Closure: Robert Borden and the Death of Parliamentary Debate
On the afternoon of April 9th, 1913, at precisely 3 o’clock, in the House of Commons, the Speaker took to his chair. It must have taken a moment or two. After all, Dr. Thomas Sproule was 70 years old at the time. The former physician had spent 33 of those years in the House. Sproule was a small man, with beady blue eyes and a thick brown moustache that drooped over his mouth. No doubt weary from all the years of rancorous debate, he seemed tired. Firmly in the twilight of his career, the diminutive and distinguished Speaker settled — or perhaps clambered — into his green cushioned seat. He would need to summon all his strength for the debates that would occur next.
Resolution in hand, The Rt. Hon. Robert Laird Borden sprung up and carefully peered over his spectacles towards the Speaker’s chair. “Mr. Speaker, the resolution which I have the honour to move this afternoon touches a very important subject…” the Prime Minister pronounced ominously. And so began a day that was meant to be just like any other, yet ultimately turned out to be anything but. For change was afoot, and change of the most fundamental kind. Canadian parliamentary procedure was swiftly turned on its head, and the procedural device of “closure” was born. Closure would be a tool that enabled the government to curtail debate on a motion or bill at a moment’s notice, even if Members still wished to speak. A tool, which according to Borden, would result in the more exepditious parliamentary business. The impact of the change shook the foundations of our parliamentary democracy and reverberate to this day.
It had been four and a half long months. Though despite his majority, Robert Borden’s Naval Aid Bill was still stuck in Parliament. In light of the recommendation by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Borden felt that the naval fleet needed bolstering. A quick $35 million and some fresh dreadnoughts ought to do the trick. Yet his urgency was not shared by his colleagues across the aisle. His legislative initiative grounded to a halt as debate on dragged on endlessly. Seemingly every member sought to voice their displeasure. Liberals, especially Francophones such as Henri Bourassa, defiantly opposed the bill, as it bordered on imperial influence. Others, still bitter from the collapse of Laurier’s government, saw it as payback. Regardless, the result was long and rambling speeches both for and against.
A particularly pugnacious and broad shouldered New Brunswicker, William Pugsley, who was especially skilled in art of filibustering, managed to deliver remarks that consumed close to three full days. Other orators similarly wondered out loud for hours on end. As the words kept flowing, the bill sat still, dead in the water. With the House at an impasse, Borden grew frustrated. Individual members were making a mockery of his majority — overriding his duly elected authority. Enough was enough. He would no longer let Parliament get in the way of governance.
In over 600 years of parliamentary tradition, freedom of speech has long been the most central tenet of a Member of Parliament. Cherished dearly and protected fiercely. For what does a parliamentarian have if not a voice? So upon hearing the resolution to adopt this new device of closure, the House found itself somewhere between a state of utter shock and chaotic pandemonium. Feeling cornered, with their rights under siege, decorum was tossed to the side as raw emotion flowed freely. Shouting, shrieking, desk thumping, reddening faces, shaking of fists and breathless tirades filled the chamber.
Sir Wilfred Laurier led the charge. Clearly agitated, he boomed: “These rules were not made in a day; They are the embodiment of the wisdom of generations of statesmen; whose whole life was devoted to public welfare!” The stout Pugsley leaped up soon after calling this tactic “a guillotine of the worst kind!” Henry Emerson hysterically claimed “the resolution that is now before us seems to me to be an attack on the very foundations of parliamentary government!” Emerson chimed in again for clarity, “that is, the minority’s right to propose amendments and a right to present grievances!” Thundering cries of “hear, hear!” broke out as desks were thumped wildly and backbenchers rose out of rage, out of turn and out of order. Table clerks and page boys exchanged nervous glances as the decibel steadily rose and order evaporated.
Borden rose again, silver hair parted down the middle. Above the noise and the anger, he calmly stated “I remind hon. members that at precisely 19 different stages, they are free to debate and propose amendments. With sixty or seventy motions presented, it is perfectly obvious, it seems to me, that such conditions cannot result in the efficient transaction of public business. Particularly if a certain number of hon. gentlemen are disposed to continually obstruct and oppose that business.” Borden was both telling and bending the truth. Yes, there had indeed been severe obstruction to the Naval Aid Bill. There was no denying that. But was Parliament as a whole dysfunctional? Hardly. After all, each of his government’s supply votes had been passed by Parliament. Along with the supplementary ones. This meant that public money was flowing to programs and the public service. The country was not grinding to a halt as he seemed to suggest. There seemed to be something else at play.
William Carroll, a tall Liberal from Nova Scotia, stood next and drew attention to exactly that. “Imposing restrictions on debate in this House is to destroy the functions of the Opposition. That is to safeguard the interests of the people and minorities against the brute force tendencies of a majority!” Wild desk pounding and raucous cheers of approval shook the chamber. By this point, the hapless Speaker Sproule had lost complete control of proceedings. He stood and somewhat bizarrely piped up “I would remind the hon. gentlemen that the words brute force are unparliamentary when referring to hon. members!” The laughter that ensued must have echoed up to the kitchen on the 5th floor restaurant. The frantic debate quickly resumed.
As hours turned to days and days to weeks, debate on Borden’s resolution consumed the capital. The galleries were packed every night as men and women rode into town by train to see the spectacle. And perhaps justifiably so. For Parliament had always been a sacred forum of public debate. Despite the occasional unsavory characters that passed through its halls. Despite even the limited franchise, the often used tactics of voter intimidation, and the blatant corruption used to acquire office. The rules that governed the House placed intrinsic value in protection of ideas. Borden’s resolution represented a sharp deviation from that. A device designed to limit rather than promote debate, closure was a restriction on the very purpose for the institution’s existence. Despite the occasional blemishes, Canadian parliamentary democracy had long enjoyed a history of protecting ideas. From the obscure to the unreasonable, and often regardless of the circumstances.
