Q11. Why is debate in the House so long and boring? And what’s with the bells?

It’s all about delay


A11. Almost everything that happens during legislative debate is meant to waste time. That’s why debate is usually long and boring.

As a citizen, you expect to go down to the House of Assembly and listen to smart people saying smart things about important issues.  And that does happen, occasionally. Most often, debate in the House is crushingly dull.

There’s a very good reason why it happens that way. Because of party discipline, everybody knows the government is going to win the vote. Nobody’s going to change their mind. The business of the House could, on most days, be conducted in ten minutes.

Under a majority government, the opposition knows it can never defeat a bill that the government wants to pass.  Its only power is delay.  Delay can mean pain for the government, if there is public pressure.  Delay can also force the government to compromise, in exchange for allowing a bill to move more quickly. Delay is all the opposition has got, so they wring every drop of juice out of it that they can.

So when you’re watching the House, always remember: the opposition members are speaking for the sake of delay, not for the sake of enlightenment. They don’t care if they’re boring. They’re don’t care if their facts are wrong or their analysis is shallow. They don’t care that nobody on the other side is listening.

On a controversial bill, it’s all about time.

Sure, there are some secondary purposes. There may be “constituencies” to talk to. There may be people in the gallery. There may be reporters taking notes. There’s the permanent record (Hansard) to think of. MLAs have pride. So MLAs aren’t deliberately dull, but let’s be frank: most of it is blather.

Once you understand that the opposition’s primary motivation is delay, everything else starts to make sense:

  1. The House is mostly empty. Why would MLAs attend to listen to someone waste time?
  2. Members in the House, especially on the government side, look bored and look like they aren’t paying attention. That’s because they aren’t. You wouldn’t either.
  3. Government MLAs never speak, except for the minister right at the start. If they did, it would just chew up more time.
  4. On a controversial bill, the House sittings can start at 12:01am and run to 11:59pm. MLAs can only speak once, and they can only speak for an hour. If the opposition is trying to delay, the government wants to “use up” as many opposition speeches as possible in the same day.

The opposition has a couple of other delay techniques.

There is for example a motion to defer consideration of a bill. This motion is called a “hoist”. When a hoist motion is moved by the opposition, every member can speak to that motion for another hour. More delay.

Another opposition favourite is “ringing the bells”. When a vote is called, the “bells” (actually more of a gentle but annoyingly repetitive tone) are sounded to summon the members. The idea is good—if the members are elsewhere in the building, or at least nearby, they can rush back to the chamber for the vote. The rules say the bells can ring for up to an hour. If the opposition is in full-delay mode, they will try to have as many votes as possible, and ring the bells for the full hour for each one. More delay.

Delay. It’s all about delay.


Author: Graham Steele

A former MLA in Nova Scotia, currently Professor of Business Law in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University

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