At the time this article was
written Bill Blaikie represented Winnipeg Transcona in the House of Commons and
was Chairman of the NDP Caucus. The first part is a slightly edited version of
his point of order which appears in Hansard of June 1, 1994.
After the results of the federal
election it was apparent that the New Democratic Party and the Progressive
Conservative Party would lose the financial benefits of being recognized
parties. The Parliament of Canada Act was clear that a party must elect 12
members in order to qualify for the financial benefits that go to parties in
the House. When the House first met, however, it became evident that the loss
of party status was being carried much further than was set out in the
Parliament of Canada Act. In June the Chairman of the NDP caucus objected to
the treatment of members of the NDP caucus as independents in procedural
matters. His argument along with the Speaker's ruling of June 16, 1994 and a
response to the ruling are outlined on the following pages.
What I am seeking is not a change
in those sections of the Parliament of Canada Act which pertain to money, but a
recognition that that statute applies only to money and that all else is a
matter of convention, practice and the discretion of the Speaker as the Chair
seeks to fulfil its historic role as the protector of the House itself and the
There are no unambiguous
definitions of parties in legislation, in the standing orders or in the
procedural authorities, and yet parties are essential to the efficient
operation of the House. Their officers, leaders, House leaders and whips try to
facilitate what all of us do here as we discharge our public responsibilities.
Parties present themselves to the
House as parties and are not created or disposed of by the House itself. Our
membership in our respective parties is a matter between ourselves, our fellow
caucus colleagues, our extra-parliamentary organizations and ultimately our
electors. We can leave our parties or be asked to leave our parties. We can
create new parties, merge two parties into one, as did the Progressives and the
Conservatives, or change the name of our parties as we in the New Democratic
The tradition of this place has
been for the Speaker to accept the party affiliation that the parties and the
members report to him or her. Yet since the beginning of this Parliament the
Chair has not accepted the party affiliation that we in the New Democratic
Party clearly possess.
The only possible precedent for
this is the way in which the Bloc Quebecois was treated in the last Parliament.
All other precedents, including the way the one Reform member was treated prior
to the formation of the Bloc, points to the injustice and inappropriateness of
the way the NDP is now being treated.
The authority for not treating us
as a party has apparently been the Parliament of Canada Act which since 1963
has set out a threshold of 12 members for parties whose officers are granted
special allowances and subsequently for parties whose members may sit on the
Board of Internal Economy.
My point today is first to show
that the wording of the Parliament of Canada Act does not empower or require
the Chair to withhold recognition from parties with fewer than 12 members in
spite of the conventional wisdom. Second, I am asking the Chair to follow the
established practice of recognizing such parties in the House.
Let us then look at the wording in the
Parliament of Canada Act. The words in section 62 read that the officers of
"a party that has a recognized membership of 12 or more persons in the
House" shall receive a variety of allowances. It does not say that a party
must have 12 members to be a recognized party and clearly assumes that parties
with fewer than 12 members are indeed parties.
In section 50 caucuses that do
"not have a recognized membership of 12" are not entitled to have
representatives on the Board of Internal Economy but are clearly to be
construed as still being caucuses.
These clauses are worded in such a
way that the question of other forms of recognition is at worst left open. At
best the wording of the statute seems to imply that party as a concept is
something independent of numbers and that 12 is the number of seats an already
recognized party must have in order to qualify for money but not for
recognition as such. Recognition of parties with fewer than 12 members is
already implicit in the wording of the statute itself. If the Parliament of
Canada Act says anything about official party status then it confirms rather
than denies that party status itself is distinct from the financial provisions
of the act.
There being no clear and precise
legal definition of party status, we may ask how the financial provisions of
the Parliament of Canada Act came to be confused with the acceptance of party
status in the House.
Shortly after the passage of the
12-member threshold amendments in 1963, the Ralliement Créditiste divided
themselves from the Social Credit Party which was left with only 11 members. In
the ensuing debates about the new seating arrangements, the new 12-member
threshold was loosely applied to questions of parliamentary practice as the
House sought to deal with the fact that two parties had been created out of
one, a situation quite unlike the one in which the NDP now finds itself.
