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Understanding the Alberta Legislature: rules, decorum, and procedures

 RULES:

There are a number of documents that outline the rules, practices, and procedures in the Alberta Legislature.

Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta set a precedent for operations in the sittings, but the Speaker will also hold members to standards set out in the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules & Forms, and Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament.

The Speaker of the House is given the responsibility of ensuring these rules are followed, “rules about, for, example, not defaming or deriding someone who’s not in the house as an elected member and has no ability to defend himself or herself,” says Speaker Gene Zwozdesky. “That’s just common politeness.”

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“We have rules about not raising issues pertaining to parties unless they relate to an act,” he adds.

There may be rules in place, but whether those rules are abided by is another matter entirely.

“I think for too long, the normal discourse in the Legislature has been one of personal attacks rather than on genuine exchange of viewpoints,” says MacEwan University political scientist Chaldeans Mensah.

“What is worrisome is not the intensity of the debate, but it’s the focus on the politics of personal destruction,” he adds.

The principles of parliamentary procedure are set in Canadian parliamentary law. The rules balance two specific considerations; the ability of the government to get business done, and the opportunity for the opposition to express its views.

“Sometimes, opposition parties will stall the process by bringing in amendments to try to filibuster the process,” explains Mensah. “Governments sometimes, will try to push through things to try to clear the deck.”

The government has the ability to end the filibuster by moving a motion to close debate (called time allocation), and passing its bill.

DECORUM:

The appropriate conduct of members of the Legislative Assembly while in the House is laid out in the Standing Orders.

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Order and decorum

13(1) The Speaker shall preserve order and decorum and decide questions of order.
(2) The Speaker shall explain the reasons for any decision on the request of a Member.
(3) When the Speaker is putting a question, no person shall walk out of or across the Assembly or make any noise or disturbance.
(4) When a Member is speaking, no person shall
(a) pass between that Member and the chair, or
(b) interrupt that Member, except to raise a point of order.
(5) No person shall pass between the chair and the Table, nor between the chair and the Mace.
(6) When the Assembly adjourns, the Members must keep their places until the Speaker has left the chair.

While the rules for order and decorum are clearly laid out, enforcing those rules can be a challenge.

“On the one hand, I am charged with upholding the rules of this house,” stressed Speaker Gene Zwozdesky, while addressing MLAs at the start of fall session.

“On the other hand, I like to allow as much freedom of expression and freedom of speech – which people died for so you would have it, but not so that you would abuse it, not so that you would abuse it.”

Zwozdesky, who is also a minor hockey referee, says his job requires a fair, but firm, hand.

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“We have to have civility, we have to have respect, we have to have recognition of equality, and we have to have a level of decorum,” he tells Global News.

“Being the Speaker is probably the loneliest job you’ll ever find. They say that one of the criteria for doing a good job as Speaker is whether or not both sides of the house are equally mad at you.”

The Speaker can rule a Member out of order for breaking the Assembly’s rules during debate or Question Period. He or she can also decide whether a Member has abused parliamentary privilege.

While Speakers’ past rulings set the precedents that guide current parliamentary practice, standards change over time.

For instance, Members’ language must not be offensive to the Legislature. However, what language qualifies as “offensive” has evolved over the years. In the 19th Century, a Member could not call another Member a “bag of wind.” Recently, Members have been told by a Speaker that calling another Member a “coward,” “halfwit,” or “liar” is offensive.

Civility in the House was the focus of Former Speaker Ken Kowalski’s message to new MLAs in the spring.

“You can respect one another,” he said. “You don’t have to dislike one another because they happen to be from another caucus. You’ve got a responsibility to 3,750,000 people of Alberta. Do it with class.”

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So, what happens when the debate turns dirty and the jabs get personal?

“The Speaker is the one who determines whether the rules of the House are broken, and he has the power to apply the requisite consequences,” says Mensah.

“What is worrisome to me is the tone and tenor of the Legislature,” he adds. “The quality of debate is increasingly being undermined by these personal attacks and the focus on minor issues, and forgetting about the broader program that these parties promised.”

DAILY SCHEDULE:

Each day’s afternoon sitting opens with the Speaker’s procession, the prayer and the following routine procedures:

Introduction of Visitors
Introduction of Guests
Ministerial Statements
Members’ Statements
Presenting Reports by Standing and Special Committees
Presenting Petitions
Notices of Motions
Introduction of Bills (first reading)
Tabling Returns and Reports
Tablings to the Clerk
Oral Question Period: For 50 minutes daily opposition MLAs and private government members ask cabinet ministers questions about government activity.

