At the time this article was written
Louis Massicotte was a Political Scientist in the Political and Social Affairs Section
of the Research Branch, Library of Parliament.
The standing orders of every legislative
assembly contain a number of provisions to limit debate. Most of these, such as
a time limit on speeches and prohibition of debate on certain motions are a
normal part of routine parliamentary procedure. The same cannot be said of
other exceptional procedures which are often lumped together under the term of
closure, a very pejorative term in Canada. Exceptional procedures allow the
government to speed up the pace of business in the legislature but they also
raise the tempers of members of the opposition. This article looks at some of
the exceptional measures included in the standing orders of the Quebec National
Assembly and examines their use since the major reform of the rules in 1972.
Those familiar with parliamentary procedure
will realize that it is in committee that the masters of obstruction are best
able to use their arts and devices. The ordinary restrictions on debate in
committee are notably less rigid than in the Assembly. For example, in
committee a member can move as many amendments and sub-amendments as he wishes
and may speak on the same question as often as he pleases, provided he takes no
more than twenty minutes on a single clause, paragraph, motion or point of
order. Thus in both committee of the whole house, and in standing committees
the possibility of endless filibustering exists.
The debate on bill 63 in 1969 and on a 1971
bill to restructure educational services on the island of Montreal demonstrated
how a powerful and determined minority could hold up legislation in committee.
These experiences were fresh in the minds of those who drafted the new standing
orders in 1972. While widening the scope of committee activities, the new rules
tried to avoid the possibility of government measures being systematically
buried in committee. To achieve this, they drafted section 156 of the standing
Part one of section 156 provides that when a
committee has studied a bill for a period of time proportionate to its
importance or length, the Government House Leader may, without notice, present
a motion outlining terms of an agreement reached by the House Leaders of the
recognized parties. Such meetings are convened by the Speaker, at the request
of the Government House Leader. The vote on such non-controversial agreements
is taken immediately.
If, however, no agreement is reached
according to the procedure outlined above, the Government House Leader informs
the House of the deadlock and, after giving notice, moves that the committee's
report be presented to the House by a specified deadline. Section 156 thus
makes it possible simply to end the committee's activity, regardless of the
stage the committee has reached in its examination of the bill. There is
nothing to prevent such a motion even if only five out of 200 clauses have been
called in committee, except perhaps the fact that the motion cannot be
introduced unless the committee has studied the bill "for a time
proportionate to the importance or length of the bill." No attempt to use
closure has ever been nipped in the bud by the Speaker on the basis of this
rather vague provision.
The use of the word "committee" in
section 156 means that closure can be used in connection with the activities of
committees of the whole as well as for standing committees. Similarly, a
committee studying a bill after first reading for the purpose of hearing
witnesses could be subject to closure as could a committee studying the bill
clause by clause after second reading. Both possibilities were confirmed by a
Speaker's ruling of July 11, 1974. The wording of section 156 seems to prohibit
the use of closure in the case of a committee not charged with the examination
of a bill.
The closure motion, which cannot be amended,
may be debated, and there is no limitation on the total duration of the debate.
The length of speeches, however, is limited to ten minutes per member and
thirty minutes for the Premier, leaders of the opposition parties and the
Government House Leader. The latter also has a right of reply. Of course, a
closure motion which requires the submission of a committee report at a
specified time suspends, by that very fact, certain other stages of committee
study provided for in the standing orders. In July 1974 the opposition argued
that section 33 of the standing orders, which provides for the submission of
reports of standing committees at specified times means that certain stages
could not be cut short by, a closure motion. A Speaker's ruling has confirmed
the overriding character of the closure motion.
Closure was used for the first time on
December 14, 1972, to approve a new electoral map. The bill, submitted to the
Standing Committee on the National Assembly, was delayed by the comments of the
Union Nationale and Créditisie members, who felt the new map, by reducing rural
overrepresentation, threatened their positions. After seven days and sixty
hours of debate, the committee had studied only fifty-seven of the one hundred
and ten constituencies. The meeting of house leaders, convened December 11,
remained deadlocked. Notice was given of the closure motion the following day,
and it was carried by a vote of fifty-eight to seventeen.
