An Ancient Parliamentary Right

I learned something about constitutional and Parliamentary tradition yesterday, and decided I’d post about because I was probably not alone in my ignorance of this quirk. Apologies to those in the know already!

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Each session of the mother of parliaments, at Westminster, and her daughters throughout the Commonwealth, starts with a Speech from the Throne, which sets out the Crown’s – so, by convention, the cabinet’s – agenda for the session. Debate on the government’s agenda as outline in the Speech from the Throne is the first order of legislative business, and the vote on the Address in Reply – the formal response of each House of Parliament to the Speech from the Throne – is a vote of confidence. So far, so familiar.

But, it turns out, not exact. Actually, the first order of business, in the House of Lords and the House of Commons at Westminster, the Senate and the House of Commons of Canada, and the Ontario Legislative Assembly (and perhaps others – I haven’t researched other provinces) is not debating the Speech from the Throne, but the introduction and first reading of a bill that has nothing to do with the Speech from the Throne. In the U.K. House of Commons, it is the Outlawries Bill. In the House of Lords, it’s the Select Vestries Bill. In the Canadian House of Commons, it is Bill C-1, An Act respecting the administration of oaths of office. In the Senate, it is Bill S-1, An Act relating to railways. The British bills seems to have a substantive content relevant to their titles. Canadian ones do not have anything to do with oaths of office, or railways, or anything else. Their only section reads:

1. This bill asserts the right of the House of Commons [or Senate, in S-1] to give precedence to matters not addressed in the Speech from the Throne.

This wording is revealing. It is unusual, indeed strange, for an act of Parliament to “assert,” although this is not altogether unique in Canadian legislation: the National Horse of Canada Act, S.C. 2002 c. 11, “recognize[s] and declare[s].” More importantly, it probably is unique for an Act of Parliament – even for a bill – to refer to itself as a “bill” rather than as an “Act”.

The reason for this unique wording is that these are bills that are not meant to become Acts. The preamble to C-1 explains this tradition:

Whereas the introduction of a pro forma bill in the House of Commons before the consideration of the Speech from the Throne demonstrates the right of the elected representatives of the people to act without the leave of the Crown;

Whereas that custom, which can be traced to 1558 in the Parliament at Westminster, is practised in a number of jurisdictions having a parliamentary form of government;

And whereas it is desirable to explain and record the constitutional relationship represented by that custom …

That of S-1 is similar, though of course it makes no reference to “the elected representatives of the people.” It also does not specify the date on which the custom of the pro forma bills originated.

This is perhaps as well, since there seems to be some confusion on this point. The latest iteration of Ontario’s version of the pro forma bill, more transparently named An Act to Perpetuate an Ancient Parliamentary Right, also refers to 1558. But the earliest version available on the legislative assembly’s website, dating back to 1998, claims that

[t]his practice dates back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when on March 22, 1603, (just two days before her death), Parliament made this assertion of independence from the Crown for the purposes of legislation.

The British bills seem to actually have a traditional substantive wording, related to their titles. But their purpose is exactly the same as that of the Canadian pro forma bills, for which they have served as a model (though as you can see, we have somewhat innovated on it).

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This is all quite amusing, as are many other constitutional traditions originating in Westminster. But it in a way, it is also rather sad. Pro forma bills are bald assertions of power, not intended to lead to its exercise. Having won its independence from, and then control over, a once-powerful Crown, Parliament has become the servile instrument of the Cabinet. The executive is once again in control of the agenda, and whatever Parliament says at the beginning of each of its sessions, it does not give precedence, or indeed almost any consideration, to matters not put before it by the Cabinet. (Indeed, it is the Prime Minister who tables Bill C-1 in the House of Commons.) Legislative supremacy, or even autonomy, is not much more real now than under the Tudors and the Stuarts.

One thought on “An Ancient Parliamentary Right

  1. Pingback: Opus 100 | Double Aspect

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