Indeed, in the last Parliament the
12-member threshold was also used to deal with the formation of the Bloc out of
defectors from the Liberal and Conservative parties, another situation totally
different from that of the NDP in this Parliament.
John C. Courtney, a political
scientist who published a paper on party recognition in March 1978 in a volume
of the Canadian Journal of Political Science, explained the development of the
misreading of the 12-member threshold very effectively:
Technically the 12-member threshold
in the 1963 act and parliamentary procedure had nothing to do with one another,
yet the timing of the events was virtually certain to produce a combination
that would lead to the injection of the phrase "recognized membership of
12 or more persons in the House of Commons" into future debates over
regulations and statutes dealing with political parties. The term, indeed more
specifically the number, would gradually assume an authenticity of its own.
The view that the 12-member
threshold constitutes a hard and fast rule in law about party status in this
House is in fact an illusion. However, in an illustration of the old maximum
that hard cases make bad law, misapplications designed to deal with divided
and/or new parties are now side swiping the NDP in the absence of an
appropriate will to discern the difference between some previous situations and
the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.
A more reliable legislative
authority for determining party status can be found in the Canada Elections
Act. In sections 24 through 42 of that act, it is clear that parties lose party
status not when they fall below the 12-member threshold but only when they fail
to file certain documents or when they fail to officially nominate candidates
in at least 50 constituencies 30 days before polling day.
Even though there is no question
that the New Democratic Party is now a registered party under that act, in the
House we are treated as if we were independents, no differently than some other
members who do not belong to a party registered under the Canada Elections Act.
To this point, informal arguments
against the way we are being treated are often met with the argument that real
independents could make a similar claim, that it is primarily a question of
degree and that a line had to be drawn somewhere. If the Canada Elections Act
were taken into account this argument would hold even less water than it does
now if that were possible.
There is therefore no legal
authority, either in the Parliament of Canada Act or in the Canada Elections
Act, for withholding recognition from us.
Past Speakers have not, moreover,
applied the 12-member threshold to questions of party recognition. I would now
like to direct your attention to a number of the relevant precedents.
The first and most relevant
precedent is the party status accorded to the CCF after the 1958 election.
Electing eight members to the House, the CCF was then in a very similar
position to that of the NDP in this Parliament.
In 1958, the CCF continued to enjoy
its full rights as an opposition party. CCF members were seated as a party in
the House and were treated as a party in debate and during Question Period. The
party leader was treated as a party leader in debate on the speech from the
throne, being recognized immediately after Mr. Pearson and Mr. Diefenbaker. CCF
members also sat as full members on committees.
After the 1963 introduction of the
12-member threshold, Speakers regularly interpreted the act as one that granted
certain financial benefits to parties with more than 12 members. However that
did not take away any other rights of parties that had fewer than 12 members.
On February 18, 1966 for instance,
Speaker Lamoureux allowed representatives of the Social Credit Party and the
Ralliement Créditiste to respond to ministerial statements under what is now
Standing Order 33(1), even though they had only five and nine members
respectively. He argued that he did not see how the standing order concerning
the right of opposition parties to respond to ministers' statements could be
"interpreted in light of the amendment to the Parliament of Canada
The force of the tradition of
protecting the rights and status of small parties can be seen again in the
treatment of the Social Credit Party after the 1974 election. With only 11
members the Social Credit Party once again fell below the legal threshold of 12
members required in order to receive financial benefits. The Board of Internal
Economy nonetheless granted the Social Credit Party $50,000 for research
purposes at its meeting of October 22, 1974, a meeting attended by the present
Prime Minister and by Mr. Mitchell Sharp.
I am raising this point not to ask
for similar financial benefits, but to illustrate how previous Parliaments have
protected the rights of small parties so assiduously that they sometimes have
ignored the 12-member threshold on financial matters.
