House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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Emergency Debates

The Standing Orders provide Members with an opportunity to give their immediate 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”. [51]  Furthermore, the matter “must relate to a genuine emergency” [52]  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 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 which dealt with definite matters of urgent public importance. [53] 

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. [54]  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, [55]  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”. [56]  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. At various times other topics such as fisheries, forestry, agriculture and the fur trade industry have been judged acceptable; for example, there have been several emergency debates on grain-related topics since 1968, and since 1984 four emergency debates have been held in regard to the fishing industry in Canada. Topics considered highly partisan in nature are not as readily approved. [57]

Initiating Debate

Any Member, be it a private Member or a Minister, [58]  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. [59]  At the conclusion of the ordinary daily routine of business, [60]  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. [61]  The Member then makes a brief statement, normally by simply reading the text of the application filed with the Speaker. [62]  No discussion or argument is allowed in the presentation [63]  because, as one Speaker stressed, a lengthy statement may provoke debate. [64]  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. [65] 

If more than one notice has been forwarded to the Speaker, Members will be recognized in the order applications were received. [66]  If the time set aside in the day’s order of business for hearing the application is not reached, or if the House decides to proceed to other business, for example, by adopting a motion to move to the Orders of the Day during Routine Proceedings, then the Chair cannot hear applications for emergency debates. These applications must be refiled at the next sitting of the House unless unanimous consent is granted for the Speaker to hear them at some other time during the sitting. [67] 

The timeliness of an application is very important. On one occasion, the Speaker advised a Member who had risen to present his application which had been filed on a previous day to refile it. [68]  Although the House may grant a Member unanimous consent to present an application which had not been filed that day, [69]  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. [70]  On one occasion, applications were filed during a lengthy recess of the House and were heard at the conclusion of the ordinary routine of business the first day the House resumed sitting. [71] 

Discretionary Responsibility of the Speaker

Having heard an application for an emergency debate, the Speaker decides without debate whether or not the matter is specific and important enough to warrant urgent consideration by the House. [72]  In deciding whether or not to approve a request for an emergency debate, the Chair is guided by the Standing Orders, the authorities and practice.

The Speaker is not required to give reasons when granting or refusing a request for an emergency debate. [73]  Nonetheless, from time to time reasons are offered, although Chair occupants have tried to refrain from this practice in order to prevent the build-up of jurisprudence which could itself become a subject of a debate in the Chamber. [74] 

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 a matter is related to a genuine emergency which could not be brought before the House within a reasonable time by other means, such as during a Supply day. [75]  To do this, consideration is given to the importance and specificity of the issue [76]  and the degree to which the matter falls within the administrative responsibilities of the government or could come within the scope of ministerial action. [77] 

The Speaker then considers whether the request meets certain other criteria. The matter being raised for discussion must contain only one issue. [78]  The motion to adjourn the House for an emergency debate cannot revive discussion on a matter previously debated in this way during the session [79]  nor may it raise a question of privilege. [80]  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. [81] 

Other conditions which 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, [82]  and should not involve the administration of a government department. [83]  Applications to debate ongoing matters have been rejected [84]  as have applications to debate matters arising out of the business of the same session, [85]  Senate proceedings, [86]  matters before the courts or other administrative bodies [87]  and non-confidence or censure motions. [88]  Furthermore, the Chair has ruled that an emergency debate cannot be held to debate the interpretation of a Standing Order [89]  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.” [90]  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.” [91] 

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.” [92] 

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. [93]  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 parliamentary timetable prevented any discussion in a timely manner. [94] 

The responsibility of deciding whether or not 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 has unanimously decided to hold an emergency debate, sometimes by means of a special order. [95]  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 on the motion for the second reading of the bill. [96] 

Frequently, the Speaker defers the decision on an application for an emergency debate until later in the day when the proceedings are interrupted for the purpose of announcing the decision. [97]  In one exceptional case, the Speaker did not return to the House with a decision until the following day. [98] 

The Standing Orders specify that not more than one motion to adjourn the House for an emergency debate may be moved in any sitting; [99]  however, more than one application may be made and when this occurs, the Speaker chooses which one, if any, is acceptable. 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. [100] 

Timing of Debate

The Standing Orders provide that an emergency debate must occur between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 12:00 midnight on the day a request for one is granted, unless the Speaker directs that the motion be considered the next sitting day at an hour to be specified later. [101]  The House has also periodically adopted special orders setting a time for an emergency debate. [102]  In one case, an application for an emergency debate was granted at a time when the House had extended its sitting hours in June. [103] 

When an emergency debate is scheduled to be held at 8:00 p.m., the sitting is suspended at the ordinary hour of daily adjournment; the House meets again at 8:00 p.m. when the Member who was granted leave moves the motion, “That this House do now adjourn.” [104]  Practice has been that when an emergency debate is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the normal Adjournment Proceedings do not take place, given that the motion before the House is the same. However, such proceedings have been held by unanimous consent; in these cases, following debate on the Adjournment Proceedings, the motion to adjourn has been deemed withdrawn and the sitting suspended until 8:00 p.m. [105]  On occasion, unanimous consent has also been granted for the suspension of the sitting prior to the ordinary hour of daily adjournment in order to give Members an opportunity to prepare for an emergency debate. [106] 

Except on Friday, emergency debates usually take place outside the normal sitting hours. However, on Friday or if the Speaker sets down a time at the next sitting that is within the normal sitting hours, the Standing Orders provide that emergency debates take precedence. The Speaker would then determine when any other business that has been superseded by an emergency debate should be considered or disposed of. [107] 

Emergency debates on Friday begin as soon as the Speaker finds the application acceptable. [108]  If the application is made and granted immediately following the conclusion of Routine Proceedings, debate commences at approximately 12:15 p.m. and continues until 4:00 p.m., at which time the motion “That this House do now adjourn” is deemed adopted. Approximately two to two-and-a-half hours of House business are displaced by an emergency debate held on this day because the ordinary hour of adjournment on Friday is 2:30 p.m. Since this Standing Order came into effect in 1987, [109]  no emergency debates have been held on Friday, although on two occasions the Speaker has deferred such a debate until the following Monday at 8:00 p.m. [110] 

Rules of Debate

During an emergency debate, no Member may speak for more than 20 minutes [111]  and there is no questions and comments period. [112]  However, frequently by unanimous consent the length of speeches has been reduced to 10 or 15 minutes to allow as many Members as possible to speak. [113]  The etablished rules of debate apply to these emergency debates. [114] As such, as with all other motions to adjourn, the motion to adjourn the House to discuss an important and urgent matter is not amendable. [115] 

Interruption and Termination of Debate

As noted above, once underway, an emergency debate takes precedence over all other business. From Monday to Thursday, no conflict should arise if the debate takes place after the normal adjournment hour. In the case of a debate taking place on a Friday, in addition to approximately 90 minutes scheduled for Government Business, the debate also displaces one hour of Private Members’ Business. This, however, is dealt with in the Standing Orders which specifically prohibit an interruption for Private Members’ Business. [116] 

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. [117]  At 12:00 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. [118]  If the debate is held during the regular sitting hours of the House and concludes prior to the ordinary hour of adjournment, the motion is deemed withdrawn and the House continues with other business. [119] 

The Standing Orders allow a Member to propose a motion to continue the debate beyond 12:00 midnight (4:00 p.m. on Friday) 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 (between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. on Friday). [120]  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, [121]  while several have been prolonged by unanimous consent. [122] 

There have been occasions when the House has wanted to express itself 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 made 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. [123]  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. [124]  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. [125] 

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