The Previous Question

There are occasions where Members will move, during a debate on a motion before the House, “That this question be now put”.11 This motion, commonly known as the previous question, may be moved on substantive debatable motions.12 Although it does not necessarily put an end to debate, the previous question restricts debate and expedites the putting of the question in two ways.

First, the previous question precludes the moving of amendments to the main motion and therefore any debate that might have ensued on those amendments. It can only be moved, therefore, when no amendment to the main motion is under consideration. If the previous question is carried, the Speaker must put the question on the main motion forthwith.13 When the previous question is moved and Members wish to speak, another period of debate begins. In fact, the previous question is viewed as a new question submitted to the House and it is debatable.14 Members who have already spoken to the main motion or to any previous amendments may speak again to the previous question. When used in this manner, the previous question is a method of curtailing debate which has unpredictable results: at various times, the previous question has been carried without debate,15 after a short debate,16 and after several days of debate.17 In instances where the previous question did not appear to bring a motion to a vote, a motion to adjourn the debate,18 a motion for closure19 or a motion for time allocation20 has sometimes been moved to end the debate. When a recorded division is demanded on the previous question, it may be deferred at the request of either the Chief Government Whip or the Chief Opposition Whip.21 However, once the previous question is adopted, a recorded division on the main motion may not be deferred,22 except on a Friday,23 with the agreement of the whips24 or pursuant to a Special Order.25

Second, the previous question can have the effect of superseding a motion under debate since, if negatived, the Speaker must not put the question on the main motion at that time. In other words, if the motion “That this question be now put” is not adopted, the main motion is dropped from the Order Paper. Unless it is revived on a future day and reinstated on the Order Paper,26 the item will not be debated again. Over the years, the previous question has not been very successful as a mechanism for limiting debate by causing an item to be dropped from the Order Paper. Since Confederation, the motion “That this question be now put” has been negatived only four times. In most of these cases, the item was revived and eventually adopted, with or without amendments.27

All Members may move the previous question.28 It is used by some in the hope that it will expedite a vote on the main motion or limit amendments, and by others in the hope that it will prevent the Speaker from putting the question then on a motion or a bill. Although the previous question can be both a method of forcing a decision on a motion and a way of postponing or delaying a decision, it has been used almost exclusively in recent years by the government to limit debate.29

In the past, the use of the previous question has been anything but predictable. Ministers have moved it on private Members’ motions,30 opposition motions31 and government motions32 and bills.33 Conversely, private Members have moved the previous question on motions moved by other private Members34 or by the government,35 on government bills36 and on routine motions.37

Because of the many restrictions that regulate its use, as well as its sometimes unexpected outcome, the previous question has been described as the “most ineffective” method of limiting debate.38