee. The committee would then report the Address in Reply to the House where it would be agreed to, engrossed (that is, transcribed upon parchment) and presented to the Governor General. This cumbersome procedure was changed in 1893, when a new practice was adopted whereby the House itself considered the Address in the form of a presentation to the Governor General. [3]  It was not until 1903 that the motion for an Address in Reply became one brief paragraph of thanks for the Speech from the Throne. [4] 

Following the mover’s speech, a second government backbencher (traditionally one who speaks the official language that is not that of the mover) is recognized to speak to and second the motion. Both the mover and seconder are typically chosen from the ranks of those Members most recently elected. [5]  Their speeches have not been followed by the usual 10-minute period for questions and comments and, at the conclusion of the seconder’s speech, the debate is normally adjourned by the Leader of the Opposition. [6]  The usual practice is for the Prime Minister or a Minister, often the Government House Leader or President of the Privy Council, to subsequently move the adjournment of the House. [7] 

Resuming Debate on the Address

The Standing Orders provide for six additional days of debate on the motion and on any amendments proposed thereto. [8]  These days are designated by a Minister, usually the Government House Leader, and are not necessarily consecutive. Since 1955, the Standing Orders have provided that when the Order of the Day is called to resume debate on the motion for an Address in Reply, the Order takes precedence over all other business of the House, with the exception of the daily routine of business — that is, Routine Proceedings, Statements by Members and Oral Questions. [9]  Private Members’ Business is also suspended on these days. [10] 

Rules of Debate on the Address

Leaders’ Day

The first day of resumed debate is known as “Leaders’ Day”. It is traditional for the Leader of the Opposition to speak first and to move an amendment to the main motion. Normally, the Prime Minister speaks next and that speech is followed by that of the leader of the second largest party in opposition, who may propose an amendment to the amendment. Then other leaders of parties which have official status in the House are recognized in turn. [11]  Leaders of parties holding fewer than 12 seats are not automatically recognized for debate on Leaders’ Day. [12] 

While this has been the customary speaking order, there is no specific rule stating the order in which party leaders are recognized during the debate on the Address in Reply. During the Address in Reply proceedings in 1989, the leader of the second largest party in opposition spoke after the Leader of the Opposition; the Prime Minister delivered his speech the following day. [13]  In 1991, when again the Prime Minister did not rise to speak after the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, a complaint was lodged with the Chair by the Opposition House Leader. The Speaker ruled that in the absence of any Standing Order to this effect, Members were not bound to any particular speaking order. [14]  The Prime Minister subsequently addressed the House the next day, and the leader of the second largest party in opposition delivered her speech immediately thereafter.

Duration of Debate on the Address

Until 1955, there was no prescribed limit on the length of the debate on the Address in Reply, and debates lasted anywhere from one to a record length of 28 days. [15]  In 1955, further to the recommendations of a special committee on procedure, the House first instituted a limit on the length of debate on the Address in Reply when it agreed to a maximum of 10 days of debate and to morning sittings (not then a feature of the regular sitting day) for the duration of the debate. [16]  This was further reduced to eight days in 1960, [17]  and in 1991 the Standing Orders were again amended to provide for a maximum of six days of debate. [18] 

There have been, however, a number of instances where the debate lasted for less than the maximum number of days provided for in the Standing Orders and the House voted on the motion. [19] There have also been instances where the debate was not completed because of either a prorogation or dissolution: in 1988, only the mover and seconder of the motion spoke, no further debate occurred on the Address in Reply and the session was ended by prorogation after only 11 sittings; in 1997, the session ended when Parliament was dissolved for a general election after 164 sittings and only five of the six days provided for the Address debate having been completed. [20]

As indicated in the Standing Orders, any unused days may be added, if the House so agrees, to the number of allotted days for the Supply period in which they occur, although this rule has never been applied since coming into effect in 1968. [21] 

