Please support democracy

Without your support, Democracy Watch can't win key changes to stop governments and big businesses from abusing their power and hurting you and your family. Please click here to support democracy now

B.C. legislature should change to non-partisan, non-MLA Speaker – B.C.’s Constitution Act allows any MLA to preside over legislature until Act is changed

Party leaders should also agree to written rules making it clear when legislature will open, what a vote of non-confidence is, what will trigger next election etc., and should pass bill making the rules law

Monday, June 5, 2017

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch called on B.C. party leaders to change the province’s Constitution Act (section 37) so that the legislature has a non-partisan, non-MLA as Speaker. The change would take at most a month, as the Standing Orders of the Legislature (PDF) state in section 81: “On urgent or extraordinary occasions, a Bill may be read twice or thrice, or advanced two or more stages in one day.”

In the interim any MLA could serve as Speaker, even an MLA from the likely NDP-Green partnership government, as they could vote to break any ties in favour of the government without violating any constitutional convention given that conventions are vague, unwritten standards (which is why they should be written down as clear rules – see details below).

Some commentators have claimed that the legislature must also have a Deputy Speaker – in fact, section 37(3) of the Constitution Act says that the legislature “may” choose a Deputy Speaker so there is no requirement.

“Politicians shouldn’t ever be in a position like the speaker of a legislature where they judge other politicians because they are in a conflict of interest when doing so, and can easily make decisions for partisan, political reasons,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “To prevent bad political decisions by the speaker of the B.C. legislature, and because of the current seat-split, it is a great time to change to a non-partisan, non-MLA speaker for the legislature.”

At the federal level, former Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer was a great example in 2014 of why you don’t want a partisan politician as Speaker when he let fellow Conservative MP Paul Calandra off the hook for clearly violating the rules concerning answering questions during Question Period.

Democracy Watch also called on the B.C. party leaders and the Lieutenant Governor to agree on eight public, written rules for a minority government, as more than 80% of Canadians want. Agreeing on the rules now will help ensure the legislature runs fairly and democratically through to the next election.

The rules should make clear: when the legislature will open; when it can be closed; what a vote of non-confidence is; when and how the opposition parties may get a chance to govern and; when and how the next election can be called before the fixed election date. (See Backgrounder below for the eight rules)

The current rules are unclear because they are unwritten constitutional conventions – even constitutional scholars disagree what lines they draw (and, as a result, a large majority of scholars agree they should be written down). The vagueness in the rules effectively allows the elected Premier and ruling party to abuse their powers and violate the rules, as the only way to stop violations is for the unelected, unaccountable Lieutenant Governor to decide that a violation has occurred and to try to stop the elected Premier from doing what they want.

Lieutenant governors in B.C. other provinces have almost never stopped a premier from doing whatever they want, and have allowed premiers to abuse their powers by not opening the legislature after an election, shutting it down arbitrarily for months, and calling snap elections in violation of fixed-election-date laws. The Governor General allowed Prime Minister Harper to call a snap election in 2008 in violation of the (too vague) fixed-election-date law, to prorogue Parliament in a very questionable minority government situation, and to declare many votes in Parliament as confidence votes even though they were clearly not confidence votes.

In England, Australia and New Zealand, political party leaders and MPs agreed years ago to clear, public rules so what happens after an election is fair for all the parties, and for voters. Most countries in the world also have clear, public post-election rules.

As well, a survey of more than 2,000 Canadians by Harris-Decima in November-December 2012 showed that 84% of adult Canadians want enforceable rules to restrict key powers of the Prime Minister and provincial premiers.

The Governor General also said last August in an an interview with the Hill Times that he thought these unwritten constitutional conventions should be written down.

“There are no legal or other justifiable reasons for B.C.’s political party leaders and Lieutenant Governor to fail to approve eight key rules for a minority government,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “It is clearly in the public interest that the rules be approved to stop unfair abuses of power by the ruling party that violate the rights of the legislature and the democratic will of the majority of voters.”

After the eight rules are enacted into law, the B.C. legislature should, as the legislatures in England, Australia and New Zealand have, examine and enact other fairness rules to ensure the legislature and MLAs can hold the government accountable. The rules should cover the following key areas: what can be included in omnibus bills; the freedom and powers of individual politicians to vote how they want on resolutions and bills; how members of legislature committees are chosen, and; what a Cabinet can do during an election campaign period until the next Cabinet is chosen.

“As long as the rules for the legislature are unwritten and unclear in B.C., the premier and ruling party will be able to abuse their powers and the legislature’s ability to hold the government accountable will be undemocratically restricted,” said Conacher.

– 30 –

Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443
[email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Stop PM/Premier Power Abuses Campaign


8 Key Rules for Minority Government

  1. Until the Lieutenant Governor has communicated directly with all the party leaders, the Lieutenant Governor will not make a decision about which party or parties (through either a formal coalition or legislative agreement) will be given the opportunity to govern first (i.e. to appoint a Cabinet and introduce a Speech from the Throne in the legislature);
  2. The party that wins the most seats in the election will be given the first opportunity to govern, including in partnership or coalition with another party, unless the leaders of other parties representing a majority of members of the legislature indicate clearly to the Lieutenant Governor that they will not support that party and that they have agreed to form a coalition government or have agreed on a common legislative agenda;
  3. Within 30 days after the Lieutenant Governor decides which party or parties will be given the first opportunity to govern, the Lieutenant Governor and the governing party/parties will open the legislature with a Speech from the Throne;
  4. Even if the leaders of parties that represent a majority of members of the legislature do not indicate lack of support for the party that wins the most seats before that party’s Speech from the Throne, if they subsequently indicate lack of support for the Speech, the Lieutenant Governor will not allow the Premier-designate to prorogue the legislature before the Speech from the Throne is voted on by members of the legislature;
  5. If a majority of members in the legislature vote against the Speech from the Throne, the Lieutenant Governor will give the opposition parties an opportunity to govern (through either a formal coalition or legislative agreement) before calling an election;
  6. After the vote on the Speech from the Throne, the only vote in the legislature that shall be a vote of non-confidence is a vote on a motion that states: “The legislature does not have confidence in the government.”
  7. If opposition parties introduce a motion of non-confidence in the governing party at any time after election day, the Lieutenant Governor will not allow the Premier to prorogue the legislature before the motion is voted on by the legislature, and;
  8. If a majority in the legislature votes to approve a motion of non-confidence in the governing party before the next fixed-election date, the Lieutenant Governor will give the opposition parties an opportunity to govern (through either a formal coalition or legislative agenda agreement) before agreeing to any request by the Premier that the Lieutenant Governor call an election.