The Bourassa government's Bill 22 on the
official language was introduced on May, 21, 1974. It led to the use of closure
on two occasions after the Parti Québécois opposition decided to fight it to
the bitter end. The bill was referred directly to committee for the examination
of witnesses, and soon came under a crossfire from French-speaking nationalists
and the Quebec English-speaking community. After a month of public hearings,
often marked by emotional outbursts, the committee had heard seventy-six of a
total of one hundred and fifty-five organizations who had submitted briefs and
asked to appear.
On July 11, 1974. the motion to close the
hearing was carried by a vote of seventy-four to eight. After second reading on
July, 15, the bill was again blocked in committee. When more than a week of
hearings had passed, the committee had not vet finished examination of clause
one, which stated simply and succinctly that French was the official language
of Quebec. Some clever calculations showed that at this rate the opposition
could make the debate last until 1977! Once more a motion for closure of the
debate was carried on July 26, 1974 by a vote of seventy-three to eight.
The language debate reopened with the
introduction of the Charter of the French Language in May 1977, and the 1974
scenario in many respects was repeated. By introducing a new bill (No 101) on
July 12, which was an amended version of the previous bill, the government did
manage to avoid using closure to end the examination of briefs in committee.
After passing second reading and being sent to committee for detailed study,
Bill 101 was the victim of the same tactics as Bill 22, which it was to
replace. After fifteen sittings and ninety-six hours of debate, only
twenty-eight clauses, in a document containing more than 200, had been called.
On August 23, 1977 closure was moved by the Parti Québécois government for the
first time and carried by a vote of forty-eight to thirty.
One of the eight formal promises made by the
Parti Québécois during the 1976 elections concerned automobile insurance. Bill
67 gave concrete form to this promise by creating a state automobile insurance
plan which applies to personal injury. After passing second reading on November
16, 1977, the bill was subjected to very effective obstruction in committee by
the Liberal Party. The new plan was to come into force on March 1, 1978, but
after ten sittings totalling thirty-five hours, only nine clauses out of 192
had been called. Closure was once more introduced and passed on December 14,
1977 by a vote of sixty-five to thirty.
The most recent use of closure took place in
the spring of 1978, and involved Bill 70, nationalizing the Asbestos
Corporation and establishing the Société nationale de 1'amiante. The government
persevered with this measure, which was vigorously denounced by the opposition.
After thirty sittings totalling more than seventy-two hours, clause four had
still not been called. A closure motion was carried on May 4, 1978 by a vote of
thirty-six to seventeen.
The Automatic Guillotine
Closure, as provided for in section 156, has
the drawback of imposing on the government the unpleasant, even disagreeable,
responsibility of appearing to cut off debate. Moreover, closure must be
debated, prolonging the process even more, and the real or artificial emotion
it arouses is harmful to the government's public image. Opposition parties can
argue that the ending of debate is abrupt and unexpected. These are some of the
problems that the "automatic guillotine" is designed to solve.
Essentially, this procedure consists of establishing in advance, in the
standing orders or in an act, the length of certain specific debates.
Some examples of an "automatic
guillotine" are found in the standing orders. For example, debate on the
inaugural message and on the budget speech is limited to twenty-five hours.
Debate on a motion under s. 84(2) relating to urgent matters is limited to two
In 1978, the Referendum Act limited debate
on the text of a question which is to be put to a referendum to thirty-five
hours. More recently, the length of debate on the draft electoral map proposed
by the Representation Commission in its preliminary report was limited to five
hours. This debate, unlike the first, did not result in a vote.
