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)

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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 a large part 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 time frame, or not taken at all. The rules pertaining to the curtailment of debate allow 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 in the House and in committee without fear of legal action for their statements; however, 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 addresses strictly the acceptability of the procedure.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 a prima facie breach of parliamentary privilege.4

At Confederation, few rules existed to curtail debate. Yet 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 dispatch.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 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 was 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, giving rise at times to fierce partisan clashes. This was evident in the growing propensity 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 of 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.