INDEPTH: CANADIAN GOVERNMENT|
When Parliament opens
CBC News Online | March 16, 2006
After a general election, a new session of Parliament officially opens following a proclamation from the Governor General. The prime minister advises the Governor General on appropriate timing for the opening.
Day One is taken up mainly with procedure: members of Parliament must be sworn in by the clerk of the House before they can take their seats. Members can either swear an Oath of Allegiance or make a solemn affirmation.
After all 308 MPs have been sworn in and take their seats in the House of Commons, they are summoned to the Senate, where they are told they can't get down to work until they've elected a Speaker of the House of Commons.
All MPs except party leaders and cabinet ministers can run for the position. Those who don't want to run have to inform the clerk of the House in writing by 6 p.m. the day before Parliament opens.
Before the ballots are cast, each candidate can speak for up to five minutes. The vote has been by secret ballot since 1986, when John Fraser beat out 38 other candidates after 11 ballots. Before that, the Speaker was appointed.
Once elected, the Speaker takes the chair, thanks the members for electing him or her and then adjourns the House until the next day.
The Speaker is supposed to maintain impartiality in carrying out the duties of the position. Mainly, that job is to deal with procedural matters, and to make sure MPs follow the rules of Parliament.
But there's more: the Speaker is also the chair of the board of internal economy, which is responsible for the administration of the 1,500 House of Commons employees and its $200-million annual budget. The Speaker is also the representative of the House of Commons in its relations with the Crown, the Senate and authorities outside Parliament.
Once a Speaker is elected, the pace of pomp and circumstance really picks up:
With all that taken care of, the way has been cleared to hear the speech from the throne the government's intentions for the new session of Parliament. MPs remain in the Senate while the Governor General reads the throne speech senators are not allowed in the House of Commons officially opening the first session of the new Parliament.
- The Usher of the Black Rod drops by the House of Commons to officially summon the MPs to the Senate Chamber.
- The Speaker appears at the bar of the Senate and addresses the Governor General on behalf of all MPs, claiming the rights and privileges due to them as the elected representatives of Canadians.
- The Speaker of the Senate replies on behalf of the Governor General, granting full recognition of those rights and privileges. (Among those privileges: anything an MP says in the House, Senate or in committee as part of parliamentary business cannot be brought before the courts.)
Throne speeches are notoriously vague, announcing in broad generalities the newly- elected government's program for the upcoming parliamentary session.
Following the speech, the MPs return to the House of Commons and take care of a number of procedural tasks including the appointment of the members of the Board of Internal Economy (responsible for administrative and financial policy affecting the House), the appointment of the members of the standing committee on procedure and House affairs which is charged with the selection of members for all committees and the prime minister's motion that the speech from the throne be considered for debate.
There is no question period on the first day, and there are no statements by members.
On the second day begins the process of approving the throne speech. When the government holds a majority in the House of Commons, this is normally just a matter of procedure. But in the case of a minority government, things can get a little trickier.
The process starts like this: government backbenchers move that an address be presented to the Governor General ("address in reply to the speech from the throne") in thanks for delivering the throne speech.
According to tradition, the mover and seconder speak on the day the motion is moved. Debate is then generally adjourned to the first of six days set aside for further consideration of the motion.
The first day of debate is called Leaders' Day, since the first speaker is traditionally the leader of the official Opposition, followed by the prime minister and the leaders of other officially recognized parties in the House.
With the exception of the prime minister and the leader of the official Opposition, all members are restricted to 20-minute speeches, followed by a 10-minute period for questions and comments from other MPs.
This is where things can get tricky when a minority government is in power. The speech must be approved by the House and if the government can't secure the support of enough opposition members, it could fall. Support could come at the price of amendments to the speech amendments that could suggest some compromises in the government's agenda.
The leader of the official Opposition proposes an amendment to the throne speech. The leader of the second opposition party will introduce a sub-amendment. These amendments are generally critical of the speech.
However, the opposition parties are loathe to force an early death to a minority government. That would likely mean another election, and having to face voters who may punish them for forcing a quick vote.
If the throne speech survives a vote of the House of Commons, the MPs adopt another motion that the address in reply to the speech from the throne be presented to the Governor General in person. That ceremony is conducted at Rideau Hall, the Governor General's residence, at a later date.
Once that's all taken care of, the way is clear for the daily verbal jousting you see as the cameras focus on the business of Parliament.