The House of Commons (French: Chambre des communes) is a component of the Parliament of Canada, which also includes the Sovereign (represented by the Governor General) and the Senate. The House of Commons is a democratically elected body, consisting of 308 members, who are known as Members of Parliament. Members are elected for limited terms, holding office until Parliament is dissolved (a maximum of five years). Each member is elected by, and represents, an electoral district, which is colloquially known as a riding.
The House of Commons was established in 1867, when the British North America Act 1867 created the Dominion of Canada, and was modelled on the British House of Commons. The House of Commons (the lower house) holds far more power than the Senate (the upper house), and is by far the dominant branch of Parliament. Although the approval of both Houses is necessary for legislation, the Senate very rarely rejects bills passed by the Commons. Moreover, the Government of Canada is responsible solely to the House of Commons; the Prime Minister stays in office only as long as he or she retains the support of the Lower House.
It is often misunderstood that "Commons" is a shortening of the word "commoners"; in reality, the term "Commons" derives from the Norman French word communes, meaning "localities." Canada remains the only nation (besides the United Kingdom) to use the name "House of Commons" for the Lower House of Parliament. The Canadian House of Commons meets at Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Ontario.
The House of Commons came into existence in 1867, when the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the British North America Act, uniting the Province of Canada (which was separated into Quebec and Ontario), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into a single federation, called the Dominion of Canada. The new Canadian Parliament consisted of the Queen (represented by the Governor General), the Senate and the House of Commons. The Canadian Parliament was based on the Westminster model (that is, the model of the Parliament of the United Kingdom). Canada, however, remained a part of the British Empire. No act passed by the Canadian Parliament could contravene a British law; the Parliament of the United Kingdom remained the supreme legislative authority for the entire empire. Greater autonomy was granted by the British Parliament's Statute of Westminster 1931, under which the United Kingdom ceased to interfere in Canadian affairs. Full autonomy was only granted by the Canada Act 1982, under which the British Parliament relinquished all authority to legislate for Canada.
Members and elections
Each Member of Parliament represents a single electoral district, or riding. The constitution requires that there be a minimum of 282 electoral districts, although there are now 308. Seats are distributed among the provinces in proportion to population, as determined by each decennial census, subject to certain exceptions made by the constitution. Firstly, the "senatorial clause" guarantees that each province will have at least as many members of Parliament as Senators. Secondly, the "grandfather clause" guarantees each province at least as many Members of Parliament now as it had in 1976 or in 1985. Finally, no province may lose more than fifteen per cent of its seats after a single decennial census. As a result of these three clauses, smaller provinces and provinces that have experienced a relative decline in population are over-represented in the House. Only Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta—Canada's fastest-growing provinces—are represented roughly in proportion to their populations. Provincial boundary commissions are responsible for drawing the boundaries of the electoral districts, but their proposals are subject to parliamentary approval. Territorial representation is independent of population; each territory is entitled to only one seat.
General elections occur whenever Parliament is dissolved by the Governor General. The timing of the dissolution is normally chosen by the Prime Minister; however, a parliamentary term may not last for more than five years. Candidates are usually nominated by political parties. It is possible for a candidate to run independently, though it is rare for such a candidate to win. (The last non-incumbent independents to win were Gilles Duceppe in 1990 and Tony Roman in 1984.) To run, candidates must file nomination papers bearing the signatures of at least 50 or 100 constituents (depending on the size of the electoral district). Each electoral district returns one member; the first-past-the-post electoral system, under which the candidate with a plurality of votes wins, is used. To vote, one must be a citizen of Canada and at least eighteen years of age.
Once elected, a Member of Parliament normally continues to serve until the next dissolution of Parliament, or until death or resignation. If a member, however, ceases to be qualified, his or her seat falls vacant. It is possible for the House of Commons to expel a member, but this power is only exercised when the member has engaged in serious misconduct or criminal activity. In each case, a vacancy may be filled by a by-election in the appropriate electoral district. The first-past-the-post electoral system is used in by-elections, as in general elections.
The term "Member of Parliament" is usually used only to refer to members of the House of Commons, even though the Senate is also a part of Parliament. Members of the House of Commons may use the post-nominal letters "MP." The annual salary of each Member of Parliament, as of 2005, is $144,100; members may receive additional salaries in right of other offices they hold (for instance, the Speakership). MPs rank immediately below senators in the order of precedence.
