At the time this article was published
Danielle Parent was a legal advisor for the Parliamentary Law Service of the
Quebec National Assembly.
In recent years parliamentarians in a number
of Canadian jurisdictions have been questioning some of the rules that underlie
the way legislative assemblies operate.
The increased power of the executive branch
and the increasingly important role played by the public service and other
public agencies have led to a certain imbalance in our political system.
Without wishing to denigrate the importance of executive power, and far from
wishing for a return to some older practices, it is necessary to take into
account the shift in powers that has taken place and consequently to adopt appropriate
procedures for legislative assemblies.
Quebec is no exception in undertaking a
reform of its rules. Over the past fifteen years the Standing Orders have been
reformed on two occasions.
In 1972 the old code with its 812 sections
was revised. updated and consolidated into 180 sections. The 1972 reforms
emphasized modernization and efficiency of the rules without necessarily
changing any fundamental way of doing things. The 1984 changes go much further
and emphasize administrative autonomy for the legislature and legislative
control of the executive.
The National Assembly Act (1982)
In 1982 the Assembly passed a new National
Assembly Act based largely on a report prepared by Denis Vaugeois MNA entitled
L'Asseemblée nationale en devenir, pour un meilleur équilibre de nos
insitutions. A sub-committee on parliamentary reform was charged with preparing
new Standing Orders which reflected certain recommendations in the report as
well as principles identified by Richard Guay, the President of the Assembly and
approved by the Assembly in June 1983. These principles can be summarized as
follows: to modernize the organization and functioning of parliamentary
institutions; to ensure better equilibrium between the democratic institutions
in society; to allow better control over the executive and the public
administration; to ensure better control and closer supervision of public
finance and expenditure; and to more clearly distinguish between Parliament and
Approved provisionally in March 1984 and permanently
on April 16, 1985, the new Standing Orders increase the role of Members as
legislators without interfering with their other role as representatives of
their constituents. The main amendments concern the parliamentary timetable,
the organization and mandate of parliamentary committees, control over public
finance and the procedure for studying and adopting bills.
The new rules established specified periods
for parliamentary work. The setting of these periods therefore no longer
resides exclusively with the government. Members of the Assembly normally meet
in ordinary sitting from the second Tuesday in March to June 23rd and from the
third Tuesday in October to the 21st of December. Members sit Tuesdays and
Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. At the
request of the Government House Leader, the Assembly may also meet on Monday
from 3 p. m. to 10 p. m. Outside of these periods, days or hours, the Assembly
may meet in extraordinary sittings at the request of the Prime Minister. This
fixed timetable should lead to better long term planning of parliamentary
Despite many changes to the committee system
adopted during the 1970s, a number of important new reforms have been put in
place during the last couple of years. Changes reflect the growing importance
of committees and the idea that smaller decentralized units are better suited
to examining government policy.
The number of standing committees has been
reduced. Henceforth rather than being structured in the image of the cabinet,
they will be formed according to fields of activity. There are eight such
standing committees with the following areas of responsibility.
1) Committee on Institutions
The Executive Council, Justice, Intergovernmental
Affairs and the Constitution
2) Committee on the Budget and
Finance, the Budget, Public Accounts,
Government Administration, the Public Service and Relations with Citizens.
3) Committee on Social Affairs
The Family, Health, Social and Community
Services, the Status of Women, Housing, Consumers and Income Security.
4) Committee on Labour and the Economy
Industry, Commerce, Tourism, Labour,
Science, Technology, Energy and Resources
5) Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
6) Committee on Planning and Infrastructures
Local Communities, Planning Transportation,
the Environment, Recreation, Fish and Game.
7) Committee on Education
Education, Manpower and Vocational Training
8) Committee on Culture
Culture, Communications, Cultural
Communities and Immigration.
In addition to these eight sectoral
committees, there is a ninth standing committee on the National Assembly
itself. It consists of the President of the Assembly, the two vice-presidents,
the House Leaders, Whips and committee chairmen. This Committee co-ordinates
and harmonizes the work of the other committees. It may also call each year the
Chief electoral officer, the Auditor General and the Public Protector. The
National Assembly Committee, assisted in its task by the Standing Subcommittee
on Parliamentary Reform, is also required to establish procedural rules and to
study any questions pertaining to the powers and operations of the Assembly, or
Mandates assigned to parliamentary
committees stem from two different sources: the Assembly and the committees
themselves. In addition to assigning a committee the task of studying bills and
budgetary appropriations, the Assembly may, assign a committee the task of
studying any subject. All mandates originating with the Assembly must be given
priority by the committees.
