Breaking the rules in the game of government

As the House of Commons gears up for a possible non-confidence vote against the government, we take a look at the concepts of privilege, contempt and non-confidence in the context of Parliament.

A look at privilege, contempt and non-confidence

When a political candidate persuades enough people in a riding to cast their ballot in his or her favour, that candidate gets to claim a role in one of the country's most riveting games: Parliament.

It's up to Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken to rule 'fair or foul' when it comes to matters of privilege. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
With that House of Commons seat comes a host of rights and privileges designed to help a politician do their job.

Of course, you're also supposed to play by the rules — or risk being called offside.

Privilege

Yes, the House is full of people who enjoy privileges that the rest of us don't. For instance, they can say "No" should they be asked to show up for jury duty or appear as a witness in a civil action. That would take them out of the mix and interfere with their ability to serve the people of Canada the way they should be served.

MPs also have the right to speak freely in debate, which means that — as long as they are in the House of Commons — they can use language that could lead to legal action if uttered outside the House. They can toss barbs and hurl insults — as long as they don't identify another member by name.

One thing they can't do is use the word "liar" in the House. That's an automatic ejection for the rest of the day.

It's up to the Speaker of the House to referee claims that an MP's privilege has been breached and warrants further investigation. Privilege can be claimed by MPs individually or by the House collectively if it can be shown that something someone has done — or failed to do — is affecting the ability of the entire House to do its job.

The current Speaker — Peter Milliken — ruled the Conservative government did breach the privilege of the House by not disclosing enough information on the costs of:

  • Its law and order legislation.
  • Its plans to cut corporate tax cuts.
  • Its plans to buy F-35 fighter jets.

Contempt

According to the House of Commons procedure and practice manual, contempt of Parliament is "any conduct which offends the authority or dignity of the House, even though no breach of any specific privilege may have been committed."

Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, right, and Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson appear as witnesses at the standing committee on procedure and House affairs, which recommended the government be found in contempt of Parliament. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))
Milliken's decision that the Tories breached the privilege of the House moved the matter up the ladder to the procedure and House affairs committee. It issued a report recommending that the government should be found in contempt of Parliament. Not much of a surprise, considering there were more opposition members than government members on the committee.

Contempt is a pretty serious ruling. You could go to jail for contempt of Parliament — although that's never happened in Canada. Usually, being found in contempt is as far as the punishment will go.

Why can some votes bring down a government while others don't?

  • A government must resign when it loses a vote of non-confidence.
  • It's up to the Governor General to either dissolve Parliament and set an election date or ask the party with the next highest number of seats to try to form a government.
  • Budgets and other money bills are always confidence votes. If a budget or money bill is defeated, the government goes down.
  • Other legislation can be defeated without the government having to pack it in — unless the government has declared the legislation a confidence measure. It will do this either to show that certain legislation is critical or it wants to precipitate an election by getting defeated.

But perhaps not if you're a government.

Non-confidence

This is where the game of government can get really tricky. A minority government relies on the support of other parties to stay in power. If you lose the confidence of enough opposition members, well, the game could be over for your team.

A finding of contempt could lead the opposition to move a non-confidence motion on one of the days when it gets to set the agenda for House business. That could happen on Friday, when the Liberals are in charge of the playbook.

If there is a non-confidence vote and the House approves it, the government will be obliged to resign.

After that, an election is almost certain — and then the political games will head into overtime.