Governing by Time Allocation: The Increasing Use of Time Allocation in the House of Commons, 1971 to 2021.

Date22 December 2021
AuthorPelletier, Yves Y.

In its Winter 2000-2001 issue, the Canadian Parliamentary Review published the first study on the use of Standing Order 78 (commonly known as "time allocation") in the House of Commons. "Silencing Parliamentary Democracy or Effective Time Management? Time Allocation in the House of Commons" chronicles the use of time allocation between December 1971 and June 2000. This article by the same author provides an update on the use of time allocation in the two subsequent decades, thus covering the periods from the 28th Parliament (1968-1971) to the 43rd Parliament (2019-2021).

The centralization of political powers in the hands of senior staffers within the Office of the Prime Minister and central agencies of the federal government cannot alone account for the reduction in the legislative role of Canadian Parliamentarians. In fact, changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons by its members over the years have limited the opportunities of private members to influence the final wording of government bills. With growing intervention by the Government of Canada in the postwar economy, the amount of government organizations, initiatives and measures increased rapidly, adding to the work of the House. Accordingly, it became necessary to set up mechanisms to manage the time allocated to debate each government bill, so that a final decision could be made in a reasonable period. A balance had to be struck between the right to speak for an appropriate length of time and Parliament's right to reach decisions. Since the use of closure upset this balance, the House of Commons adopted a new procedure (or Standing Orders) in 1971 whereby a fixed period could be allocated for debate. By 2001, there had been 150 time allocation motions adopted by the House of Commons. In the following two decades, that number had more than doubled, reaching 331 adopted time allocation motions by the end of the 43rd Parliament (J. Trudeau, 2019-2021). This article examines the use of time allocation motions and determines which Parliaments, from the 28th Parliament (P. Trudeau, 1968-1972) to the 43rd Parliament (J. Trudeau, 2019-2021), have made most frequent use of this Standing Order, and comparing its use to the number of seats held by the government, sitting days and bills introduced and passed in each Parliament.

Towards Time Allocation

The passage of a bill in 1956 on public funding for a pipeline by a company partly owned by American interests set a precedent in the history of Canada's Parliament. The St-Laurent government, using its majority in the House of Commons and imposing closure at each stage of the bill, ensured its passage in less than fifteen days. Finding his right to speak denied at each stage of the bill, Conservative MP Donald Fleming said: "The Canadian House of Commons has been gagged and fettered in this debate by a despotic government. You [the government] are jeopardizing the institutions that have proven themselves the bastions of democratic freedom and destroying the rights of the minority in the House. This stratagem was not given birth in any democratic mentality." (1) The passage of this bill, and the vigorous reaction of opposition MPs and the public, gave rise to longstanding resentment over the use of closure. Furthermore, the Pearson government's decision to apply closure to the debate on the Canadian flag in 1964 reinforced the need to pass a new means of time management less stringent than closure.

Between 1964 and 1969, the House of Commons modernized its Standing Orders by adopting new rules for a trial period to find another way to manage the time of the House of Commons. Several procedural committees examined the question, but in the absence of a unanimous decision, they all agreed that the Standing Orders of the House of Commons could not be amended without unanimous consent. In June 1969, during the 28th Parliament (P. Trudeau, 1968-1972), the government majority on a newly created procedure committee proposed three new ways to apply time allocation to debates in the House. Standing Order 78 (1) would permit the allocation of a specified period of time when "there is agreement among the representatives of all parties"; Standing Order 78 (2) would apply when "a majority of the representatives of several parties have come to an agreement in respect of a proposed allotment of days or hours"; and Standing Order 78 (3), the most contentious of the three, would permit, "[when no] agreement could be reached under the provisions of Standing Order 78 (1) or 78 (2), that a minister of the Crown [may] propose a motion for allotting time." (2) Although the opposition parties endorsed the first two recommendations of the report, Standing Order 78 (3) was passed by the committee after a vote pitting government and opposition MPs against each other, with Standing Order 78 (3) becoming the will of the government only.

Following a long debate and just one day before the House of Commons rose for the summer 1969 recess, the Trudeau government invoked closure on the debate. In response to this motion, the Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Robert Stanfield, said:

The use of closure to force through rule changes, which are opposed by every member of the opposition, is, of course, an aggravation, and the use of this method of forcing through rules is so completely foreign to the traditions of this House as to constitute a breach of privilege. If the rules can be changed in these circumstances, and if closure can be resorted to in order to implement these rule changes, and can be used so as to alter fundamentally the very nature and role of the House of Commons, then we are in a very sorry state indeed in so far as democracy and freedom are concerned. (3) During this brief debate, the opposition members argued as one that parliamentary procedure should give all parties equal privilege in a limited debate and that amendments to Standing Orders should be based on a consensus. In the defence of his government's actions, Trudeau listed the parliamentary reforms his government had put in place since 1968, such as the funding of a research service for the opposition and the institution of supply days. "Are these the acts of a government which is seeking to muzzle the opposition?" Trudeau wondered, in the context of replacing a measure that was precarious and at times inefficient. (4) Despite a last-ditch attempt by the opposition to send Standing Order 78 (3) back to the committee with instructions to change it, the House of Commons passed it on July 24, 1969. At 1:50am, after a full day of debate, the House of Commons agreed to adopt the report of the procedure committee in a vote of 142 to 84. Ironically, the time allocation measure was passed by using a closure motion, the very procedure it was intended to replace. (5)

The First Use of Standing Order 78

An important precedent was set in the December 1, 1971, proceedings of the House of Commons with the presentation of the first time allocation motion. Under study was Bill C-259, The Income Tax Act, a voluminous tax bill of 707 pages, together with the 97 amendments proposed by the opposition, that was debated in the committee of the whole for over 25 days. On December 2 and 14, 1971, the House of Commons voted on two time allocation motions under Standing Order 78 (3), imposing a period of four days to complete debate in the committee of the whole and three days at third reading of the bill. The President of the Privy Council, Allan MacEachen, and the Minister of Justice, John Turner, supported the use of this rule to enable the government to assume its responsibilities and the House to assume its own by deciding on the bill.

For its part, the opposition described the use of the controversial Standing Order 78 (3) as anti-democratic, an adventure into the unknown, because of the "dangers, shoals and reefs of Standing Order 78". (6) In arguing its disapproval, the opposition vigorously attacked the Trudeau government on a number of fronts. First, the government had promised that, despite the imposition of closure to ensure the passage of the time allocation rule, this measure would never be implemented. Second, the opposition rejected the government's statement that the bill had been...

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