In 1979 in a Parliament in which I
myself participated the Social Credit Party sent only five members to the
House. A striking committee did not include a member from the Social Credit
Party although they did sit in the front row of the House.
There was a motion by the Social
Credit member that his party should have a representative on the striking
committee. In the ensuing debate on October 9, 1979, it was made clear by the
Conservative Government and Liberal Opposition that what was at stake was not
only the particular issue of the membership of the striking committee but also
the party status of the Social Credit caucus.
When the Social Credit motion
failed, Speaker Jerome at first decided that the motion obliged him not to
grant the Social Credit members party status. On October 10 he did not recognize
their leader in the debate on the speech from the throne.
The next month Speaker Jerome
revised his position and took into account the important responsibility of the
Chair to protect minorities in the House. In debate on an opposition no
confidence motion on November 6, 1979, Speaker Jerome recognized the leader of
the Social Credit in debate immediately after the other opposition party
leaders. He gave an eloquent justification for his decision from which I would
like to quote. It is an important piece of evidence because it qualifies the
We ought to be clear at the outset
that it is not a transgression of propriety to mention the name of the
political party of the members who are involved; it is the Social Credit Party
of Canada. Its members are members of this House of Commons and their leader is
the hon. member from Beauce. Those are the realities. The vote - on the
striking committee motion - under no circumstances, can be taken to pass out of
existence a political party, nor can it be taken to render as independent
members the group which has been recognized as a party and which has in fact
been seated together as a political party. The Social Credit Party exists as a
political party and the five members exist as members of that party under their
He went on to say that even though
the House had expressed itself on the question of the membership of the
striking committee, he had certain responsibilities as Speaker.
The responsibility of the Chair and
the responsibility of the House of Commons is to protect whatever rights
minorities do enjoy and therefore I must conclude what it is that the members
of the Social Credit Party are entitled to. I think that what those members are
entitled to respects the fact that they are members of a political party so
long as it does not give them an advantage that they would not otherwise enjoy
as five members and secondly so long as it does not deprive other members of
their right to participate in some way.
This is the approach to the question
of party status I am asking for myself and my colleagues in the New Democratic
Party in the House. We are asking to be recognized as a party in the House just
as previous Speakers have recognized small parties in the past.
One result of previous Speakers'
recognition of small parties can be seen in the seating plans of past
Parliaments. They show that parties with fewer than 12 members have indeed been
designated as parties and seated as parties with representation on the front
I draw attention in particular to
the seating plan dated April 1989 where one member, the member for Beaver
River, was designated as a member of the Reform Party. As I mentioned earlier
however, this designation of the member for Beaver River disappeared with the
advent of the Bloc and the decision not to treat it as a party. Currently the
nine NDP members in the House are afforded no such appropriate nomenclature in
the seating plan of this Parliament.
The weight of almost all the
evidence in both law and convention therefore comes down in support of our
claim to be recognized in this House as the party that we clearly are. The only
precedent that breaks the pattern is the treatment of the Bloc in the last
At this point I do not wish to open
the question of whether a party that forms between elections as a result of
defections from existing parties should enjoy the same status as a party of
members who sought election under their party banner. I do not want to enter
into that debate.
We ask first that the seating arrangements be adjusted to seat us as a
party with proper precedence given to our leader as a leader and as a Privy
Councillor, and that the published seating plan identify us as New Democrats,
as is already the case in Hansard.
We ask that we be treated as an opposition party during question period
where at present we are recognized only very rarely, systematically denied
supplementaries and always relegated to the last question.
