House of Commons Procedure and Practice
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14. The Curtailment of Debate

For further information on debate in the House of Commons, see Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”, and Chapter 13, “Rules of Order and Decorum”.
The desire to restrict debate on certain questions, though frequently condemned today, is not entirely a new phenomenon. Dawson writes that “unrestricted debate has never existed in Canada and has not existed for several centuries in the United Kingdom” (Dawson, p. 3). See also Franks, pp. 128-32.
Speaker Fraser, addressing the issue of the Chair’s “discretionary powers” in protecting the rights of Members to speak freely on matters of “national interest”, ruled that “procedurally speaking, as your presiding officer… I am without authority to intervene when a Standing Order is used according to our rules and practices” (Debates, June 29, 1987, pp. 7713-4).
The Speaker has ruled on this issue on numerous occasions. See, for example, Debates, December 30, 1971, pp. 10846-7; October 24, 1980, pp. 4066-7; June 29, 1987, pp. 7713-4; October 8, 1997, pp. 662-6.
In the First Session of the First Parliament, a committee was appointed to consider whether “the despatch of Public Business can be more effectually promoted” (Journals, March 31, 1868, pp. 168-9). In 1869, a motion was adopted concerning the times for the assembling of Parliament; during the debate, concern was expressed that important business was rushed through at the end of the session (Journals, June 14, 1869, p. 241; Debates, June 14, 1869, pp. 779-80). A similar motion was adopted in 1873 (Journals, May 12, 1873, p. 330). In 1886, a motion was adopted concerning length of speeches; debate on the motion indicated that, in order to ensure proper attention to business before the House, some plan would have to be adopted to economize time (Debates, April 19, 1886, pp. 789-92).
For further information on the previous question, see section below.
Debates, April 9, 1913, col. 7391.
For a discussion on the changes in government workload and its incidence on the time allotment and closure rules in the House of Commons, see Stewart, pp. 238-9.
This aspect of procedural change has been widely chronicled; see, for example, the observations and analyses of Dawson, pp. 127-33; Franks, pp. 128-32; and Stewart, pp. 239-41.
In April 1913, the House adopted amendments to existing Rule 17 which restricted the number of debatable motions, and provided that on two days of the week certain motions which would ordinarily be debatable (specifically, motions for the House to resolve into the Committee of Supply or into the Committee of Ways and Means) would not be debatable (Journals, April 23, 1913, pp. 507-9). In 1927, the House adopted a rule to limit the speeches of a majority of Members to 40 minutes each (Journals, March 22, 1927, pp. 328-9). Further restrictions were imposed in 1955 when limits were placed on the length of the Address and Budget Debates, on debate in a Committee of the Whole and on debate on the motion for the House to resolve itself into the Committee of Supply (Journals, July 12, 1955, pp. 908-9, 922-9). Permanent changes to the Standing Orders in October 1962 provided further limitations on the Address and Budget Debates and on debate during Private Members’ Business (Journals, April 12, 1962, p. 350). In 1968, amendments were made to the Standing Order limiting speeches in a Committee of the Whole (Journals, December 20, 1968, p. 573).
Standing Order 56.1.
Standing Order 53.
Standing Order 61. In Canada, the wording of the previous question has remained unaltered since it was first introduced in the House of Commons in 1867. In the Westminster version, the wording of the motion was changed to “That the question be not now put” in 1888 to avoid confusion with closure, which employs the same formula (May, 19th ed., p. 378).
See Journals, January 22, 1991, pp. 2592-3.
Journals, December 5, 1996, pp. 968-9.
In 1990, the previous question moved by a Minister on a government initiative was debated for approximately 40 minutes before being adopted (Debates, March 27, 1990, pp. 9849-55). For another example of short debate, see Journals, March 25, 1993, p. 2598.
On September 23, 1991, for example, the previous question was moved on a motion for second reading of a government bill; the debate continued during that sitting and the sittings of September 24, 25 and 27 before the question was put and the vote deferred to September 30 (Journals, September 23, 1991, pp. 378, 380; September 24, 1991, p. 388; September 25, 1991, pp. 394-5; September 27, 1991, p. 402; September 30, 1991, pp. 414-5).
See, for example, Journals, May 10, 1995, pp. 1458-9.
Beauchesne, 6th ed., p. 160. See, for example, Journals, March 2, 1926, p. 123.
Standing Order 45(5).
Standing Order 61(2).
Beauchesne, 6th ed., p. 160.
