House of Commons Procedure and Practice

Second Edition, 2009

House of Commons Procedure and Practice - 14. The Curtailment of Debate - Contents and Introduction

14. The Curtailment of Debate




*    Historical Perspective

*    Notice of Closure

*    Motion of Closure



*    Historical Perspective

*    The Three Options

*    Notice

*    Motion to Allocate Time





The whole study of parliamentary procedure over the years, indeed over the decades, has been an endeavour to find a balance between the right to speak at as much length as seems desirable, and the right of parliament to make decisions.

Stanley Knowles, M.P. (Winnipeg North Centre)

(Debates, May 20, 1965, p. 1530)

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time.[1] Although what seems reasonable to one party may arguably appear unfair to another, few parliamentarians contest the idea that, at some point, debate must end.[2] While an overwhelming majority of House business is concluded without recourse to special procedures intended to limit or end debate, certain rules exist to curtail debate in cases where it is felt a decision would otherwise not be taken within a reasonable timeframe, or not taken at all. The rules pertaining to the curtailment of debate invite the House as a whole to express its opinion on the issue of limiting debate on a particular item of business.

A distinction must be made between a Member’s freedom of speech—a fundamental parliamentary privilege—and a Member’s opportunity to take part in debate. Freedom of speech for Members means they may express their views during debate in the House and its committees without fear of legal prosecution for their statements; it is not a parliamentary privilege giving them an unlimited opportunity to speak.

When asked to determine the acceptability of a motion to limit debate, the Speaker does not judge the importance of the issue in question or whether a reasonable time has been allowed for debate, but strictly addresses the acceptability of the procedure followed.[3] Speakers have therefore ruled that a procedurally acceptable motion to limit the ability of Members to speak on a given motion before the House does not constitute prima facie a breach of parliamentary privilege.[4]

At Confederation, few rules existed to curtail debate. Even then, it was recognized that unlimited debate was not desirable and that some restraint would have to be exercised or some accommodation reached in order for the House to conduct its business with reasonable despatch.[5] For the first 45 years following Confederation, the only tool at the government’s disposal was the previous question, discussed later in this chapter. Not only was there no other way of putting an end to a specific debate within a reasonable time, but there were no formal time limits of any kind on debates. The length of speeches was unlimited. The conduct and duration of proceedings in the House were based largely upon a spirit of mutual fair play where informal arrangements, or “closure by consent”, governed the debate. In the words of Prime Minister Robert Borden:

… at a definite stage in a debate, when, in the judgment of the leading men of both sides of the House, it has proceeded far enough, it has been the practice for a consultation to be held and a date to be fixed; and members who are not able to catch the Speaker’s eye within the period so fixed are, by arrangements made on both sides of the House, practically excluded from taking part in the debate on that subject and the question is brought to an issue in that way.[6]

In the early days of Confederation, the main business of the House involved the consideration of private bills and other business sponsored by private Members. Because the government played only a minor role in the economy, government business made up only a small part of the House’s workload.[7] After 1900, the changing nature of the business coming before the House, especially the growing volume of business initiated by the government, led to a steady increase in the time that the House set aside for Government Orders. The time of the House became a precious commodity and a source of sometimes fierce partisan contention. This was manifested by a growing propensity on the part of the opposition to thwart the passage of government bills through delay and obstruction.[8]

These changes in parliamentarians’ attitudes and in the government workload led the House to adopt rules and practices that would, on the one hand, facilitate the daily management of its time[9] and, on the other, limit debate and expedite the normal course of events in cases deemed of an important or urgent nature.

This chapter focuses on this latter aspect and examines ways in which debate can be curtailed in addition to what is already provided in the usual rules of debate.[10] It includes a discussion on the previous question, closure, time allocation, the moving of a routine motion or a motion authorizing committees to travel moved by a Minister to bypass the requirement for unanimous consent, and the moving of a motion to suspend certain Standing Orders in relation to a matter considered to be of an urgent nature.

[1] 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”.

[2] 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, W.F., Procedure in the Canadian House of Commons, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 3). See also Franks, C.E.S., The Parliament of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 128‑32.

[3] 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).

[4] 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; February 13, 2001, pp. 569‑76; March 1, 2001, pp. 1415‑6.

[5] 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, 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).

[6] Debates, April 9, 1913, col. 7391.

[7] 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, J.B., The Canadian House of Commons: Procedure and Reform, Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977, pp. 238‑9.

[8] This aspect of procedural change has been widely chronicled; see the observations and analyses in Dawson, pp. 127‑33; Franks, pp. 128‑32; and Stewart, pp. 239‑41.

[9] There are numerous and varied examples of this. 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 in Reply to the Speech from the Throne and Budget debates, on debates in 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 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). In 1991, the duration of the Address and Budget debates was further limited to a maximum of six and four days respectively (Journals, April 11, 1991, pp. 2912, 2919). In 2001, the House adopted rules allowing the study of budgetary appropriations again in Committee of the Whole. The maximum length of debate on a series of Votes was then five hours. Two years later, it was limited to four hours and at the same time Members’ speeches were reduced to a maximum of 15 minutes (First Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, par. 33‑6, presented to the House on June 1, 2001 (Journals, p. 465) and concurred in on October 4, 2001 (Journals, pp. 691‑3) following the adoption of a Special Order (Journals, October 3, 2001, p. 685); Fourth Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, par. 43‑6, presented to the House on June 12, 2003 (Journals, p. 915) and concurred in on September 18, 2003 (Journals, p. 995)). In 2003, the House reduced the period allowed for the first speakers from each of the recognized parties to speak in debate at the second and third reading stages of government bills from 40 to 20 minutes (Fourth Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, June 2003, par. 33‑6). A few years later, debate on the adoption of reports from standing or special committees was limited to three hours (Seventeenth Report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, presented to the House on October 20, 2006 (Journals, p. 556) and concurred in on October 25, 2006 (Journals, pp. 577‑9)).

[10] The duration of certain special debates, in particular the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne, take‑note debates and emergency debates, is clearly specified in the Standing Orders, just as it is for the Budget debate and for the time allocated for debate at the various stages of a private Member's bill or for other rubrics making up the daily order of business, such as the Adjournment Proceedings. Questions on certain motions are also put after the period of time specified in the Standing Orders. For further information, see Chapter 10, “The Daily Program”, Chapter 15, “Special Debates”, Chapter 18, “Financial Procedures”, and Chapter 21, “Private Members’ Business”.

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