Since the last election gave Stephen Harper a majority, his government has acquired a reputation for being trigger-happy with restricting debate by imposing time allocation, closure and putting the question. These all mean very different things.
Time Allocation is the most powerful restriction and is where the government sets specific deadlines (either absolute – until next Tuesday – or relative – six more hours) before all the motions for a specific stage or stages must be voted on. This gets a bill through entirely at the ministers discretion. Convention has it that a time allocation at second reading applies only to second reading and another must be moved for report stage and third reading. Committee stage is the only stage remaining where debate is unrestricted.
Closure is the bluntest form: The House of Commons simply doesn’t close until a particular bill or debate has finished (or until a minister gives up). This gets a bill through in a day or two usually, but the marathon debates take their toll on MPs. Bills are taken entirely on the floor of the House (so committee stage is a committee of the whole house). This doesn’t apply to the Senate.
Putting the previous question is the weakest of the three; it halts debate on the original motion and starts (potentially very long) debate on whether the original motion should be put to a vote. If it passes, the original motion is put to a vote immediately; if it fails the original motion is dropped from the order paper. It’s main advantage is preventing any amendments to the original motion being tabled. This can be done at second reading, report or third reading.
So how much has the Canadian government been using these three types of restricting debate? Remember, it’s not been a full parliamentary session yet, so many bills have yet to even be debated at all. To find out, I spent a frankly embarrassing amount of time on parl.gc.ca finding every motion that restricted debate and recording the time spent at each stage of debate. In the spirit of research, feel free to peruse and use my data – it’s here. I’m not saying it’s flawless*, but I’ve done my best. Corrections or additions are welcome.
So far, the Conservatives have imposed closure on three bills (C-6, C-33, C-39), all back-to-work legislation. A total of 67 hours of debating time in the Commons has been affected by closure, over half (47) on one bill: C-6. The other two were much nearer 10 hours each. Closure is not imposed in the Senate – each time, the Senate cooperated to pass the bill quickly.
Ten bills have had the previous question put and one of them, C-23, had it twice! Seven out of the eleven times this was used it was during second reading, and although this made little difference to the amount of time the debate takes (it’s not meant to) it presumably did the job. Three of the other times it took place, it took place on third reading (including the only previous question put in the Senate) and once on a closure motion.
A total of 31 motions for time allocation were moved 29 of which succeeded (2 were withdrawn in the Senate) on 12 bills. In nearly eight in ten cases where debate is restricted, the government decides to do so after only one day’s debate. One time the motion was passed before the bill had even begun its passage at all (C-3). Seventy percent of these motions are in the House of Commons.
These motions give a couple of extra days on second reading (the median second reading length for a bill is eight hours over three days in total) and one day each for report and third reading (similarly, a median of fifty minutes over three days typically).
C-18, dealing with the Canadian Wheat Board, had the most restrictive motions moved against it – a total of 5, of which 3 succeeded. The one which had the most successful restrictive motions – 4 – was C-10, the omnibus crime bill.
The vast majority, 75%, of time allocation takes place in the Commons. Looking at the bigger picture, there have been 52 substantive government bills before parliament so far this session and 20 of them – roughly 38% – were restricted in some way, and one-in-ten were specifically restricted in the Senate. While bad, that makes it look better than it is because it hides behind the fact that only 37 bills have begun second reading in the House of Commons, when a motion to restrict debate happens most often. This means just over half (54%) of bills on which debate has begun have had their debate restricted. The proportion increases to 71% of bills which actually get past second reading.
Notably, the Senate initially appears to be much more resistant to restricting debate, but it may be partly because by convention the Senate cooperates with the government to deliver legislation in a timely way. Pre-study, where Senate committees hear evidence on bills before they get to the Senate, was pretty much invented for that purpose. Even accounting for that, the Senate on average spends about a third of the time that the Commons does scrutinising bills (though if pre-study is invoked it’s over two-thirds). Not only is the main portion of the Senate’s scrutiny in Committees where such motions don’t apply, but a median Senate second reading is only half an hour, compared to nearly 8 hours in the Commons. In the same way, the median Senate committee stage (four hours) is double that of the Commons. In some isolated special cases, committee stages take a much higher profile and last much longer, and this distorts things when looking at the mean: using this measure, typical Senate committee stages are six hours compared to the Commons’ nine hours.
In the Senate, it seems to have evolved since the beginning of the session that if the two Senate leaders can’t come to an agreement about how long the bill will take at a particular stage, the Conservatives impose a time allocation motion. In the beginning, the Senate Liberals seemed bemused by their use, but now it’s apparently routine.
You’re probably wondering why all this is important. The Conservatives have got a majority, so they’ll win any vote: why should we care how long it takes them to get their business through Parliament? Two reasons.
1) One of Parliament’s main roles is to hold those in power to account by scrutinising their work. Legislation where it sets the rules for government and indeed society at large is doubly important to scrutinise properly – if you, as an MP, leave those in power a loophole, accidentally or otherwise, you’ve only got yourself to blame when they use it. Parliamentary scrutiny can raise awareness of these flaws and sometimes provoke the government to fix them, or at least make it easier to hold them to account for it later. Restricting that scrutiny may prevent the flaws being highlighted, or even discovered. Doing so after one day’s debate shows a lack of sympathy for this role of parliament.
2) Minority rights are still important. For a minority of parliament to be able to slow down a bill is an expression of democratic freedoms and a valuable incentive to compromise. If a government isn’t sure when it will get its bill, then they may be willing to speed it up by compromising on some aspects of a policy. Ultimately, if the government has the political capital it will succeed – but if the opposition (small-o; could just be a gaggle of backbenchers) provokes widespread outrage or dissent in the country at large through this then it is worth the delay in the greater interests of democracy. Sometimes, even more so if it does not provoke any reaction at all. Of course ultimately a government can expect a reasonable policy to get through, and if the opposition doesn’t give in, it may be appropriate to use time allocation. But not routinely. It should be a last resort.
The routine use of measures like time allocation threaten to neuter a chamber of Parliament. Since the government nearly always has a majority when it comes to a vote, it means debates become essentially window dressing. The government knows the outcome, and more to the point it knows when it will happen and nothing except the blunt and very unlikely event of many MPs rebelling will change that. It has no incentive to listen to the concerns of its own MPs who have reservations but dare not vote against their leader, and certainly no incentive to listen to the opposition however many good points they may have.
It’s not conducive to good laws, to good government, nor good debate and when governing becomes an exercise in ignoring those around you, something has gone badly wrong.