Procedure as Handcuffs, Procedure as Wings

This week, MIR and Loon Calls introduces a new columnist. Nadir Khan is a Canadian politics junkie and former writer of the column, “The Backbencher” at The Political Bouillon. Nadir will offer his thoughts on a wide range of issues, from what everyone reads about in the papers to the esoteric machinations of the halls of power.


Anyone who struggles to fall asleep at night should seriously consider skimming through the pages of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice (Standing Orders), the official manual on parliamentary procedure. Reading about the criteria of non-votability of Private Member`s Bills or the rationale behind the desired ringing time for vote bells is sure to quickly direct you into REM sleep.

Although this might be true for many, the reality is that parliamentary procedure is a fundamental and important aspect of our democracy.

Ignored, procedure can definitely hamstring the work of parliamentarians. Take the Bell Ringing Affair from March of 1982 when the Leader of the Opposition, Erik Nielsen, took matters into his own hands. Trudeau’s majority government was bringing forward an omnibus bill, the National Energy Program, and in doing so had enraged Westerners. After failing to get the Speaker of the House to split the bill up into different parts,“Yukon Erik” got creative.

Procedure dictated that voting bells ring to summon Members to the chamber for a vote, and once arrived, party whips would, dramatically bow to each other and the Speaker, and begin voting.

Scazon via Flickr


But a curious thing occurred on the afternoon of March 2nd as the bells rang and echoed through the limestone halls of parliament. No one showed up from the Official Opposition. Caught in procedural limbo, the Speaker and Clerks no doubt wildly exchanged looks as to what to do next. Unable to vote, and without the presence of the opposition, the bells incessantly tolled. For not one or even two, but for fifteen straight days the metronomic gong of democracy at work chimed through the capital. All day and all night. After single handedly slamming the brakes on all business of the House of Commons, Nielsen’s party worked out a deal to reconvene and amended the Standing Orders to avoid the situation in the future.

All this to say that as fashionable as it might be to disregard procedure in the high flying world of politics, it can have important repercussions if left unattended. What can develop is what I like to call Pirate’s Doctrine. Pirate’s Doctrine goes beyond jumping down procedural rabbit holes as shown by Mr. Nielsen. Yarr, it also involves actively distorting the rules to meet political needs. The 2008 prorogation crisis in which the Hon. John Baird famously referred to as a “time-out” was a culmination of this very phenomena.

As explored by parliamentary scholar Gary Levy in an enlightening article, politicians of all political stripes systematically re-wrote the rulebook in 1984, 1993 and 1999 to reduce and ultimately eliminate the cost of prorogation. Historically, any bills that had not yet become law would “die” at prorogation and would have to be re-introduced, debated and voted on in the next session. Over time, bills could now be magically brought back to life at their exact same spot in the legislative cycle prior to prorogation. Thus effectively turning prorogation into a “time-out”. As Mr. Levy points out, how many sports can you name in which only one team gets a time out?

For all the perils of procedure in the wrong hands, it can also be a force for good. As MP Michael Chong proposed in 2010, amending the Standing Orders could fundamentally change Question Period, for example. Imagine a House that dedicated an hour a week for questions directed to the Prime Minister, or a House where Ministers were compelled to respond or perhaps where the Speaker had the power to clean up the off-topic and evasive partisan drivel that stains the chamber.

Procedure might be boring and it might be dry. But don’t ever believe that it’s not important.