Monday: Sajjan questioned on defence estimates

Monday: Sajjan questioned on defence estimates

UPDATED May 29, 2017 10:39amET

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan faces an evening of questions in the House of Commons as MPs consider his department’s priorities and spending plans for the coming year.

Ministers or their parliamentary secretaries appear for up to four hours during such sessions. Each year the Official Opposition chooses two departments for such a review in Committee of the Whole. They must be held by May 31, according to House of Commons Procedure and Practice.

The 2017-18 National Defence estimates call for nearly $18.7 billion in total spending. This includes a decrease in: “spending on major capital equipment and infrastructure projects to align financial resources with current project acquisition timelines. This funding includes investments in major capital projects such as Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, and the Halifax Class Modernization and Frigate Life Extension.”

The government’s Defence Policy Review is also expected in the near future.

►Quizzing the Ministers

The ministerial sessions stem from a standing order adopted by the House in 2001, allowing the Opposition to choose two federal departments or agencies for review by a Committee of the Whole.

According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, the new custom would permit “a more meaningful examination of government estimates” and confirm “the financial oversight role of the House of Commons.”

The corresponding minister or parliamentary secretary sits in the front row of the government benches and prepares to act as a witness. Outsiders are almost never allowed to walk beyond the Bar of the House, but in this case a small number of department officials are permitted to sit near the minister to provide advice.

  • The first round of speakers begins with the Official Opposition, than the government, than the Liberals.
  • Each MP has 15 minutes to speak and ask questions. There’s a five-minute minimum for the latter category.
  • MPs need unanimous consent to split their time with a colleague.
  • The minister’s response is expected to be equal to or less than the question’s time.

About Committees of the Whole

Committees of the Whole date back to the 1500s and the creation of the committee system in England’s Parliament. Major bills were debated in a less restrictive forum than formal proceedings of the House of Commons overseen by a Speaker. Canadian legislatures adopted the custom with little change until 1968, when the current system of standing committees was established.

Today, the House of Commons switches to this less formal setting on rare occasions. One notable example was the 2008 official apology to residential school victims. Sitting in a Committee of the Whole allowed First Nations representatives to sit on the floor of the Commons and deliver remarks after the prime minister and opposition leaders spoke.

The Speaker leaves their customary chair and moves to the Clerk’s seat at the main table on the Commons floor. MPs can speak more often than  a normal House debate.

Also today:

  • MPs debate a government motion to extend the House of Commons’ sitting hours until the summer break.
  • Bill C-46 is debated at second reading.
  • Government officials brief the Commons finance committee on the budget implementation bill (C-44). LIVE ONLINE 3:30pm ET / 12:30pm PT

-Andrew Thomson