The ringing of division bells, Speaker
Lloyd Francis, House of Commons March 30, 1984.
Background: In March 1982 an unprecedented situation
arose when the division bells were allowed to ring for fifteen days because the
Official Opposition Whip refused to appear at the bar of the House in order to
express his party's dissatisfaction with an omnibus bill introduced by the
government. The Speaker at that time, Jeanne Sauvé refused to intervene and the
deadlock was finally resolved by agreement of the parties. Shortly thereafter a
special committee was appointed to consider reform of the procedure of the
House. The committee made a number of recommendations that were adopted by the
House but none of them dealt with the problem of the bells. Since 1982 the
problem has arisen again and in the absence of any guidelines certain
initiatives have been taken by the chair. Dilatory motions have been declared
to have lapsed if not voted on by the hour of automatic adjournment. On other
occasions when the question before the House was a substantive one, bells were
suspended overnight by the Speaker and continued the following day. The most
recent incident occurred on March 19. The following day the Opposition House
Leader, Erik Nielsen, raised a point of order protesting the actions of the
Speaker in suspending the bells. The Speaker replied to this objection on March
The Ruling (Speaker Lloyd Francis): The Hon.
Member for Yukon (Erik Nielsen) asserted that the Chair exceeded its authority
in suspending the sitting and the bells. He said: "The suspending of a
sitting overnight in the midst of a division is almost without precedent."
There was, of course, only one such
precedent, on May 9. 1983. We now have another resulting from the bell which
commenced on March 28. He went on to say that he could find no text or
precedent which supported the authority of the Chair to suspend a sitting "at
whim". I agree with him. I assure him that the action I took on March 19
was not taken lightly. I looked at precedents. I engaged in consultations. I
waited until almost the very last minute in the hope that the representatives
of the Parties would notify me of their intentions.
The Hon. Member for Yukon referred to the
power of the British Speaker to adjourn or suspend a sitting in circumstances
of grave disorder. Let me assure him that the thought of justifying my action
in terms of this procedure never entered my head. There was no grave disorder.
This practice has no bearing on the situation which faced us. There is nothing
in the British practice and precedents which could assist us in resolving any
problem related to the bells. This problem is uniquely Canadian. I know of no
parliamentary jurisdiction outside Canada where the bells can ring for an
unlimited period prior to a recorded vote.
The position taken by the Hon. Member for
Yukon was that the timing of a vote rests entirely with the Whips because a
division is an expression of the will of the House, not of the Chair. Thus, in
his view, even the suspension of the bells overnight is beyond the authority of
the Chair. without the consent of the Whips, even though such action cannot
affect the length of time the bells may ring nor the outcome of the vote. This
is his view and I respect it.
The Hon. President of the Privy Council (Mr.
Pinard) while supporting the action of the Chair in suspending the bells,
agreed with the Hon. Member for the Yukon that the decision as to the timing of
a vote was a matter for the Whips. He pointed out that there are no standing
orders to provide any direction as to the Speaker's role where the bells are
concerned. Neither is there any jurisprudence except in relation to the lapsing
of dilatory motions and the suspension of the bells overnight when a
substantive motion is before the House.
The question which arises, therefore, is:
how is the Speaker to assist the House without a standing order or a resolution
of the House to guide him? How is he to fulfil his duties when he finds himself
trapped in a situation whereby, whatever he does, his action will appear to be
partisan? With nothing but common sense to guide. him. he can only do what
appears to be sensible in the circumstances.
The Hon. Member for Hamilton Mountain (Mr.
Deans) made a number of significant comments. He said that at some point the
House has to come to grips with the problem that threatens to be a potential
disaster for the parliamentary system. He pointed out that the rules of the
House are intended to protect each and every Member. And he underlined the
embarrassment for the Chair when it finds itself in a situation such as
occurred on March 19.
He has my full sympathy in the expression of
these views. Let me assure him that the Chair is ever mindful of its duty to
protect minorities. However, where voting is concerned, there is little the
Chair can do as long as the timing of a recorded vote remains exclusively in
the joint control of the Whips of the Government and the Official Opposition.
