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

The Previous Question

There are occasions where Members will move, during a debate on a motion before the House, “That this question be now put”. [13]  This motion, commonly known as the previous question, may be proposed to substantive debatable motions before the House. There are a number of restrictions placed on the use of the previous question. These are discussed in more detail in Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”. Once the previous question has been moved, debate on the original motion resumes. Although it does not put an immediate end to debate, the previous question restricts debate and expedites the putting of the question in two ways.

First, it precludes the moving of amendments to the main motion and, therefore, any debate that might have ensued on those amendments. Indeed, if the previous question is carried, the Speaker is obliged to put the question on the main motion forthwith. [14]  Members who have spoken already to the main motion or any previous amendments may speak again to the previous question. In this sense, the previous question is at best an unpredictable method of curtailing debate. The previous question has been adopted without debate, [15]  it has carried after a short debate, [16]  or after several days of debate. [17]  In instances where the previous question did not appear useful in bringing a question to a vote, a motion to adjourn the debate [18]  or a motion of closure [19]  has been moved to put an end to a debate on the previous question. When a recorded division is demanded on the previous question, it may be deferred at the request of either the Chief Government Whip or the Chief Opposition Whip [20] ; however, once the previous question is adopted, a recorded division on the main motion may not be deferred. [21] 

Second, the previous question can have the effect of superseding a motion under debate since, if negatived, the Speaker is bound not to put at that time the question on the main motion. In other words, if the motion “that the question be now put” is not adopted, the motion under debate is dropped from the Order Paper. Unless revived on a future day and reinstated on the Order Paper[22]  the item will not be debated again. In practice, in a majority of instances when the previous question was negatived, the item was revived and eventually adopted, with or without amendment. As a mechanism for limiting debate by causing an item to drop from the Order Paper, the previous question has not been very successful. Since Confederation, the motion “that the question be now put” has been negatived four times. [23]  It has also been withdrawn by unanimous consent. [24] 

While both government and opposition Members may move the previous question, [25]  it is used by some in the hope that it will expedite a vote on the main motion, and by others in the hope that it will prevent the Speaker from putting the question now on a motion or a bill. Although the previous question can be both a method of forcing a decision on a motion and a way of postponing or delaying a decision, it has in recent years almost exclusively been used by the government to limit debate.

In the past, the use of the previous question has been anything but predictable. Ministers have moved it on private Members’ motions [26]  and on government motions and bills. Conversely, private Members have moved the previous question on other private Members’ motions [27]  as well as on government motions. [28]  Perhaps because of the many restrictions that regulate its use, the previous question has been described as the “most ineffective” method of limiting debate. [29] 

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