Under the Constitution Act, 1867, Parliament is empowered to determine the qualifications of members of the House of Commons. The present qualifications are outlined in the Canada Elections Act, which was passed in 2000. Under the act, an individual must be an eligible voter, as of the day on which he or she is nominated, in order to stand as a candidate. Thus, minors and individuals who are not citizens of Canada are not allowed to become candidates. The Canada Elections Act also bars prisoners from standing for election. Moreover, individuals found guilty of election-related crimes are prohibited from becoming members for five years (in some cases, seven years) after conviction.
The act also prohibits certain officials from standing for the House of Commons. These officers include members of provincial and territorial legislatures, sheriffs, Crown Attorneys , most judges, and election officers. The Chief Electoral Officer and Assistant Chief Electoral Officer (the heads of Elections Canada, the federal agency responsible for conducting elections) are prohibited not only from standing as candidates, but also from voting. Finally, under the Constitution Act, 1867, a member of the Senate may not also become a member of the House of Commons.
The House of Commons elects a presiding officer, known as the Speaker, at the beginning of each new parliamentary term, and also whenever a vacancy arises. Formerly, the Prime Minister determined who would serve as Speaker; although the House voted on the matter, the voting constituted a mere formality. Since 1986, however, the House has elected Speakers by secret ballot. The Speaker is assisted by a Deputy Speaker, who also holds the title of Chairman of Committees of the Whole. Two other deputies—the Deputy Chairman of Commitees of the Whole and the Assistant Deputy Chairman of Commitees of the Whole—also preside. The duties of presiding over the House are divided between the four officers aforementioned; however, the Speaker usually presides over Question Period and over the most important debates.
The Speaker oversees the day-to-day running of the House, and controls debates by calling on members to speak. If a member believes that a rule (or Standing Order) has been breached, he or she may raise a "point of order ," on which the Speaker makes a ruling that is not subject to any debate or appeal. The Speaker may also discipline members who fail to observe the rules of the House. When presiding, the Speaker must remain impartial. The Speaker also oversees the administration of the House. The current Speaker of the House of Commons is The Honourable Peter Milliken MP.
The member of the Government responsible for steering legislation through the House is Leader of the Government in the House of Commons. The Government House Leader (as he or she is more commonly known) is a Member of Parliament selected by the Prime Minister. The Leader manages the schedule of the House of Commons, and attempts to secure the Opposition's support for the Government's legislative agenda.
Officers of the House who are not members include the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, the Law Clerk, the General Legislative Counsel, and several other clerks. These officers advise the Speaker and members on the rules and procedure of the House. Another important officer is the Sergeant-at-Arms, whose duties include the maintenance of order and security on the House's premises. The Sergeant-at-Arms also carries the ceremonial mace, a symbol of the authority of the Crown and of the House of Commons, into the House each sitting. The mace is subsequently laid upon the Table of the House of Commons for the duration of the sitting. The House is also staffed by parliamentary pages, who carry messages to the members in the Chamber and otherwise provide assistance to the House.
Seats in the House of Commons Chamber are coloured green. This colour scheme derives from that used by the British House of Commons.
Like the Senate, the House of Commons meets on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Commons Chamber is modestly decorated in green, in contrast with the more lavishly furnished red Senate Chamber. There are benches on two sides of the Chamber, divided by a centre aisle. This arrangement reflects the design of Chamber of the British House of Commons. The Speaker's chair is at one end of the Chamber; in front of it is the Table of the House, on which rests the ceremonial mace. Various "Table Officers"—clerks and other officials—sit at the table, ready to advise the Speaker on procedure when necessary. Members of the Government sit on the benches on the Speaker's right, while members of the Opposition occupy the benches on the Speaker's left. Government ministers and important Opposition leaders sit on the front rows, and are known as "frontbenchers." Other Members of Parliament, in contrast, are known as "backbenchers."
The House usually sits from Mondays to Fridays, but not on weekends. Sittings of the House are open to the public. Debates are broadcast on the radio, and on television by CPAC (Cable Public Affairs Channel, a consortium of Canadian cable companies). They are also recorded in Hansard, the official report of parliamentary debates.
The Constitution Act, 1867 establishes a quorum of twenty members (including the member presiding) for the House of Commons. Any member may request a count of the members to ascertain the presence of a quorum; if, however, the Speaker feels that at least twenty members are clearly in the Chamber, he or she may deny the request. If a count does occur, and reveals that fewer than twenty members are present, the Speaker orders bells to be rung, so that other members on the parliamentary precincts may come to the Chamber. If, after a second count, a quorum is still not present, the Speaker must adjourn the House until the next sitting day.