In 1869, the main motion was not presented to the House again. On the other three occasions, it was. In 1870 and 1929, the revived motions were adopted and, in 1928, no decision was taken (Journals, May 31, 1869, pp. 163-4; April 28, 1870, pp. 254-5; June 1, 1928, p. 489; April 15, 1929, p. 242). The frequency of use of the previous question is discussed in Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”.
The previous question has been withdrawn, on occasion, when negotiations had led to arrangements between parties. In 1983, for example, the mover of the previous question withdrew it, by unanimous consent, to allow the matter to be referred to a standing committee (Debates, February 9, 1983, pp. 22682-6). See also, Journals, May 10, 1990, p. 1685.
In 1985, Speaker Bosley ruled that “there is no question in my mind from reading the rules that there is no restriction on the moving of this motion in terms of whether it be by a Minister of the Crown, a Parliamentary Secretary or a Private Member” (Debates, January 28, 1985, p. 1708).
Journals, May 31, 1869, p. 163.
Journals, April 6, 1959, p. 289.
Journals, December 5, 1996, p. 968. The motivations for using the previous question have not always been the same and do not always involve curtailing debate. For example, Members of the opposition in favour of a government motion have moved the previous question not to cause the item to be dropped from the Order Paper but to signal their support for the government initiative and limit debate “by consent.” In 1992, just before moving the previous question on a government motion to amend the Constitution, Opposition Leader Jean Chrétien stated that it was “with great pleasure that I support this motion” (Debates, December 11, 1992, pp. 15086-7).
Dawson, p. 119.
Wilding and Laundy, p. 139.
Standing Order 57.
Originally the time for putting all questions to dispose of the closured business was set at 2:00 a.m. (Journals, April 23, 1913, pp. 507-9). In 1955, it was changed to 1:00 a.m. (Journals, July 12, 1955, pp. 881, 910-1, 945) and, in 1991, to 11:00 p.m. (Journals, April 11, 1991, pp. 2905, 2913).
See, for example, Debates, December 21, 1988, p. 541.
Standing Order 78.
Journals, April 23, 1913, pp. 507-9. Although both Westminster and the Canadian House of Commons have closure rules, some differences are worth noting. First, the wording of the British version of the motion is in the affirmative: “that the question be now put”. Second, in the United Kingdom, closure is moved without notice, must be decided forthwith and, if adopted, ends debate immediately. Third, unlike in Canada, the Speaker can refuse to put the motion if it appears “that the motion is an abuse of the rules of the House, or an infringement of the rights of the minority.” Fourth, at least 100 Members must vote in favour of the closure motion for it to carry. See Standing Orders 35 and 36 of the Standing Orders of the British House of Commons. The Australian House of Representatives makes a distinction between “Closure of Member”, which reads: “That the Member from… be not further heard” (Standing Order 94) and “Closure of Question”, which reads: “That the question be now put” (Standing Order 93).
These are the franchise bill in 1885, the Manitoba school legislation in 1896, the franchise bill in 1908 and the reciprocity debate in 1911. See Dawson, p. 121.
“It is therefore altogether probable that, if the government can force the matter to a vote, it will be carried. On the other hand, the opposition can, if it sees fit, probably prevent a vote. There are 300 items which will give opportunity for illimitable discussion” (Debates, April 28, 1911, col. 8038).
Debates, December 14, 1909, cols. 1441-2.
Journals, April 23, 1913, pp. 507-9. For a detailed account of the Naval Aid Bill episode, see Robert Laird Borden: His Memoirs, Vol. I, edited by Henry Borden, Toronto/Montreal: McClelland and Stewart, 1969, pp. 186-99; and Dawson, pp. 122-4.
Debates, May 9, 1913, col. 9445.
Between May 15 and June 5, 1956, closure was used at all four stages of the legislative process as it was then: resolution (Debates, May 15, 1956, p. 3895); second reading (Debates, May 22, 1956, p. 4165); Committee of the Whole (Debates, May 31, 1956, p. 4498) and third reading (Debates, June 5, 1956, p. 4689).
Some writers have commented that the use of closure during the Pipeline Debate has produced a lingering distaste for the closure rule, already the subject of some disrepute. See, for example, Stewart, pp. 242-6; Laundy, pp. 112-9.
Journals, December 9, 1957, p. 255.
Debates, July 21, 1960, p. 6676.
Journals, March 26, 1962, p. 277.
Journals, September 27, 1962, p. 15.
Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, September 30, 1976, Issue No. 20, p. 57.
In 1998, the opposition actually managed temporarily to repeal the rule (Journals, June 12, 1998, pp. 1027-8).
See, for example, Debates, October 22, 1980, p. 3934 (during Routine Proceedings).
See, for example, Debates, March 1, 1926, p. 1431; July 16, 1981, p. 11629.

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