Suspension of the Rules
Any closure motion is in essence a motion for
the suspension of rules. The opposite is also true for in many cases the
suspension of rules which are favourable to the opposition may be a disguised
form of closure. It may temporarily deprive the opposition of weapons which
could delay the passage of certain government measures. The suspension of
rules, provided for in section 219 of the old standing orders, is now covered
in section 84. This provision is usually not considered an example of an
exceptional measure. Such an omission is somewhat surprising for a study of
parliamentary practice in Quebec shows, that of all the exceptional measures at
the government's disposal, section 84 has been used most often over the past
Suspension of the rules requires a motion
that may be proposed only by the Government House Leader or a minister. The
motion must list the rules of order that are suspended and indicate the
reasons. Only the rules of order specified in paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 of section
3 of the standing orders, that is the standing orders, sessional orders and
special orders, may be suspended.
However, the two motions provided for in
section 84, ordinary suspension and suspension for emergency reasons must be
clearly differentiated. "Ordinary" suspension (s. 84. 1) has mainly
been used to prolong sittings of the Assembly, despite section 30, which
establishes a set schedule in this regard. The so-called "end of
session" motions have regularly been made shortly before the summer recess
or before prorogation. They usually obliged the Assembly to sit every day
except Sunday from 10 am to midnight, suspending certain periods reserved for
the opposition such as debate on "Wednesday motions" and
mini-debates, and limiting the length of debate on motions of non-confidence
and motions relating to urgent matters. This list of restrictions has grown
over the years. Such motions were passed on July 3 and December 1, 1972; June
19 and December 11, 1973; June 25 and December 6, 1974: June 11, 1976; August
22 and December 12, 1977. The 1974, 1976 and December 1977 motions gave the
following reason: "to use the time available in this session before the
summer recess more effectively (or "before prorogation", as the case
may be). The August 22. 1977 motion stated more specifically, "to ensure
that Bill 10 1. 'the Charter of the French Language', is passed before the
beginning of the next school Year".
Between 1972 and 1977, the end of session
motion was used nine times. Almost every other session ended with this motion.
This procedure dissatisfied everyone. The opposition had to keep up a pace they
found rather strenuous, especially during the summer (in a building which was
not air conditioned at the time) and when they were relatively few in number,
as was the case from 1973 to 1976, The task of the members was all the more
difficult since very controversial bills were often introduced a few weeks
after adjournment. The government, for its part, had the disagreeable
obligation of imposing this procedure every six months, with all the ensuing
complaints and recriminations.
In 1978, the usual end of session motion was
provisionally incorporated into the standing orders by means of a sessional
order, and this arrangement has been renewed since that time. Excluding
emergency situations, the Assembly cannot sit from June 24 to September 4 or
from December 22 to January 21. Longer sittings are allowed during the three
weeks prior to each adjournment. From June I to 23 and December I to 21, the
Assembly may sit every day of the week, except for Saturday and Sunday, from 10
am until whatever hour it decides to adjourn, with two-hour breaks for meals.
During each of these sittings, priority is given to government proposals.
Mini-debates and oral questions with debate are suspended during this period,
and debate on various motions likely to be used by the opposition must end
three hours after the hour scheduled for the beginning of the sitting. On the
other hand, the mechanism prohibits the third reading of a bill, the first
reading of which took place during the three weeks prior to adjournment.
Only in the case of passage of an emergency
motion, under section 84.2, can the government oblige the House to sit outside
of the authorized hours, and ask for third reading of a bill introduced during
the three weeks prior to adjournment. This motion, which must not be confused
with the preceding one, or with the "motion relating to urgent
matters" provided for in section 78, is probably the most severe measure
at the government's disposal. It is introduced by the Government House Leader
or by a minister who must indicate the reasons why the provisions of the
standing orders are being suspended. However, given its character ' no notice
is required but the reasons why this is a matter of urgency and justifying the
suspension of the rules must be given. When this motion is made with a view to
passing a bill, the bill must be distributed when the motion is introduced.
Finally, so that it may be passed quickly., it may not be amended or divided,
and the length of debate is limited to two hours.