During debates, members may only speak if called upon by the Speaker (or the deputy presiding). The Speaker is responsible for ensuring that members of all parties have an opportunity to be heard. The Speaker also determines who is to speak if two or more members rise simultaneously, but his or her decision may be altered by the House. Motions must be moved by one member and seconded by another before debate may begin; some motions, however, are non-debateable.
Speeches may be made in either of Canada's official languages (English and French). Members must address their speeches to the presiding officer, not the House, using the words "Mr Speaker" ("Monsieur le Président") or "Madam Speaker" ("Madame la Présidente"). Other members must be referred to in the third person. Traditionally, Members do not refer to each other by name, but by constituency, using forms such as "the honourable member for [electoral district]."
The Speaker enforces the rules of the House, and may warn and punish Members who deviate from them. Disregarding the Speaker's instructions is considered a severe breach of the rules of the House, and may result in the suspension of the offender from the House.
No member may speak more than once on the same question (except that the mover of a motion is entitled to make one speech at the beginning of the debate and another at the end). Moreover, tediously repetitive or irrelevant remarks are prohibited; the presiding officer may order a member making such remarks to cease speaking. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons prescribe time limits for speeches. The limits depend on the nature of the motion, but are most commonly between ten and twenty minutes. However, under certain circumstances, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Official Opposition, and others are entitled to make longer speeches. Debate may be further restricted by the passage of "time allocation" motions. Alternatively, the House may end debate more quickly by passing a motion for "closure."
When the debate concludes, the motion in question is put to a vote. The House first votes by voice vote; the presiding officer puts the question, and members respond either "yea" (in favour of the motion) or "nay" (against the motion). The presiding officer then announces the result of the voice vote, but five or more members may challenge his or her assessment, thereby forcing a recorded vote (known as a division). First, members in favour of the motion rise, so that the clerks may record their names and votes. Then, the same procedure is repeated for members who oppose the motion. There is no formal means for recording an abstention, though a member may informally abstain by remaining seated during the division. If there is an equality of votes, the Speaker or Deputy Speaker has a casting vote. If the number of members voting, plus the presiding officer, does not total twenty, then a quorum is not present, and the vote is invalid.
The outcome of most votes is largely known beforehand, since political parties normally instruct members on how to vote. A party normally entrusts some Members of Parliament, known as whips, with the task of ensuring that all party members vote as desired. Members of Parliament do not tend to vote against such instructions, since those who do so are unlikely to reach higher political ranks in their parties. Errant members may be deselected as official party candidates during future elections, and, in serious cases, may be expelled from their parties outright. Thus, the independence of Members of Parliament tends to be extremely low, and "backbench rebellions" by members discontent with their party's policies are rare. In some circumstances, however, parties announce "free votes", allowing Members to vote as they please.
The Parliament of Canada uses committees for a variety of purposes. Committees consider bills in detail, and may make amendments. Other committees scrutinize various Government agencies and ministries.
The largest of the Commons committees are the Committees of the Whole, which, as the name suggests, consist of all the members of the House. A Committee of the Whole meets in the Chamber of the House, but proceeds under slightly modified rules of debate. (For example, a member may make more than one speech on a motion in a Committee of the Whole, but not during a normal session of the House.) Instead of the Speaker, the Chairman, Deputy Chairman, or Assistant Deputy Chairman presides. The House resolves itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss appropriation bills, and sometimes for other legislation.
The House of Commons also has several standing committees, each of which has responsibility for a particular area of government (for example, finance or transport). These committees oversee the relevant government departments, and may hold hearings and collect evidence on governmental operations. Standing committees may also consider and amend bills. Standing committees consist of between sixteen and eighteen members each, and elect their own chairmen.
Some bills are considered by legislative committees, each of which consists of up to fifteen members. The membership of each legislative committee roughly reflects the strength of the parties in the whole House. A legislative committee is appointed on an ad hoc basis to study and amend a specific bill. Most bills, however, are referred to standing committees rather than legislative committees.
The House may also create ad hoc committees to study matters other than bills. Such committees are known as special committees. Each such body, like a legislative committee, may consist of no more than fifteen members. Other committees include joint committees, which include both members of the House of Commons and senators; such committees may hold hearings and oversee government, but do not revise legislation.
