Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne

Designating a Day for Consideration

Although there is no Standing Order that requires the Speech from the Throne to be debated at the beginning of a new session, traditionally, when the House returns from the Senate, a day is designated for the consideration of the Speech.1 The Prime Minister moves a motion to consider the Throne Speech either later that day or at the next sitting of the House.2 The motion does not require notice and while it is generally moved and adopted without debate, it is debatable and amendable.3

Initiating Debate

On the day specified in the motion for the consideration of the Speech from the Throne, a government backbencher moves that an Address be presented to the Governor General (or depending on who delivered the speech, to the Sovereign or to the Administrator of the Government of Canada) “to offer our humble thanks … for the gracious speech which Your Excellency has addressed”.4 This allows for wide-ranging debate on the government policies announced in the Throne Speech, and provides a rare opportunity for Members to address topics of their choice.5

From 1867 to 1893, the motion for the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne typically consisted of several paragraphs, each of which received separate consideration. The paragraphs collectively formed a resolution that was adopted and referred to a select committee. The committee would then report the Address in Reply to the House where it would be agreed to, engrossed (that is, reproduced in larger print on parchment-like paper) and presented to the Governor General. This cumbersome procedure was changed in 1893, when a new practice was adopted whereby the House itself considered the Address in the form of a presentation to the Governor General.6 It was not until 1903 that the motion for an Address in Reply became one brief paragraph of thanks for the Speech from the Throne.7

Following the mover’s speech, a second government backbencher8 (usually one who speaks the official language that is not that of the mover) is recognized to speak to and second the motion. Both the mover and seconder are typically chosen from the ranks of those Members most recently elected.9 Their speeches are followed by a 10-minute questions and comments period.10 When the seconder has finished speaking and has responded to the questions and comments, the Leader of the Opposition normally moves to adjourn the debate.11 The usual practice is for the Prime Minister or a Minister, often the Government House Leader or President of the Privy Council, to then move the adjournment of the House.12

Resuming Debate on the Address

The Standing Orders provide for six additional days of debate on the motion and on any amendments proposed thereto.13 These days are designated by a Minister, usually the Government House Leader, and are not necessarily consecutive. The House normally debates the Address early in the session when there is little or no government business on the Order Paper. In the following days, the government typically places bills or motions on notice to sustain the work of the House later on.

The fact that the debate on the Address has not been completed or that the House has not yet voted on it does not preclude the House from discussing or voting on other issues.14 The purpose of giving first reading to the pro forma Bill C-1, An Act respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office, is to assert the independence of the House of Commons and its right to choose its own business and to deliberate without reference to the causes of summons as expressed in the Speech from the Throne.15

Since 1955, the Standing Orders have provided that when the Order of the Day is called to resume debate on the motion for an Address in Reply, the Order takes precedence over all other business of the House, with the exception of the daily routine of business, that is, Routine Proceedings, Statements by Members, Oral Questions,16 and Private Members’ Business.17

Rules of Debate on the Address

Leaders’ Day

The first day of resumed debate is known as “Leaders’ Day”. It is traditional for the Leader of the Opposition to speak first and to move an amendment to the main motion. Normally, the Prime Minister speaks next, and is followed by the leader of the second largest party in opposition, who may propose a subamendment. Other leaders of parties with official status in the House are then recognized in turn.18 Leaders of parties holding fewer than 12 seats are not automatically recognized for debate on Leaders’ Day.19

While this has been the customary speaking order, there is no specific rule stating the order in which party leaders are recognized during the debate on the Address in Reply. During the Address in Reply proceedings in 1989, the leader of the second largest party in opposition spoke after the Leader of the Opposition; the Prime Minister delivered his speech the day after Leaders’ Day.20 In 1991, when the Prime Minister did not rise to speak after the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, the Opposition House Leader raised a point of order. The Speaker ruled that, in the absence of any Standing Order to this effect, Members were not bound to any particular speaking order.21 The Prime Minister subsequently addressed the House the next day, and the leader of the second largest party in opposition delivered her speech immediately thereafter.

Duration of Debate on the Address

Until 1955, there was no prescribed limit on the length of the debate on the Address in Reply, and debates lasted anywhere from one day to a record length of 28 days.22 In 1955, further to the recommendations of a special committee on procedure, the House first instituted a limit on the length of debate on the Address in Reply when it agreed to a maximum of 10 days of debate and to morning sittings (not then a feature of the regular sitting day) for the duration of the debate.23 This was further reduced to eight days in 1960,24 and, in 1991, the Standing Orders were again amended to provide for the current maximum of six days of debate.25

There have been, however, a number of instances where the House has voted on the motion even though the debate lasted for less than the maximum number of days provided for in the Standing Orders.26 There have also been instances where the debate was not completed because of either a prorogation or dissolution.27

