The Confidence Convention

The fact that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are responsible to, or must answer to, the House of Commons for their actions is a fundamental characteristic of parliamentary government. They must also enjoy the support and the confidence of a majority of the Members of the House 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.6

Simply stated, the convention provides that if the government is defeated in the House on a question of confidence, 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.7 It is generally acknowledged, however, that confidence motions may be:8

  • explicitly worded motions which state that the House has, or has not, confidence in the government;9
  • motions 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 the government may not necessarily lose confidence over an individual item of supply10), motions concerning the budgetary policy of the government11 and motions respecting the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.12

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.13 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.14 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 this provision.15

Meanwhile, in 1984, a recommendation was made that a change be made in the manner of electing a Speaker.16 This proposal found favour and a variant of it was adopted by the House in 1985.17 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.18