Emergency Debates

The Standing Orders provide Members with an opportunity to give their attention to a pressing matter by moving a debatable adjournment motion. A Member may request leave from the Speaker “to make a motion for the adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration”.73 Furthermore, the matter “must relate to a genuine emergency”74 and if the request is granted by the Speaker, the House is permitted to debate the topic at an early opportunity, forgoing the usual 48 hours’ notice period.

Until the turn of the 20th century, any Member at virtually any time in the proceedings could introduce a new matter for discussion by moving the adjournment of the House. Since the adjournment motion could be moved at any time and was always subject to debate, the result would be an interruption of the business then before the House, often leading to the disruption of the entire day’s program. In 1906, the government of the day decided to remedy this situation and implemented a new rule, the ancestor to the present Standing Order, whereby debate would be permitted only on adjournment motions dealing with definite matters of urgent public importance.75

From 1906 to 1968, motions under the emergency debate rule were considered immediately after they had been accepted for debate. This meant that other business was put aside. In December 1968, the House amended the rule to have the debate begin at 8:00 p.m., except on Fridays when it would begin at 3:00 p.m., if proceeded with the same day.76 This still resulted in a conflict and a displacement of the regular business of the House. When the regular evening sittings of the House were abolished in 1982,77 the conflict between emergency debates and the regular business of the House was eliminated, except for Fridays.

As one Speaker noted, an emergency debate should be on a topic “that is immediately relevant and of attention and concern throughout the nation”.78 Thus, matters of chronic or continuing concern, such as economic conditions, unemployment rates and constitutional matters, have tended to be set aside, whereas topics deemed to require urgent consideration have included work stoppages and strikes, natural disasters, and international crises and events.79 At various times, other topics, such as fisheries, forestry and agriculture, have also been judged acceptable.80 Topics considered highly partisan in nature are not as readily approved.81

Initiating Debate

Any Member, whether a private Member or a Minister,82 who wishes to move the adjournment of the House to discuss a specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration must give the Speaker written notice of the matter he or she wishes to propose for discussion at least one hour prior to rising in the House to make the formal request.83 At the conclusion of Routine Proceedings,84 any Member who has filed an application with the Speaker rises to ask the Speaker for leave to move the adjournment of the House to debate the issue outlined in the application.85 The Member then makes a brief statement, normally by simply reading or referencing the text of the application filed with the Speaker.86 No discussion or argument is allowed in the presentation87 because, as one Speaker stressed, a lengthy statement may provoke debate.88 However, occasionally a Member will be permitted to expand on the application if the Chair indicates that the additional information could be of assistance in reaching a decision.89

Under the Standing Orders, not more than one motion to adjourn the House for an emergency debate may be moved in a particular sitting.90 On occasion, several applications have been forwarded to the Speaker. In such cases, Members have been recognized in the order in which applications have been received.91

If the point in the day’s order of business set aside for hearing the application has not been reached, or if the House decides to proceed to other business, for example, by adopting a motion during Routine Proceedings to move to the Orders of the Day, then the Chair cannot hear applications for emergency debates. Unless unanimous consent is granted for the Speaker to hear these applications at some other time during the sitting, notice of the application must be given again and the request made at a subsequent sitting of the House.92

The timeliness of an application is important. On one occasion, the Speaker advised a Member who had risen to present his application that had been filed on a previous day to refile it.93 Although the House may grant a Member unanimous consent to present an application that had not been filed that day,94 the Chair has expressed reservations about holding over applications. One Speaker stated that a matter which requires urgent action one day may not necessarily demand the same attention the next day, or conversely may be even more critical, a determination that should be left to the discretion of the Member who filed the application.95

Discretionary Responsibility of the Speaker

Having heard an application for an emergency debate, the Speaker decides without debate whether the matter is specific and important enough to warrant urgent consideration by the House.96 In deciding whether to approve the application, the Chair is guided by the Standing Orders, the authorities and practice. If the Speaker so desires, he or she may defer the decision until later in the sitting, when the proceedings of the House may be interrupted for the purpose of announcing the decision.97 In exceptional cases, the Speaker has not returned to the House with a decision until the following day.98

If more than one request for an emergency debate on the same topic is made in the same sitting and found acceptable, the Speaker grants leave to move the adjournment of the House to the Member who first submitted an acceptable application.99

The Speaker is not required to give reasons when granting or refusing a request for an emergency debate.100 Nonetheless, from time to time reasons are offered, although Chair Occupants have tried to refrain from this practice in order to prevent the buildup of jurisprudence, which could itself become the subject of a debate in the Chamber.101

Criteria for Decision

Although the Standing Orders give considerable discretion to the Speaker in deciding if a matter should be brought before the House for urgent consideration, certain criteria must be weighed. The Speaker determines whether the matter is related to a genuine emergency and could not be brought before the House within a reasonable time by other means, such as during a supply day or a take-note debate.102 To do this, consideration is given to the importance and specificity of the issue103 and the degree to which the matter falls within the administrative responsibilities of the government or could come within the scope of ministerial action.104

The Speaker then considers whether the request meets certain other criteria. The matter being raised for discussion must contain only one issue.105 Moreover, the motion to adjourn the House for an emergency debate cannot revive discussion on a matter previously debated in this way during the session,106 nor may it raise a question of privilege.107 In addition, the motion cannot deal with a matter normally debatable only by means of a substantive motion for which notice has been given and which calls for a decision of the House.108