As indicated in the Standing Orders, any unused days may be added, if the House so agrees, to the number of allotted days for the supply period in which they occur. However, this rule has never been applied since coming into effect in 1968.28

Length of Speeches on the Address Debate

With the exception of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition who have unlimited speaking time, Members may speak for a maximum of 20 minutes on the Address.29 In every instance, a 10-minute questions and comments period may be held following each speech.30 Members limited to a 20-minute speech may indicate to the Chair that they wish to share their time with a colleague, either from their own party or from another party. A party Whip may also indicate that Members of his or her party will be sharing their 20-minute speaking time over the course of a debate.31 In such cases, each Member may speak for 10 minutes, followed by five minutes for questions and comments.32

Any Member may be recognized to speak in this debate. The speaking order normally follows a rotation that reflects party standings in the House. On occasion, in order to allow as many Members as possible to speak to the motion, the House has reduced the length of speeches or the length of the period for questions and comments, sometimes even eliminating the questions and comments period altogether.33

Disposal of Amendments and Termination of the Debate on the Address

In the early years of Confederation, one view held that attempts to amend the Address in Reply motion ought not to be made.34 In 1873, the first amendments were moved to the Address in Reply motion when a motion of censure was made against the government for its conduct in the “Pacific Scandal”. Although a subamendment subsequently proposed an expression of confidence in the government,35 the Prime Minister resigned, the Leader of the Opposition was invited to form the government, and Parliament was prorogued before the amendments were put to a vote. Amendments were moved again in 1893 and 1899.36 Over the course of the next 40 years, amendments were commonly moved, although not systematically. It was not until World War II that the practice of moving amendments to the Address in Reply motion became more entrenched.

Recent practice has been that the Leader of the Opposition moves an amendment on the first day of resumed debate. A subamendment is then normally proposed by the leader of the second largest opposition party. However, another Member from that party may also do so.37

Given the general nature of the motion, the rule of relevance is not strictly applied to the proposed amendment (as opposed to the subamendments). Precedents indicate that an amendment may add some distinct element of its own, whereas a subamendment must be relevant to the amendment and cannot raise a new issue.38

A subamendment adding words with the effect of making the amendment a motion of non-confidence in the Official Opposition has been ruled inadmissible since “votes of want of confidence are only directed against the Government of the day”.39 The Speaker has ruled out of order amendments which were not deemed to challenge directly the government’s policies40 or which, in the Speaker’s view, were the equivalent of ordering the House to increase government spending and as such requiring a royal recommendation.41 An amendment similar to one on which the House had already expressed a judgment earlier in the debate has also been disallowed.42

Until 1955 there were no provisions in the Standing Orders dealing with the moving of amendments or when to put the question thereon. As with an amendment to any motion, the question was put only once no further Members rose to speak to it. In 1955, a new Standing Order was adopted which established a framework for deciding amendments.43

The first subamendment must be disposed of on the second appointed day when the Speaker interrupts the proceedings 15 minutes before the expiry of the time provided for debate to put the question on the subamendment.44 Subamendments may again be proposed on the third or fourth day.45 On the fourth day, the Speaker interrupts the debate 15 minutes46 before the expiry of the time provided for debate to dispose of any amendment or subamendment before the House.47 No further amendments are permitted to the main motion on the fifth and sixth days.48 Finally, on the sixth day, unless the debate has previously concluded, the Speaker interrupts the debate 15 minutes before the expiry of the time provided for debate to put all the questions necessary to dispose of the main motion.49

The Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne has been adopted with an amendment on only six occasions.50 In the first two instances, an amendment moved by a Member of the opposition was itself amended by a subamendment moved by a Member of the govern­ment party.51

In the next two instances, the House voted in favour of the subamendment moved by the second largest party in opposition and concurred in the amendment and the main motion, as amended. In recent instances, the House has concurred in the amendment moved by the Official Opposition and then in the main motion, as amended.52 Concurrence in these amendments was not deemed to be a test of the confidence of the House in the government of the day,53 as the government was in agreement with the amendments.

Furthermore, the Address adopted in 2004 during the First Session of the Thirty-Eighth Parliament asked the government to consider the advisability of giving orders of reference to three standing committees, instructing each to make recommendations on specific matters. The House concurred in this suggestion shortly after it was made, and adopted a Special Order to this effect for each of the three committees.54

Engrossing of Address

Immediately after the adoption of the motion for the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne, the House adopts a motion without debate or amendment that the Address be engrossed, that is, reproduced in larger print on parchment-like paper, and presented to the Governor General in person by the Speaker of the House of Commons.55 It is customary for the Speaker to be accompanied by the Speaker of the Senate, a few invited Members (including the mover and seconder of the Address, the House Leaders and the party Whips), and the Clerks of both Houses.