BASIC TERMINOLOGY:

You may be quite familiar with the terms “adjournment”, and “amendment” when it comes to Alberta politics, but lately, terms like “filibuster” and “gutter politics” are being used more frequently when referring to discussion at the Legislature.

Adjournment – the indefinite suspension of a debate or the sittings during a session or, at the discretion of the Speaker, the suspension of the House for a few minutes for any number of reasons; for example, when the business of the House is briefly adjourned before the Budget Address.

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Amendment – an alteration proposed or made in a motion or Bill. It must take the form of a proposal either to insert certain words in the motion or Bill, to leave out certain words or to leave out certain words and to substitute others.
Backbencher (private member) – a member who is not in cabinet. Private Members are often called backbenchers because in an Assembly they traditionally sit in the back rows.

Bill – a proposed law. To become law, a Bill must pass three readings and committee study and be given royal assent. A Bill may propose an entirely new law or amend an existing one.

Cabinet – the executive branch of government, including the heads of government departments, led by the Premier and chosen from among elected members of the party holding the majority of seats in the Assembly. Cabinet is responsible for the administration of the government and the establishment of its policy.

Cabinet Minister – a member of the executive chosen from among existing Members of the governing party; the head of a government department.

Caucus – all the elected members from one political party; a private meeting of this group.

Chair of Committees (Deputy Speaker) – the member elected by the House at the beginning of each Legislature to serve as Deputy Speaker and preside over Committee of the Whole and Committee of Supply.

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Committee of the Whole – the committee of all Members of the Legislative Assembly that meets to discuss specific clauses of a Bill. Amendments to the contents of Bills are considered during this stage. The committee meets after second reading and before third reading and is presided over by the Chair of Committees or designate.

Emergency debate (debate under Standing Order 30) – a debate to discuss a matter of urgent public importance. The debate continues until all Members who wish to speak have spoken or the normal adjournment time is reached. No decision of the House results from this debate.

Filibuster – a tactic to delay the business of the House; for example, by the use of excessively long speeches. Filibusters can be limited by the use of the rules of the Assembly.

First reading (Introduction of Bills) – the first stage in the passage of a Bill. At this stage the Member making the motion for first reading gives a brief description and explanation of the Bill. No debate is allowed at this stage.

Hansard – the official, substantially verbatim record of parliamentary debates and proceedings. Hansard is the name of the British family originally responsible for publishing the proceedings of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. Most Commonwealth jurisdictions produce a Hansard.

In camera – in private. When a committee meets in camera, the public is excluded and there is no Hansard transcription of that portion of the meeting. The committee passes a motion to go in camera and passes a motion to return to an open meeting.

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Law (act, statute) – a Bill that has passed three readings and committee study and received royal assent.

Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) – a person elected to the Legislative Assembly to represent one of Alberta’s electoral districts.

Prorogation – the formal end of a legislative session. Any motion or Bill still on the Assembly’s agenda “dies on the Order Paper;” that is, it is no longer before the Assembly and must be reintroduced at the next session if Members still wish it to be considered.

Second reading – the stage when Members debate the principle of a Bill. Detailed consideration is not given to the clauses of the Bill at this stage.

Speaker – the MLA elected by all MLAs by secret ballot to maintain orderly debate in the Chamber and to ensure that Members conduct their business according to parliamentary rules. The Speaker must serve all MLAs equally no matter what party they belong to, and all MLAs must accept his or her authority. The Speaker is also the head of the Legislative Assembly Office. Although Speakers are not Members of cabinet and the Legislative Assembly Office is not a government department, the Speaker’s administrative duties are similar to those of a cabinet minister. The Speaker also chairs the all-party Standing Committee on Members’ Services.

Standing committee – all-party committees of MLAs mandated by standing orders. There are currently 11 standing committees: the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund; Legislative Offices; Members’ Services, which is a special standing committee; Private Bills; Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders and Printing; Public Accounts; Community Services; Health; Public Safety and Services; Resources and Environment; and the Economy. All standing committees are appointed for the life of a Legislature; however, membership changes may be made by government motion at any time.

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Table – To place a document before the House or a committee. The table of the House occupies the space in front of the dais on which the Speaker’s chair rests and is between the two front benches. All documents presented to the House are laid on the table, and notices from Members may be sent to the table.
Third reading – the final stage of consideration of a bill which is either approved as a whole or defeated.

*the above definitions are found in the Alberta Legislature’s Glossary of Terms.

Gutter politics – (figurative) use of scandal against political opponents

Mudslinging –the act of making hateful statements or comments about someone, usually a political opponent.

**the above definitions are found in wordreference.com and yourdictionary.com, respectively.
 

Leg Citizens Guide

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