House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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12. The Process of Debate

Unanimous Consent

At times, the House may choose to depart from, vary, or abridge, the rules it has made for itself. When the House has made substantial or permanent modifications to its procedures or practices, it has usually proceeded by way of motion preceded by notice; ad hoc changes, on the other hand, are often made by obtaining the consent of all Members present in the House at the time the departure from the rules or practices is proposed. Such a suspension of the rules or usual practices is done by what is termed “unanimous consent”. [335]  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. [336]  Whenever the House proceeds by unanimous consent, the fact is noted in the official record. [337]

Perhaps the most common application of unanimous consent is to escape the notice provisions of the Standing Orders. [338]  For example, unanimous consent is sought to waive the notice requirement applicable to a substantive motion [339]  and, once it is granted, a motion can be brought forward for a decision by the House. Bills have been introduced without the requisite notice; [340]  likewise, motions authorizing committees to travel or to change their membership (so-called “housekeeping” matters) have been introduced without notice by unanimous consent and then decided. [341]  Neither is it a rare occurrence for a committee report to be presented and, by unanimous consent, concurred in on the same day. [342]  Unanimous consent has also been sought to move, without notice, a motion proposing changes to the Standing Orders; it was granted and the motion was adopted without debate. [343] 

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 extend briefly the length of speeches or the length of the questions and comments period following speeches; [344]  to permit the sharing of speaking time; [345]  to permit a Member who has already spoken once to a question to make additional comments; [346]  and even to alter the usual pattern of rotation of speakers. [347] 

The arrangement of House business is also commonly achieved by unanimous consent. This may involve changes to the order of business, [348]  the suspension of sittings, [349]  alterations in adjournment hours or sitting days [350]  and special orders respecting procedures for individual events. [351]  The established order of the daily agenda of the House, particularly with respect to the sequence in which items are taken up during Routine Proceedings, is often altered by seeking unanimous consent to revert to an item in Routine Proceedings. [352]  Thus, Members who may have inadvertently missed their cues under rubrics such as “Tabling of Documents”, “Presenting Reports from Committees”, “Introduction of Private Members’ Bills” and “Petitions” routinely seek and are often granted unanimous consent to return to the appropriate item.

With unanimous consent, bills have been advanced through more than one stage in a single day and referred to a Committee of the Whole rather than a standing committee [353]  and have even been amended by unanimous consent. [354] 

During divisions, unanimous consent has been sought to apply the results of one vote to another vote, [355]  or to vote row-by-row, [356]  or to apply Members’ votes to subsequent divisions. [357]  By unanimous consent, recorded divisions have been deemed demanded and deemed deferred. [358]  A private Member may seek unanimous consent to table a document referred to in debate, which is precluded in normal practice. [359] 

Less common uses of unanimous consent can also be identified. For example, at the beginning of the Third Session (1991-93) of the Thirty-Fourth Parliament, two bills from the previous session were, by unanimous consent, reinstated on the Order Paper at the same stage that they were at when Parliament was prorogued; [360]  committees have been reinstated, by unanimous consent, for the sole purpose of completing projects begun in the previous session. [361] 

There are two Standing Orders which explicitly recognize the use of unanimous consent. The first provides that “a Member who has made a motion may withdraw the same only by the unanimous consent of the House”. [362]  The substance of this rule has been in place since Confederation and is based on the principle that any motion once moved becomes the property of the House. It also applies to amendments and sub-amendments.

The second rule 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. [363]  This request can be made later in the same sitting or at a subsequent sitting of the House. [364]  When the request is made, the question is put forthwith on the motion without debate or amendment. [365]  If 25 or more Members rise to oppose the motion, it is deemed withdrawn; otherwise, it is adopted. [366]  The routine motions to which this process applies include motions for:

  • the observance of the proprieties of the House;
  • the maintenance of its authority;
  • the management of its business;
  • the arrangement of its proceedings;
  • the establishment of the powers of its committees;
  • the correctness of its records; and
  • the fixing of its sittings or the times of its meetings or adjournments. [367] 

This Standing Order was the object of procedural challenges prior to its adoption in 1991 [368]  and on the first two occasions it was invoked. [369]  Since then, it has been invoked on a number of occasions after routine motions were refused unanimous consent. [370] 

Limitations on the Use of Unanimous Consent

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. A statutory requirement supersedes any order of the House to which it applies. [371]  Members have frequently noted in the course of debate that the House cannot do by unanimous consent that which is illegal. [372] 

The workings of this prohibition are seen in matters relating to the Royal Recommendation. Section 54 of the Constitution Act, 1867 stipulates that a Royal Recommendation [373] must be provided for every vote, resolution, address or bill for the appropriation of public revenues. This constitutional provision is reiterated in the Standing Orders. [374]  While the Standing Order, being a House-made rule for its own guidance, could be overcome by unanimous consent, the constitutional provision cannot. This point has been made in a number of Speakers’ rulings. [375] 

Role of the Speaker

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 in extenso. 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 permissible to make further attempts for unanimous consent. [376]  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. [377] 

If the wish of the House is not clear, the Speaker asks again if there is unanimous consent. [378]  A single dissenting voice, if heard by the Chair, is sufficient to defeat a request for unanimous consent and the Speaker has reminded Members to make their intentions clear when they do not wish to give consent. [379]  The Chair is concerned only with determining whether or not there is unanimity; if there is dissent, it is not proper to speculate on, or attempt to identify, its source. [380] 

Decision Not a Precedent

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 equally 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 as it would for any other motion before it.

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