Standing Orders: debating changes to House of Commons rules

Standing Orders: debating changes to House of Commons rules

June 16, 2017 12:40pmET

On Monday, MPs are scheduled to debate the government’s plan to adjust how the House of Commons operates. WATCH LIVE on CPAC and cpac.ca

Proposed changes to the Standing Orders — the written rules governing the House and its committees — would add:

  • written justification for a prorogation of Parliament;
  • more power for the Speaker to break up voting on omnibus bills — except for budget implementation bills that refer only to budget items;
  • parliamentary secretaries sitting as non-voting members of standing, legislative, and special committees;
  • a new timeline for the estimates process;
  • a restriction on the ability of committee chairs to limit debate.

What the motion doesn’t contain is several other ideas floated by the government in a March discussion paper: electronic voting, an end to Friday sittings, a formal prime minister’s weekly question period, a limit to the use of motions to delay House proceedings, replacement of time allocation with different mode of managing legislative debate, an end to committee filibusters and other “obstructionist tactics,” and more committee participation for independent MPs.

Read the full motion, which would take effect when the House returns from the summer break in September:

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger appeared at a parliamentary committee Thursday, just before tabling the motion:

WATCH AND READ MORE

The March proposal immediately drew questions about whether all-party consensus was needed for sweeping changes to the Standing Orders.

Changes typically require a decision of the House of Commons, whether by majority vote or unanimous consent.

According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

Since 1867, there have been occasions when controversial proposals have led to lengthy debates where the government used its majority to amend the Standing Orders. In many circumstances, however, procedural changes have been the result of a broad consensus among Members of all parties and have been readily adopted without debate.”

This spring the House of Commons saw a number of procedural tactics in response to the discussion paper, including a 30-minute delay to the March budget speech, and high tempers during question period:

Meanwhile, Conservative and NDP members held a lengthy filibuster (extending into early May) at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, in protest of a fast-track study of the discussion paper.

Here’s an example from April 5, with the NDP’s David Christopherson:


Chagger appeared on PrimeTime Politics on May 1 to defend the government’s handling of the issue:

That same day, Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen and NDP counterpart Murray Rankin jointly expressed their concerns:

Procedure committee chair Larry Bagnell adjourned the meeting on May 2, effectively ending the filibuster despite objections:

HISTORY

  • The Standing Orders have changed constantly since 1867; the first amendments came less than a year after Confederation. But many current rules date back to the Lower Canada and Upper Canada assemblies created in the 1790s (especially the former). Those rules migrated to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, created in 1840, and then to the House of Commons.
  • A 1991 privilege ruling by then-speaker John Fraser upheld the principle that changing the Standing Orders was allowed through a motion with either unanimous consent or a majority vote of MPs.


Meanwhile, the Senate has two supply bills on the order paper: C-53 and C-54.

The Commons public safety committee considers a Senate bill aimed at protecting journalists and their confidential sources (S-231). Testifying is the bill’s sponsor, Senator Claude Carignan,  former journalist and Senator André Pratte, Conservative MP Gérard Deltell (also a former journalist), executives from CBC/Radio-Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and federal lawyers. LIVE ONLINE 3:30pm ET / 12:30pm PT

-Andrew Thomson