We ask that we get the number of questions due to a party of nine
members, that our leader be recognized after the leader of the Reform Party,
that we be allowed supplementaries, and that we not always be relegated to the
Finally, we ask that in general we be treated as a party under the
Standing Orders and that you work with our caucus officers in the customary
ways to facilitate the operations of the House. My party colleagues and I are
asking only that we not be discriminated against simply because we did not meet
an arbitrary threshold of dubious relevance that has not even customarily been
applied by previous Speakers to procedures in the House, against which there is
ample parliamentary precedent for alternative approaches.
on the Speaker's Ruling
coverage of the ruling suggested that the Speaker had "dismissed "our
point of order. My own reading was not so drastic. For instance, where the
Speaker felt he had autonomy, on the seating plan, he recognised our party and
agreed to amend the seating arrangements and have a new seating plan published
when the House returned in September. He also quoted from Speaker Jerome's
ruling on the need for the House to show generosity to minorities.
he did not assume the activist role of some previous Speakers' in protecting
the rights of minorities, preferring to see his role more as the passive
servant of the House. He argued that Speakers had never acted
-unilaterally" without the expressed will of the House, could not himself
recognise us as a party under the Standing Orders, and invited us to solve what
her characterised as a political question in negotiation with the other
Speaker's defence of such a passive role was not entirely convincing. He did
not address the issue of whether the Parliament of Canada Act provided any
legal authority for depriving small parties of status under the Standing
Orders. Serious arguments calling the conventional interpretation of the law
into question were left hanging.
address the precedents raised but did so in a way that did not confront the
central issues. He argued, for instance, that in the 1966 precedent where
Speaker Lamoureux ruled on the question of which parties were entitled to make
a response to Ministerial Statements, the Speaker was -loath to institute any
change in the practices of the House at that time..." But the practice of
the House that he was loath to change was to consider parties with fewer than
twelve members to be parties under the Standing Orders, exactly what we were
asking him to acknowledge!
1979 ruling of Speaker Jerome was also presented as a case where the Speaker
had declined to act unilaterally. This reading of the episode does not stand up
on two counts. First, Speaker Jerome did clearly act unilaterally. One month
after the House expressed its will that the Social Credit Party not be
recognised as a party, Speaker Jerome recognised the party leader in debate as
a party leader. Secondly, the "rights of the individual member" that
Speaker Jerome sought to protect were "the fact that they are members of a
political party ......
request for fair treatment during question period, the Speaker declined to
alter the frequency with which he recognises NDP members in question period. In
response to our request that he follow a simple rule of granting us a
proportion of opposition questions relative to the size of our Caucus, he
responded that he was already treating us fairly by recognising one among all
so-called independents "every other day during question period".
absence of an alternative rationale for not allocating questions on a
traditional mathematical basis, one has to wonder why such a mathematical
formula is not being employed, a formula which would give the NDP Caucus one
question and one supplementary a day. The Speaker's silence on his reasons for
abandoning the traditional formula begs one to ask what is the source of such
unfairness If we are a party, as he says we are, then why in his own domain
does he treat some parties differently than others, applying the formula to
some and not to others.
the most disturbing implication of this ruling is that the rights of small
political parties are to be left in the hands of the large political parties.
The rights of some members now will be circumscribed by the political interests
of their political rivals. This is not fair to the members of small parties,
nor, more importantly, to the Canadian public. For the House of Commons is
fundamentally a talking shop that exists to vent the whole array of voices that
have been sent to Ottawa by the voting public. With the large parties elbowing
the small parties out of almost any meaningful participation, the House has
come to resemble an unsupervised playground rather than a national legislative
seems that the effect of this ruling is that the treatment of Bloc in the last
Parliament will be used as the bench-mark for all future treatment of small
parties by Speakers. Speaker Parent's decision treats Speaker Fraser's rulings
on the Bloc as if they embodied the conventions of the House, when in fact the
situation created by the Bloc and the consequent rulings themselves broke with
all precedent and occurred at a highly unusual moment of Canadian political
history where tolerance for a minority party was at a low point in the Canadian
experience. Ironically for a decision made out of a refusal to break with
practice, its effect is to elevate one unconventional episode into the norm so
that its shadow of intolerance will obliterate the long history of tolerance
towards small parties that has been the practice of Speakers in the Canadian
House of Commons.