Although theoretically an exceptional
measure, this procedure was used no less than twelve times between 1972 and
1980. However in all but three cases, section 84,2 was used to put an end to a
labour conflict. The exceptions were: for Bill 81 in 1975 creating an agency
charged with completing the Olympic facilities.. Bill 82 in 1979 respecting a
judgement of the Supreme Court of Canada on the language of the legislature and
the courts in Quebec; and on November 6, 1980 on a motion by. the Premier denouncing
the unilateral patriation of the Canadian Constitution by the federal
government. These motions imposed longer sittings and suspended a number of
provisions in the standing orders which could be used by the opposition for
dilatory purposes. Apart from one motion in May 1975 they limited the length of
study in committee to two, three or five hours, even providing, from July 1976
onwards, for clauses of the bill and amendments not yet discussed by the
committee to be put to a vote ten or fifteen minutes before the end of the time
limit. In November 1979, the debate on third reading was restricted to one
intervention varying in length (twenty minutes or one hour) for each recognized
party, and amendments upon third reading of the bill were prohibited. Moreover,
the list of suspended provisions has shown a tendency to grow longer. The house
has thus created a measure similar to the "guillotine" existing in
the British Parliament, which specifies a set length for certain stages of
legislative procedure, before discussion of the measure has even begun.
Nothing prevents the simultaneous use of
several exceptional measures in the case of particularly controversial bills.
Thus the new electoral map, Bill 22, Bill 101 and the automobile insurance bill
were provided with a tighter schedule by means of the end of session motion
(84.1), and closure was invoked under section 156, the latter being used twice
for Bill 22. Given its severity, the emergency motion, made in accordance with
section 84.2, precludes the use of the other procedures.
The Previous Question
One final way of limiting debate is by,
means of the previous question. This procedure is familiar to those who know
the Morin Code which is the manual of procedure most widely used by
deliberative bodies in Quebec. The Code describes the previous question as an
infringement on freedom of speech but it has been included in the standing
order of the Quebec Assembly since Confederation. In the current orders it is
found I sections 82 and 83. In both the Morin Code and the standing orders the
aim of the previous question is t force a direct vote on a motion being
debated. This is the only, similarity, however, and the two procedures differ
widely in three main areas:
In the National Assembly, the previous
question can be moved only on a main motion, and cannot be moved on an
amendment before the Assembly, (or one of its committees). The Morin Code does
not contain this important restriction.
The Speaker of the Assembly may rule the
motion on the previous question out of order if he feels that debate on a
motion has not been unduly prolonged, or if he believes that the motion on the
previous question would infringe on the rights of the minority if it were
carried. This protection of the rights of the minority is all the more
significant since the Speaker's decisions are in principle not subject to
appeal (s 43.2). It is one of the key provisions that supports the official
theory holding that the Speaker is the arbiter of parliamentary debate. This is
based on the situation that prevails in the British Parliament where the
Speaker may refuse to allow a closure motion to be introduced if he feels that
it will infringe on the rights of the minority, or is an abuse of the house
The Morin Code requires a two-thirds majority
for the previous question to be carried. The National Assembly does not require
a specified majority or even a quorum for the vote.
Unlike other exceptional measures, the
previous question is not a privilege reserved for the governing party, and may
be moved by any member having the right to speak. No amendment can be proposed
to the previous question, but a minister may move the adjournment of debate on
it. This motion is also not subject to amendment and must be voted on
immediately. Moreover, as long as the previous question has not been resolved,
or the motion for adjournment of debate on it carried, the Speaker may not move
that the Assembly be adjourned or adjourn it, notwithstanding paragraph I of
section 31 (which provides for automatic adjournment of the house at certain
hours) and section 38. In other words, the Assembly must sit without
interruption until the previous question has been resolved, unless a minister
moves that debate on the previous question be adjourned. The debate may deal with
both the previous question and the main motion whose passage it was intended to
speed up. Finally, when the previous question is resolved in the affirmative,
the main motion is to be put immediately without any amendment or debate, and
as long as the main motion is not resolved, there can be no motion for the
adjournment of the house, and the House cannot be adjourned.