The main new feature of the committee system
is the mandat d'initiative. This gives committees the right to study any
question over which they have jurisdiction. The committees themselves decide to
study the quarterly financial commitments of departments as well as the annual
study, of the policies, activities and management of at least one public agency
within their sphere. In addition to such topics, the committees study proposed
changes in legislation that falls within their interests and any other subjects
at their own discretion.
An initiative mandate originates with a
motion put by a committee member and must be adopted by the majority, of its
Members from each party, in the Assembly. This removes from the governing
majority the monopoly over the choice of subjects. Since the new rule came into
force, six initiative mandates on matters of public interest have been studied;
in each instance the result was extensive consultations and exchanges among
legislators and concerned members of the public.
As a result of the mandate assigned by the
Assembly or its own initiative mandate, the committee prepares and tables in
the Assembly a report in which it may include comments, conclusions and
recommendations. If the report contains recommendations and does not pertain to
a bill or entail financial commitments, the Assembly considers the report in a
debate which may, last up to two hours. The debate does not, however, necessitate
a decision by the Assembly.
The new committee system breaks with
tradition, in that it takes away from the Government Leader the exclusive right
to plan the business of the committees by selecting the mandates to be carried
out by them. The priority assigned to Assembly, mandates nevertheless ensures
that the governing majority can have its legislation passed rapidly.
The rules also deal with the membership and
chairmanship of committees so as to increase their autonomy and stability. Each
committee has at least ten members appointed for a term of two years and MNAs
may not be a member of more than one committee. The selection of members
mirrors the number of MNAs in the Assembly for the various parties and also
take into account any independent MNAs. The Chairman of each committee is
selected by the majority of Members of each party. The Chairman organizes the
business of the committee and takes part in its deliberations. He does not have
the deciding vote. If the number of votes for and against a motion are equal
the motion is deemed to have been defeated. To assist the Chairman in his work,
committee members also elect a Vice-chairman who should belong to a party other
than the Chairman's.
The National Assembly Committee assigns
chairmanship of five committees to Members of the governing majority and three
committees to the opposition. In cases of disagreement, the governing party has
the first, second, fourth, sixth and eighth selections, and the official
Opposition the third, fifth and seventh choices. The seventh is set aside for
any, opposition parties other than the official Opposition.
In keeping with the increased autonomy' and
independence of the legislative vis-à-vis the executive Ministers are no longer
automatically granted membership on a committee. A Minister who sponsors a bill
is nevertheless made a full member of the committee studying the bill. He may,
also be a member of any committee responsible for carrying out a specific
mandate if the Assembly so decides.
Not wishing to restrict the freedom of
speech of Ministers in any way, the rules provide that a committee shall hear
any Minister who wishes to express himself on a specific matter. On the other
hand, a committee may call upon a Minister, by, means of prior notice of
fifteen days (unless the Minister in question states willingness to appear
prior to the fifteen day period).
Control of Public Finances
Aside from the study of budget policy and
the evolution of public finances each quarter during a sitting of the Budget
and Administration Committee, there are very few innovations in terms of
control over public finances. At most, a number of items have been reorganized
to facilitate the implementation of parliamentary control.
The debate on the budget speech still lasts
twenty-five hours but, unlike the old practice, ten hours of the debate takes
place in the Budget and Administration Committee, which frees the House for
For the study of estimates by the eight sectoral
committees, the period allocated has been reduced from forty-five days to two
hundred hours spread over ten consecutive sittings from Monday to Friday.
During this period, the Assembly considers only, routine business, thus making
it possible for Members to devote themselves fully to the study and to the
media to follow the progress of committee business.
The rules assign the task of the quarterly
study of departmental financial commitments to the eight committees: formerly,
only the Financial Commitments Committee performed this task. Following the new
philosophy underlying tile committee system, which tends towards
specialization, the study of financial commitments by each of the committees
should foster a more complete view of departmental activities.
