History, tradition, convention and precedents are important to Westminster parliamentary institutions; however, new challenges demand flexibility to adjust the rules and set new precedents when necessary. In this article, the author explains how the Legislative Assembly of Ontario has modified Standing Orders and how the Speaker is using discretion to ensure fair participation by the significant number of MLAs who sit as Independents.
Our Westminster parliamentary institutions date back centuries, yet each new Parliament comes with challenges and changes that require us to adjust the rules and set new precedents.
In Ontario, the 2018 election brought about significant change: 17 ridings were added, 73 new Members were elected, a new governing party took power, and eight independent Members took their seats in the Legislature.
Throughout the course of the current Parliament, four additional Members became independents; for a total of 12 independent Members in the Legislature. Under the Standing Orders adopted by this Parliament, a “Recognized Party” is defined as having Membership of at least 10 percent of the total number of seats in the Assembly. This means that 12 Members are needed to meet the Recognized Party threshold. While the independents are not all aligned as one unified party—or eligible for the benefits that would invoke— each Member is elected to represent their constituents and has the right to participate in parliamentary proceedings. So, how can the independent Members actively participate in legislative business on behalf of their constituents, particularly when they represent a significant proportion of elected Members?
For the current Parliament, the answer involves a little bit of math and a lot of careful planning.
When the Speaker is removed from the equation, there are 123 Members able to participate in debate on government bills or substantive government motions. These proceedings require a minimum of 6.5 hours of debate before they are eligible for time allocation. Assuming all bills could be time allocated, there are 390 minutes of guaranteed debate to be divided by 123 Members. This equals approximately three minutes per Member for debate, meaning each independent Member can speak for three minutes on each substantive motion or government bill being debated.
Eight of the independent Members represent the Liberal Party and as such, the Speaker has permitted them to aggregate their allotted debate time as they see fit. As a group, they are entitled to 24 total minutes of speaking time; however, Members may not speak for more than 20 minutes. Therefore, they can divide their time into two 12-minute speaking slots, until debate time is reduced to 10 minutes per Member under the Standing Orders.
The other independent Members are able to speak up to 3 minutes during debate. If they do not want to speak on a certain matter of debate, independent Members can forgo participation and bank those minutes to accumulate larger amounts of time—up to 20 minutes— to speak on debates where they want to make a more substantial contribution.
For Question Period, Standing Order 35(g) gives the Speaker “the discretion to permit an independent Member to place a question and one supplementary question during Question Period.” Given the number of independent Members and a Speaker’s commitment to being fair, equitable and neutral, more than discretion was needed to permit Members to participate in Question Period.
Of the 124 Members, the 21 Cabinet Ministers and Speaker are subtracted since they cannot ask questions, leaving 102 Members to ask questions. The Leader of the Opposition is able to ask their Leader’s Questions for 12 minutes at the beginning of the Question Period hour, which leaves 48 minutes for the remaining 101 Members to ask questions.
At 1 minute per question and response, plus an additional minute for the supplemental question and response (equaling a maximum of 4 minutes total), there is time for approximately 12 Members to ask a question in the remaining time. If each Member is given the chance to ask a question in rotation, they would get a question approximately once every 8 sitting days.
As such, the Speaker has allowed one question per sitting day to be allocated to an independent Member, with an additional question permitted from an independent Member on certain days to ensure all independent Members have an equal opportunity to ask a question in accordance with the determined calculations.
For other matters in the House, a similar mathematical approach is taken, or the Speaker exercises his discretion to ensure there is adequate opportunity for participation given to the independent Members. The Legislature has also passed temporary Standing Order changes regarding the participation of Independent Members.
Anyone who works in a Legislative setting can attest that no two days are ever the same; Ontario’s current parliamentary composition and recent global events have continually reminded us of this. While we are guided by ancient parliamentary procedures, our democracy is a living organism and we must be flexible to adapt to changing circumstances for the continued function of Parliament on behalf of Members and those they are elected to serve.