As seen in 1849 in Montreal, while the Parliament of United Canada burned in a fiery blaze started by an angry mob of anti-reformers. Rather than suspend debate, LaFontaine and fellow MPs promptly gathered in the nearby Marche Bonsecours. Shivering on the cold benches they hastily elected a new speaker, to replace the one that had just met his end in a most incendiary and combustible fashion, and promptly got on with it. Yet despite that past, despite the protestations, Borden stood resolute. After a grueling month of rage and furor, he passed his resolution and immediately invoked it on the Naval Aid Bill. And that was that.
The Long Shadow of Closure
The irony of the great closure debate was that the Liberal controlled Senate ultimately voted against the Naval Aid Bill and killed it. Regardless, the lasting damage of the procedural change was done. Attempting to calm the opposition and quell the maelstrom of that spring debate, Borden had mused “I would think that if this rule passes, things might go on in future just as they have in the past.” Numerous events show just how wrong he was.
The pipeline debate of 1956 is one such event. The issue was a pipeline being built by TransCanada, transporting natural gas from Alberta to Eastern Canada. Louis St. Laurent’s government faced an enraged and filibustering PC and CCF opposition who balked at the idea of American ownership of a major pipeline. Ultimately, it all came to a head on a sweltering June afternoon in 1956 as a major project deadline loomed. In a stunning and completely unprecedented display, St. Laurent invoked closure on every stage of the bill and whipped his caucus into compliance. The bill passed in 15 days. As far as peacetime legislating was concerned, this was light speed. That common refrain which proponents of closure in 1913 so merrily chimed, “Parliament should have its say and government should have its way!” seemed to ring hollow in retrospect. Conservative MP Donald Fleming bellowed: “the Canadian House of Commons has been gagged by a despotic government! You are jeopardizing the institutions that have proven themselves the bastions of democratic freedom and destroying the rights of the minority in the House!” Despite the eloquence of Mr. Fleming’s rage, perhaps he was wrong. Was it truly St. Laurent’s despotic ways alone? After all, he was simply using a tool that had been created four decades prior. Was it not Borden that created this procedural weapon? This assault on a Member’s freedom of speech?
Borden’s impact on freedom of speech in the Commons appears once again at yet another notable juncture in our past, in that famous debate on that flag which flies proudly on poles around the nation. After a staggering 210 days of bitter debate, Lester B. Pearson invoked closure on the debate on the Canadian flag. The opposition cried foul. As ever, cries of oppression and trampling of Members’ rights and the like rang out. Though this time, somehow the cries seemed feebler. A little less punchy. This was yet another impact of Borden’s introduction of closure.
Despite the major flash points in the history of closure, closure’s greatest impact has been a slow burn. That is, the culture around time management it has created. The first element has been the novel practices that have spawned from it. Diligent observers of Canadian parliamentary procedure will note that closure itself has in fact only been implemented 56 times since its introduction.1 This is true. What this bare statistic does not capture, however, is the slew of time management devices that have flowed from closure. Most notably, the use of time allocation and the routine motion by a Minister. Both of which enable the government to impose strict limits on debate. In his fantastic quantitative analysis, Francois Plante finds that the use of various time management devices has been steadily rising and has never been higher than today.
In the current parliament a full 33% of government bills have been helped along in some fashion by limiting debate. A second element has been legislative apathy. What was once seen as egregious has now become the norm. Closure has had a numbing effect on the opposition. Take the current government’s bill C-36 introduced on June 16th, a legislative response to the unanimous landmark Bedford Supreme court decision. It received 5 hours of debate. 5 hours to ensure that amendments to the criminal code were not unconstitutional. Let alone in line with public opinion and representative of the views of Canadians and stakeholders. This is closure’s great shadow on Canadian parliamentary democracy. Today, a government house leader introducing a motion for time allocation elicits feigned moral outrage, yawns and maybe a brief frown as eyes momentarily lift up from iPads, folders and laptops. Aside from that, it is business as usual.
Where from Here?
Closure and its resulting effects has altered and jeopardized the very function and purpose of Parliament. It has contributed to our legislature’s increasingly ineffectual role and the silencing of its increasingly irrelevant residents. It would be wrong to suggest that Borden was the only Prime Minister to skew the mechanics of the House to favour the executive. He was not the first, nor will he be the last. However, his crushing blow struck at the core of a Member of Parliament’s most essential tool — the voice. It set a precedent for altering the Standing Orders of the House, created a norm for successive governments of all stripes to steamroll the rights of opposition, and most tragically, has created a culture of apathy among Members themselves.
Indeed, it would seem that Parliament is less and less interested in giving itself a voice today. Highly professionalized parties write speeches for Members, and Members (sometimes affectionately referred to as trained seals, potted plants or automatons) respond in kind by spouting them verbatim. Parties see Parliament as an archaic and empty vessel. A way station on their path to power. Yet all this also serves as solemn reminder. A reminder of the centrality of procedure in our politics. It represents the nuts and bolts of our democracy, and it is indelibly tied to the politics that exist within it. If one cares to, and dares to, wade through the complexity of procedure, perhaps repairs can be achieved or suggested. Different parts installed. New blueprints drawn. Perhaps it is possible, that by replacing and fastening these very nuts and bolts, we can somehow hope to repair this damaged but beautiful machine.
- “Canadian Parliamentary Review – Article.” RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. <http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?param=214&art=1519>