Study of Bills
Various changes in connection with public
bills allow for improved discussion when bills are before both the House and
committees. A new terminology has replaced the old terms of first, second and
Henceforth, every bill must pass through
five distinct stages: introduction (first reading), adoption of principle
(second reading), detailed committee study, consideration of committee reports
and adoption (third reading).
In order to lighten the heavy debating
workload that usually occur in June and December, and to avoid legislative
marathons, a public bill introduced between May 15 and June 23 or between
November 15 and December 21 may not be passed during the same period.
To make it possible for Members to become
aware of and to learn more about the contents of bills, debate on the principle
begins only one week after it is introduced unless the bill is tabled in the
Assembly during the first week of the October or March session.
Similarly, if the bill is sent to a
committee following its introduction and the report recommends its reprinting,
the debate on the principle may commence at the third sitting following that in
which the republished version is tabled.
In committee, two types of consultation are
possible within the framework of the legislative process. Following the
introduction of a bill, the Government Leader may send it to a committee if he
feels that its importance justifies a general consultation (any individual may
submit a brief to the committee) or a specific consultation (the committee
invites specific individuals or organizations to submit briefs). During the
detailed committee study, the committee may at any time decide, prior to
beginning the study of section one, to hold specific consultations as part of' the
mandate. Such an exercise, which was prohibited under the old rules encourages
the participation of interested individuals or groups and an improved
understanding of a number of complex or contentious technical legislative
In an attempt to avoid omnibus bills which
contain a number of important principles, the rules now include provisions for
breaking down a bill into a number of components prior to passage. If the
motion to break up the bill is agreed by the Assembly, the resulting bills must
For bills to amend a number of different
Acts, a new procedure provides for detailed study before the appropriate
committee if the amended Acts fall within the jurisdiction of a single
committee. If not, the Government Leader refers the bill either to the
Committee of the Whole or to a special or standing committee of his choice. A
Minister is a member of the special committee or standing committee for the
duration of the study of the legislative provisions which concern him.
Amendment of General Procedure
Under the old rules there were various types
of motions. The new rules have reduced the number of types of motions to two:
substantive and procedural. The former place specific matters before the
Assembly while the latter bear only on the manner in which a substantive motion
is put or concern the procedure of the Assembly. Substantive motions allow any
Member to speak for twenty minutes except for the Member introducing the
motion, the Prime Minister and the leaders of the other parties or their
representatives, who may speak for an hour. For procedural motions, ten and
thirty minutes respectively are allotted.
This has led to a better framework for
"Restricted Debates", which are now more frequent. In general, a
Restricted Debate lasts a maximum of two hours. The President of the Assembly
organizes these debates following a meeting with the leaders and allocates the
time limits among the parties, taking into account any independent Members. For
example, a Restricted Debate takes place during the consideration of committee
reports and during debates on a motion to adjourn for more than fifteen days, a
call for an extraordinary sitting, a motion to suspend the rules etc.
The reform process in Quebec gave rise to a
new Act respecting the National Assembly. It enhanced the administrative
autonomy of the Assembly, reorganizing parliamentary procedure and, increased
autonomy for committees, while at the same time maintaining the initiative of
the Government Leader for the business of the House.
But, as the President of the National
Assembly explained in his statement on parliamentary reform in 1983:
"The relative autonomy of committees,
as well as their capacity to organize their business themselves, and the
initiative allowed to them in determining themselves which matters within their
jurisdiction to study, are unrealistic objectives if they are not framed within
conditions that prevent unnecessarily placing the government at risk and do not
compromise in any permanent fashion the will of the majority of Members.
... Similarly, if committees are
successfully to carry out their control function, it is clear that the rule of
government responsibility must be reviewed and restricted in such a way as not
to automatically require committee members to follow a party line."
Parliamentary reform is a continuous process
and the drafting of new rules is simply a stage towards a more complete reform
in which changes in Members' attitudes lead them to revise the concept of
Following adoption of the new rules,
parliamentarians immediately launched discussions on two areas: the control and
study of delegated legislation and the protection of witnesses appearing before
parliamentary committees. With the many innovations introduced since 1982,
Quebec parliamentarians have come to see the importance of a continuous reform
process, and many other subjects are currently under consideration.