In view of the restrictions on the use of
the previous question, it Is not surprising that it is rarely moved in the
House. There appear to have been only two examples since 1972. On December 14,
1973, a bill to increase the salary of judges was given second reading in the
Assembly. The official opposition (the Parti Québécois) had undertaken to
obstruct this measure. A Parti Québécois member, Mr Claude Charron, moved the
previous question. It was obviously a version tactic: a motion to cut off
debate was being made by a member who was clearly aiming at the contrary!
Speaker Jean-Noel Lavoie, first commented that such a motion had not been presented
in the Assembly in at least twenty years. He declared the motion out of order,
stating it was being used to reopen a debate that had already been held. More
specifically, he ruled that even when there remains only one member of the
opposition having the right to speak on the main motion, a motion for the
previous question is out of order since its aim is to force a direct vote on
the main motion, and because debate can deal with both the main motion and the
previous question, acceptance of a motion for the previous question would be
tantamount to allowing the same debate to be held twice.
The only other occasion when the previous
question was moved was in committee on December 23, 1974. The Standing
Committee on the National Assembly was considering a bill to increase members'
salaries and provide for indexation t o the cost of living. The Parti Québécois
had once again decided to attempt to slow down its passage. The Union Nationale
member for Johnson, Mr Maurice Bellemare, who was to be given the status of
party leader by the bill, with the appropriate remuneration, moved the previous
question on clause one of the bill. On behalf of the Parti Québécois
opposition, Mr Marcel Léger commented: "No one has ever, to my knowledge,
moved the previous question since 1970 never. This is a provision of the
regulations ... which must be used with great care. Michel Gratton, the
Chairman of the committee, stressing that a new rule was involved, declared Mr
Bellemare's motion in order given the limited scope of the clause. The previous
question was carried by a vote of nine to three. This precedent confirms, in
accordance with paragraph I of section 83, that the previous question can be
moved in committee as well as in the National Assembly.
Reflections on Exceptional Measures
When an exceptional measure is used a vote
is usually taken with a recorded division. This was particularly the case for
the six motions under s. 156. Five of the twelve emergency motions (s 84.2)
were carried without division, since these motions were made to speed up
passage of bills that were accepted by the major parties. The nine end of
session motions (s 84. 1) between 1972 and 1977 were carried on division, with
the exception of the December 1, 1972 motion. The 1978 sessional order making
this procedure automatic received general approval.
No party has a monopoly on the use of
exceptional measures. From 1972 to 1976, the Liberals introduced seven end of
session motions, seven emergency motions under section 84.2 and three motions
for closure of examination in committee, for a total of seventeen. At first
glance the Parti Québécois would seem to have a better record between 1976 and
1981, with only ten motions under the same provisions. The comparison is not
fair, however, since the Lévesque government made some of these mechanisms
automatic to make their use less dramatic. Notably, the 1978 sessional orders
suspended the need for an end of session vote every six months. The automatic
"guillotine" for debate on the referendum question and the electoral
map saved the government from having to use a special motion in these two
cases. The use of exceptional measures thus seems to be motivated by a need for
government action and by the behaviour of the opposition, regardless of the
party in power, rather than by an authoritarian attitude that might be thought
to arise from a particular political program.
One may, regret that the closure of
committee examination has the effect of postponing the adoption of government
amendments, which are often important, to the report stage, where conditions do
not allow for an in-depth discussion of their scope and implications. One may
fear that the dread of obstruction will encourage governments, in an effort to
avoid closure, to propose sketchy omnibus bills, putting off decisions on
controversial matters to the regulatory stage, or will prompt them to delay
certain reforms or even quite simply transfer the power to rule on certain
controversial matters to administrative bodies.
Finally it should be noted, perhaps with a
bit of nostalgia, that since 1972 the use of exceptional measures has increased
significantly. This is a general trend which may be observed in other
legislative assemblies but in Quebec it also reflects the emergence of a new
political order which is characterized by a basic disagreement over fundamental
issues between the two major political parties in the province. The increased
use of exceptional measures in the National Assembly is, in part, a reaction to
this political battle.