Obstruction in Ontario and the House of Commons

By Charlton, Chris | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Obstruction in Ontario and the House of Commons


Charlton, Chris, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Chris Charlton is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Toronto.

In parliamentary government there is a constant tension between the government's right to govern and the opposition's right to oppose. But when does legitimate opposition become obstruction? This article examines some of the problems of defining obstruction and compares the incidence of obstruction using data from the House of Commons and the Ontario Legislative Assembly. Data used in the article are drawn from research for the author's doctoral dissertation on legislative obstruction in the House of Commons and the Ontario Legislature.

Sir Erskine May's seminal work on parliamentary procedure in Britain makes eight separate references to obstruction. The first six pertain to the rights of Members of Parliament, Officers of Parliament, petitioners, witnesses, and counsel not to be interfered with in the exercise of their duties before Parliament. All these can be classified as breaches of privilege and contempts, and thus constitute punishable offences. The other two, obstruction of the business of the House, and obstruction by prolongation of debate, are qualitatively different. These forms of obstruction occur within the framework of the rules, and as such can be practised by members with relative impunity.

A Member who "abuses the rules of the House by persistently and wilfully obstructing the business of the House", that is to say, who without actually transgressing any of the rules of the debate, uses his right of speech for the purpose of obstructing the business of the House, or obstructs the business of the House by misusing the forms of the House, is technically not guilty of disorderly conduct. It would seem, therefore, that a Member so obstructing the business of the House cannot be required ... to withdraw from the House for the remainder of the sitting. He may be, however, guilty of contempt of the House, and may be named. Comparatively little use has been made of this power by the Chair. (1)

Indeed, in Britain, there have only been four instances where obstruction has led to Members being named, none in the last seven decades.

Herein lies the difference between the two broad types of obstruction. Breaches of privilege and contempts are subject to punitive remedies which limit their impact on the overall legislative process, whereas obstruction of the business of the House escapes such remedies, and thus it is obstruction of the House, which must be understood in order to draw meaningful conclusions about the legislative process.

What is Obstruction?

While academic literature, both on the Ontario Legislature and the Canadian Parliament, is replete with references to obstruction of the business of the House, only C.E.S. Franks has offered a definition. He suggests that "legitimate dissent becomes obstruction when it has no other purpose than to delay, when it is not exposing weakness or moulding opinion, but simply preventing legislation from being passed" (2). Franks traces the roots of obstruction to "a change in the attitudes of the opposition to government business", and laments the increasingly slow pace at which the House of Commons processes the government's agenda.

Although the Ontario Legislature and the House of Commons do not share the same rules of procedure, their overall legislative processes are strikingly similar. (3) Both Houses follow the general framework developed in Great Britain. All bills require three readings.

First Reading refers to the introduction of a bill. It is tabled, printed and made public. A brief explanation of the bill may be given by the person moving its introduction, but no amendment or debate is permitted. Second Reading seeks approval of the bill in principle, and represents the first opportunity for debate. An affirmative vote on Second Reading is followed by detailed consideration of the bill in committee, which may either be done by a standing committee or the Committee of the Whole House. …

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