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House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

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An essential feature of parliamentary government is that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer to, the House of Commons for their actions and must enjoy the support and the confidence of a majority of the Members of that Chamber to remain in office. This is commonly referred to as the confidence convention. This complex constitutional subject, a matter of tradition that is not written into any statute or Standing Order of the House, is thoroughly reviewed in other authorities more properly concerned with the subject.[5]

Simply stated, the convention provides that if the government is defeated in the House on a confidence question, then it is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament in order for a general election to be held. This relationship between the executive and the House of Commons can ultimately decide the duration of each Parliament and of each Ministry. The confidence convention applies whether a government is formed by the party or the coalition of parties holding the majority of the seats in the House of Commons, or by one or more parties holding a minority of seats. Naturally, it is more likely that the government will fail to retain the confidence of the House when the government party or parties are in a minority situation.

What constitutes a question of confidence in the government varies with the circumstances. Confidence is not a matter of parliamentary procedure, nor is it something on which the Speaker can be asked to rule.[6] It is generally acknowledged, however, that confidence motions may be:[7]

*      explicitly worded motions which state, in express terms, that the House has, or has not, confidence in the government;[8]

*      motions expressly declared by the government to be questions of confidence; and

*      implicit motions of confidence, that is, motions traditionally deemed to be questions of confidence, such as motions for the granting of supply (although not necessarily an individual item of supply[9]), motions concerning the budgetary policy of the government[10] and motions respecting the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.

*   Confidence and the Standing Orders

When the Standing Orders respecting supply were amended in 1968, it was specified that, in each of the three supply periods, the opposition could designate not more than two of the motions proposed on allotted days as motions of non‑confidence in the government.[11] This was the first time the notion of confidence found expression in the Standing Orders. This rule was modified provisionally in March 1975 to remove the non‑confidence qualification; the motions would still be brought to a vote but the vote would not automatically be considered an expression of confidence in the government.[12] The provisional Standing Orders lapsed at the beginning of the following session and the term found its way back into the 1977 version of the Standing Orders. No further changes were made until June 1985, when the Standing Orders were again modified to remove the non‑confidence provision with regard to supply.[13]

Meanwhile, in 1984, a recommendation was made that a change be made in the manner of electing a Speaker.[14] This proposal found favour and a variant of it was adopted by the House in 1985.[15] One of these rules still provides that the election of a Speaker shall not be considered to be a question of confidence in the government.[16]

[5] For further information, see Forsey, E.A. and Eglington, G.C., “The Question of Confidence in Responsible Government”, study prepared for the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, Ottawa, 1985. Also of interest are the First and Third Reports of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (the McGrath Committee) respectively presented to the House on December 20, 1984 (Journals, p. 211) and June 18, 1985 (Journals, p. 839), as well as Desserud, D., “The Confidence Convention under the Canadian Parliamentary System”, Canadian Study of Parliament Group: Parliamentary Perspectives, No. 7, October 2006.

[6] See, for example, Speaker Lamoureux's rulings, Journals, May 4, 1970, pp. 742‑3; March 6, 1973, pp. 166‑7. See also Debates, October 20, 1981, p. 11974; March 4, 1988, p. 13400, and Speaker Milliken’s ruling, Debates, May 5, 2005, pp. 5725-7.

[7] Norton, P., “Government Defeats in the House of Commons: The British Experience”, Canadian Parliamentary Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter 1985‑86, pp. 6‑9.

[8] See, for example, Journals, November 28, 2005, pp. 1352‑3.

[9] See, for example, Journals, March 26, 1973, pp. 212‑3. A number of opposition motions have been adopted on days allotted for the Business of Supply which were not framed as confidence matters; see, for example, Journals, February 12, 1992, pp. 1010‑2; March 8, 1994, pp. 220‑3. This tendency increased dramatically during the Thirty-Eighth and Thirty-Ninth minority parliaments when 17 opposition day motions were adopted during Paul Martin’s minority parliament, including the one that ultimately toppled his government, and a total of 27 such motions passed during Stephen Harper’s minority mandate in the Thirty-Ninth Parliament.

[10] See statement of Prime Minister Joe Clark, Debates, December 13, 1979, p. 2362.

[11] Journals, December 20, 1968, pp. 554, 557 (1968 Standing Order 58(9)).

[12] Second Report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization, presented to the House on March 14, 1975 (Journals, pp. 372‑6), and concurred in on March 24, 1975 (Journals, p. 399). The House adopted a supply motion for the first time under this rule on February 12, 1976 (Journals, p. 1016). See also the comments of the President of the Privy Council, Mitchell Sharp, Debates, February 12, 1976, p. 10902.

[13] Journals, June 27, 1985, pp. 910‑9. This change had been proposed in the First Report of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (Journals, December 20, 1984, p. 211), and the government had expressed support for the proposal (Debates, April 18, 1985, pp. 3868‑9).

[14] First Report of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, presented to the House on December 20, 1984 (Journals, p. 211), and the government response to the First Report, tabled on April 18, 1985 (Journals, p. 486).

[15] Journals, June 27, 1985, pp. 910‑9. These are now Standing Orders 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

[16] Standing Order 6.

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