Length of Speeches on the Address Debate

Members may speak for a maximum of 20 minutes, followed by a 10-minute period for questions and comments with the exception of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition (who have unlimited time for debate with no period for questions and comments). [22]  The House has sometimes extended to othe party leaders the opportunity to speak longer than 20 minutes with no period for questions and comments following their speeches. [23]  Any Member may be recognized to speak in this debate, though the speaking order follows the general rotation reflecting party standings in the House. There has also been a tendency to either reduce the length of speeches, including the period for questions and comments, or to discontinue the questions and comments period altogether, at times during the debate in order to allow as many Members as possible to speak to the motion. [24] 

Disposal of Amendments and Termination of the Debate on the Address

In the early years of Confederation, one view held that attempts to amend the Address in Reply motion ought not to be made. [25]  In 1873, the first amendments were moved to the Address in Reply motion when a motion of censure was made against the government for its conduct in the “Pacific Scandal”. Although a sub-amendment subsequently proposed an expression of confidence in the government, [26]  Parliament was prorogued following a change in government before the amendments were put to a vote. Amendments were moved again in 1893 and 1899. [27]  Over the course of the next 40 years, amendments were commonly moved, although not systematically. It was not until World War II that the practice of moving amendments to the Address in Reply motion became more entrenched.

Until 1955, there were no provisions in the Standing Orders dealing with the moving of amendments or when to put the question thereon. As with an amendment to any motion, the question was put when no Member rose to speak to it. In 1955, a new Standing Order was adopted which established a framework for deciding amendments. [28] 

While there are no rules governing when amendments are to be moved or if they have to be moved at all, the Standing Orders do set out provisions for the disposal of all amendments proposed before the main motion is put to the House: on the second day of the resumed debate, any sub-amendment before the House is disposed of and on the fourth day of debate any amendment and sub-amendment are disposed of. Amendments are prohibited on the last two days of the debate.

Recent practice has been that the Leader of the Opposition moves an amendment on the first day of resumed debate. A sub-amendment is then normally proposed by the leader of the second largest opposition party. It is not unusual, however, for another Member from that party to do so. [29] 

The first sub-amendment must be disposed of on the second appointed day when the Speaker interrupts the debate 15 minutes before the ordinary hour of daily adjournment to put the question. [30]  Sub-amendments may again be proposed on the third or fourth day. On the fourth day, the Speaker interrupts the debate 30 minutes before the ordinary hour of daily adjournment to dispose of any amendment or sub-amendment before the House. [31]  No further amendments are permitted to the main motion on the fifth and sixth days. [32]  Finally on the sixth day, unless the debate has previously concluded, the Speaker interrupts the debate 15 minutes before the ordinary hour of daily adjournment to put all the questions necessary to dispose of the main motion. [33]  Since the Standing Orders were amended in 1991 to limit the Throne Speech Debate to six days, there have been three instances of a sub-amendment being disposed of on the second day and a sub-amendment and an amendment being disposed of on the fourth day. [34] 

Given the general nature of the motion, the rule of relevance is not strictly applied to the proposed amendment (as opposed to the sub-amendments). However, precedents indicate that an amendment should add some distinct element of its own, whereas a sub-amendment must be relevant to the amendment and cannot raise a new issue. [35]  A sub-amendment adding words with the effect of making the amendment a motion of non-confidence in the official opposition has been ruled inadmissible since “votes of want of confidence are only directed against the Government of the day”. [36]  The Speaker has ruled out of order amendments which were not deemed to challenge directly the government’s policies [37]  or which sought to increase expenditures, a motion which requires a Royal Recommendation. [38]  An amendment similar to one on which the House had already expressed a judgement earlier in the debate has also been disallowed. [39] 

On only two occasions has the Address in Reply been adopted with an amendment. In each instance an amendment moved by a Member of the Opposition had itself been amended by a sub-amendment moved by a Member of the government party. [40] 

Engrossing of Address

Immediately after the adoption of the motion for the Address in Reply, the House adopts a motion without debate or amendment that the Address be engrossed, that is, transcribed upon parchment, and presented to the Governor General in person by the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate. [41]  It is customary for the Speakers to be accompanied by a few invited Members (including the mover and seconder of the Address, as well as the House Leaders and the party Whips) and the Clerks of both Houses.

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