In practice, total control can be exercised by only one of the two, acting on
his own, because under our present practice the vote cannot take place unless
both Whips approach the Table together. Perhaps, in taking account of the
problem, the House or the House Leaders might give some thought to the position
and rights of a third party.
Let us consider the implications of allowing
the bells to ring indefinitely. When taken to an extreme, the practice can
paralyse Parliament completely. We have seen in Manitoba how the Government was
forced into proroguing the legislature because an indefinite bell was used by
the opposition to prevent a vote on an important government measure. We can
imagine a government in a minority situation using the indefinite bell to avoid
facing defeat on an issue of confidence We have also seen how the bells can
disrupt the arrangements for signifying the Royal Assent to bills. While the
House if fully within its rights in ordering its affairs as it sees fit. I
suggest that the other place and the representative of His Excellency the
Governor General were subjected to a grave discourtesy as a result of what
happened on March 28. Do we in this House of Commons really want to enshrine
this device permanently in our practice?
It seems to me that the House has three
options. The bells can be controlled by the Whips, by the Speaker or by
Standing Order. I think the House should consider the pros and cons of all
three options. If the Whips have unrestricted control over the bells, we all
know what the possibilities are. It means that either the Government Whip or
the Official Opposition Whip can exercise an absolute veto over the taking of a
vote. Perhaps this suits the purposes of the Government and of the Official
Opposition. Is it satisfactory to the House as a whole? Is it acceptable to
backbenchers? Is it fair to a third party?
If the Speaker were to control the bells, it
could place a very grave responsibility upon him. The advantage to the House
would be that the control of the bells would be in the hands of an impartial
arbiter. He would. to repeal the words of Mr. Redlich, have regard to the
"protection of the majority against obstruction and protection of a
minority against oppression". Thus he could be expected to intervene if
the bells were used to obstruct a government measure indefinitely. He could
also be expected to intervene if the Government were trying to prevent a vote
it expected to lose.
The third solution would be to adopt a
Standing Order which would place a limit on the length of time the bells may
ring and possibly also provide for the scheduling of votes at predetermined
time during the week. In this way, all Hon. Members would know in advance the
amount of time available to them to reach the House in order to vote. I believe
this would be the ideal solution. Only the adoption of a Standing Order could
settle this issue once and for all, and I suggest to the House such a Standing
Order is sorely needed.
I shall, as has been suggested, be
consulting with the three House Leaders with a view to regulating this very
important procedural question. For the time being, pending an agreement to
change the practice or until I receive other instructions from the House, I
shall continue to follow recent precedents. Dilatory motions will be deemed to
have lapsed at the ordinary hour of adjournment if not disposed for earlier. In
the case of substantive if not disposed of before the ordinary hour of
adjournment. the sitting and the bells will be suspended until 9 a.m. on the
following sitting day, unless the Chair is notified of a specific intervening
hour at which the Whips intend that the vote should take place.
I am not suggesting that either of these
practices provides a satisfactory answer to the problem. Without a limit on the
bells, we shall continuously be facing a potential procedural dilemma.
The House is master of its own procedure.
The authority of the Chair is to rise in the House. In areas of uncertainty,
the Chair can only do its best to interpret the will of the House and protect
the rights of its Members. Without the support of the House, the Chair is
powerless. I think we should learn from recent experience. The problems we face
have been exposed. I would like to thank Hon. Members for their contribution to
this discussion. It has been instructive for the Chair and 1 hope for all Hon.
Above all, I believe it has been instructive
for this great institution which we all cherish. The Chair stands ready to
co-operate with the House in any attempt to regulate this difficult and
pressing problem. The House should, however. be aware of the Speaker's
position. He should not be placed in a situation where he is confronted with
Until the House comes to grips with this problem,
it will remain a constant threat to the efficiency of the House and the
security of the Chair. I suggest the credibility of the parliamentary
institution is at stake. I believe we have the duty to protect it.