Although legislation may be introduced in either House, most bills originate in the House of Commons. For the stages through which the legislation passes in the House of Commons, see Act of Parliament.
In conformity with the British model, the Lower House alone is authorised to originate bills imposing taxes or appropriating public funds. This restriction on the power of the Senate is not merely a matter of convention, but is explicitly stated in the Constitution Act, 1867. Otherwise, the power of the two Houses of Parliament is theoretically equal; the approval of each is necessary for a bill's passage. In practice, however, the House of Commons is the dominant chamber of Parliament, with the Senate very rarely exercising its powers in a way that opposes the will of the democratically elected chamber. The last major bill defeated in the Senate came in 1991, when a bill passed by the Commons restricting abortion was rejected in the Upper House by a tied vote.
The Senate is rendered especially powerless by a clause in the Constitution Act, 1867, that permits the Governor General to appoint up to eight extra senators. The clause was invoked only once, in 1990, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney advised the Governor General to appoint an additional eight senators in order to secure the Upper House's approval for the Goods and Services Tax.
Relationship with the Government
Though it does not elect the Prime Minister, the House of Commons indirectly controls the premiership. By convention, the Prime Minister is answerable to, and must maintain the support of, the House of Commons. Thus, whenever the office of Prime Minister falls vacant, the Governor General appoints the person most likely to command the support of the House—normally, the leader of the largest party in the Lower House. (The leader of the second-largest party usually becomes the Leader of the Official Opposition.) Moreover, the Prime Minister is, by unwritten convention, a member of the House of Commons, rather than of the Senate. The only two Prime Ministers who governed from the Senate were Sir John Abbot (1891–1892) and Sir Mackenzie Bowell (1894–1896).
The Prime Minister may only stay in office as long as he or she retains the confidence of the House of Commons. The Lower House may indicate its lack of support for the Government by rejecting a Motion of Confidence, or by passing a Motion of No Confidence. Important bills that form a part of the Government's agenda are generally considered matters of confidence, as is the annual budget. When a Government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister is obliged to either resign, or request the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, thereby precipitating a general election. The Governor General may theoretically refuse to dissolve Parliament, thereby forcing the Prime Minister to resign. The last instance of a Governor General refusing to grant a dissolution was in 1926 (see King-Byng Affair).
Except when compelled to request a dissolution by an adverse vote on a confidence issue, the Prime Minister is allowed to choose the timing of dissolutions, and consequently the timing of general elections. The time chosen reflects political considerations, and is generally most opportune for the Prime Minister's party. However, no parliamentary term can last for more than five years; a dissolution is automatic upon the expiry of this period. Normally, Parliaments do not last for full five-year terms; Prime Ministers typically ask for dissolutions after about three or four years.
Whatever the reason—the expiry of Parliament's five year term, the choice of the Prime Minister, or a Government defeat in the House of Commons—a dissolution is followed by general elections. If the Prime Minister's party retains its majority in the House of Commons, then the Prime Minister may remain in power. On the other hand, if his or her party has lost its majority, the prime minister may resign, or may attempt to stay in power by winning support from members of other parties. One may note that a Prime Minister may resign even if he or she is not defeated at the polls (for example, for personal health reasons); in such a case, the premiership goes to the new leader of the outgoing Prime Minister's party.
The House of Commons scrutinizes the Government through "Question Period," a daily forty-five minute period during which members have the opportunity to ask questions of the Prime Minister and of other Cabinet ministers. Questions must relate to the responding minister's official Government activities, not to his or her activities as a party leader or as a private Member of Parliament. Members may also question Committee Chairmen on the work of their respective committees. Members of each party are entitled to a number of questions proportional to the party caucus' strength in the House. In addition to questions asked orally during Question Period, Members of Parliament may also make inquiries in writing.
In practice, the House of Commons' scrutiny of the Government is very weak. Since the first-past-the-post electoral system is employed in elections, the governing party tends to enjoy a large majority in the Commons; there is often limited need to compromise with other parties. (Minority governments, however, are not uncommon.) Modern Canadian political parties are so tightly organised that they leave relatively little room for free action by their MPs. In many cases, MPs may be expelled from their parties for voting against the instructions of party leaders. Thus, defeats of majority governments on issues of confidence are very rare. The last Prime Minister to lose a confidence vote was Joe Clark in 1979. Clark, as required by convention, requested the Governor General to dissolve Parliament; his party lost in the ensuing general elections.