A short history of limiting debate in the House of Commons

Have MPs forgotten how to work together?

In the latest issue of Canadian Parliamentary Review, Francois Plante compiles a thorough review of how time allocation, closure and other measures to limit debate in the House have been used over the last century.

These tools, which work in different ways and with varying degrees of effectiveness, were often created in response to deliberate opposition obstructionism. This was the case for the closure rule, for example. In the late 1960s, under pressure and accused of governing undemocratically, the government instituted the time allocation rule. The goal was to provide a way of managing debate more acceptable to the opposition. Yet three trends in the government’s use of time management tools have again today given the opposition good reason to criticize. First, since the mid1970s, the number of time allocation motions adopted and the proportion of bills affected by the curtailment of debate have exploded. Second, the government’s patience has rapidly diminished; it now decides to impose time allocation on its bills with little delay. Third, the 1999 revolution in the use of the closure rule (through a motion dictating how a bill will pass through every stage) has made its use even more debatable.

Of course, the government is not solely to blame. A study of the opposition’s behaviour, more specifically its use of dilatory motions, could show that the government is to a certain extent only reacting to efforts to hold up debate. David Docherty is quite right to point out that debate curtailment measures are after all very legitimate tools that can prevent legislative impasses. However, Docherty also argues that suspicion of the government is healthy. It cannot be allowed to simply duck the opposition’s questions.

Time allocation has become something of a regular occurrence in the 41st Parliament—with the Conservatives currently on pace to far exceed any known record.

Plante notes that one such tool that has been in place since 1867—moving that “the question now be put”—was rarely ever used.

The reasons the previous question was little used in the first Parliaments are intriguing. O’Brien and Bosc suggest the following: For the first 45 years following Confederation, the only tool at the government’s disposal was the previous question…. 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 the debate.

In short, the early Parliament of Canada was likely characterized by a greater spirit of cooperation among the parties.

Is it possible then that a frequent use of time allocation is symptomatic of political actors and parties who aren’t able to (or interested in) working collaboratively?