Other conditions that have evolved from decisions of previous Speakers are also considered. Chair Occupants have established that the subject matter proposed should not normally be of an exclusively local or regional interest nor be related to only one specific group or industry,109 and should not involve the administration of a government department.110 Applications to debate ongoing matters have been rejected,111 as have applications to debate matters arising out of the business of the same session,112 Senate proceedings,113 matters before the courts or other administrative bodies,114 and non-confidence or censure motions.115 Furthermore, the Chair has ruled that an emergency debate cannot be held to debate the interpretation of a Standing Order,116 nor may it be “used as a vehicle for the purpose of airing statements made outside the House by organizations or people who are not answerable or responsible to this chamber”.117 In addition, one Speaker ruled that the emergency debate provisions cannot be used to debate “items which, in a regular legislative program of the House of Commons and regular legislative consideration, can come before the House by way of amendments to existing statutes, or in any case will come before it in other ways”.118

However, in one exceptional circumstance, an application was approved for an emergency debate on “the sudden and unexpected revelation of events which [had] taken place in the past, in that they might precipitate a course of conduct which, if allowed to continue unchecked, would certainly classify itself as an emergency and a matter of urgent consideration”.119

Finally, the Speaker may take into account the general wish of the House to have an emergency debate and grant a request for an emergency debate.120 Similarly, the Chair has periodically allowed an emergency debate on an issue which was not necessarily urgent within the meaning conferred by the rule, but was one on which the House of Commons timetable prevented any discussion in a timely manner.121

The responsibility for deciding whether an issue is an acceptable topic for an emergency debate is occasionally taken out of the hands of the Chair. There have been instances when the House itself, by unanimous consent, decided to hold an emergency or a take-note debate.122 On one noteworthy occasion, the Speaker was not required to render a decision on a number of similar applications because later in the sitting unanimous consent was granted for the introduction of a bill on the same topic, and the House decided to proceed immediately to debate the motion for the second reading of the bill.123

Timing of Debate

Once the application for an emergency debate has been granted, the actual debate is deferred until the ordinary hour of daily adjournment that same day, except on Fridays when it is held immediately.124 In all cases, however, the Speaker is free to defer debate until a specific time during the next sitting day.125 The House has also periodically adopted special orders setting a time for an emergency debate.126 In three cases, an application for an emergency debate was granted at a time when the House had extended its sitting hours in June.127

When a debate on the same day is scheduled for a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, the Adjournment Proceedings are not held. Instead, the House proceeds with the emergency debate at the ordinary hour of daily adjournment and the Member who was granted leave moves the motion, “That this House do now adjourn”. If the debate is held on a Friday, it takes away approximately two hours of House time that would otherwise be used for other business, such as Government Orders or Private Members’ Business, as it begins shortly after Routine Proceedings which takes place at noon.128 In addition, the emergency debate can continue past the ordinary hour of daily adjournment of 2:30 p.m. until 4:00 p.m.129

In this way, the Standing Orders provide that emergency debates take precedence on Friday or if the Speaker sets down a time at the next sitting that is within the normal sitting hours. The Speaker then determines when any other business that has been superseded by an emergency debate should be considered or disposed of.130

Rules of Debate

During an emergency debate, speeches are limited to 20 minutes per Member and may be followed by a 10-minute questions and comments period. Members may divide their speaking time with another Member if they so desire.131 Furthermore, Members are not required to speak from their places.132

The established rules of debate apply to emergency debates.133 Therefore, as with all other motions to adjourn, the motion to adjourn the House to discuss an important and urgent matter is not amendable.134

Finally, the House quite frequently adopts a special order not to allow quorum calls, requests for unanimous consent or dilatory motions during an emergency debate.135

Termination of Debate

Since the wording of the motion for an emergency debate is simply, “That this House do now adjourn”, at the conclusion of the debate, the House is not required to render a decision on the matter under discussion.136 At midnight (4:00 p.m. on Friday), or when no Member rises to speak, the motion is declared carried by the Speaker and the House adjourns until the next sitting day.137 However, if the debate is held during the regular sitting hours of the House and concludes prior to the ordinary hour of daily adjournment, the motion is deemed withdrawn and the House continues with other business.138

The Standing Orders allow a Member to propose a motion to continue the debate beyond midnight, or 4:00 p.m. on Fridays, if the motion is moved in the hour preceding the time the debate would normally adjourn, that is, between 11:00 p.m. and midnight, and between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. on Fridays.139 If fewer than 15 Members rise to object to this motion, the motion is deemed adopted. A handful of debates have been extended past midnight pursuant to the Standing Orders,140 while several have been prolonged by unanimous consent.141

There have been occasions when the House has wanted to express its opinion on the topic of an emergency debate by adopting a motion or resolution. In 1970, the House held an emergency debate on the Nigerian-Biafran conflict; pursuant to a Special Order adopted earlier in the sitting, the debate was interrupted at 10:30 p.m., the House adopted a motion on the same subject and then adjourned without question put.142 In 1983, following an emergency debate regarding the shooting down of a South Korean civilian aircraft by the Soviet Union, the motion to adjourn the House was deemed withdrawn, the House adopted a resolution denouncing the actions of the Soviet government, and then adjourned until the next sitting day by unanimous consent.143 In 1989, an emergency debate on the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, China, was temporarily interrupted to allow the House to adopt a resolution condemning the massacre.144 In 2007, a resolution urging the government to employ every means possible to stop the flow of water from Devils Lake into the Canadian water system was adopted on a brief point of order during an emergency debate dealing specifically with the operation of the Devils Lake outlet.145