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House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

14 - Control and conduct of debate

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The term ‘debate’ is a technical one meaning the argument for and against a question. In practice, the proceedings between a Member moving a motion (including the moving of the motion)1 and the ascertainment by the Chair of the decision of the House constitute a debate. A decision may be reached without debate. In addition, many speeches by Members which are part of the normal routine of the House are excluded from the definition of debate, because there is no motion before the House. These include the asking and answering of questions, ministerial statements, matters of public importance, Members’ statements and personal explanations. However, the word ‘debate’ is often used more loosely, to cover all words spoken by Members during House proceedings.

It is by debate that the House performs one of its more important roles, as emphasised by Redlich:

Without speech the various forms and institutions of parliamentary machinery are destitute of importance and meaning. Speech unites them into an organic whole and gives to parliamentary action self-consciousness and purpose. By speech and reply expression and reality are given to all the individualities and political forces brought by popular election into the representative assembly. Speaking alone can interpret and bring out the constitutional aims for which the activity of parliament is set in motion, whether they are those of the Government or those which are formed in the midst of the representative assembly. It is in the clash of speech upon speech that national aspirations and public opinion influence these aims, reinforce or counteract their strength. Whatever may be the constitutional and political powers of a parliament, government by means of a parliament is bound to trust to speech for its driving power, to use it as the main form of its action.2

The effectiveness of the debating process in Parliament has been seen as very much dependent on the principle of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech in the Parliament is guaranteed by the Constitution,3 and derives ultimately from the United Kingdom Bill of Rights of 1688.4 The privilege of freedom of speech was won by the British Parliament only after a long struggle to gain freedom of action from all influence of the Crown, courts of law and Government. As Redlich said:

…it was never a fight for an absolute right to unbridled oratory …From the earliest days there was always strict domestic discipline in the House and strict rules as to speaking were always enforced …the principle of parliamentary freedom of speech is far from being a claim of irresponsibility for members; it asserts a responsibility exclusively to the House where a member sits, and implies that this responsibility is really brought home by the House which is charged with enforcing it.5

The Speaker plays an important role in the control and conduct of debate through the power and responsibilities vested in the Chair by the House in its rules and practice. The difficulties of maintaining control of debate, and reconciling the need for order with the rights of Members, ‘requires a conduct, on the part of the Speaker, full of resolution, yet of delicacy …’.6

Manner and right of speech

Rules governing content of speeches

Interruptions to Members speaking

Curtailment of speeches and debate

Powers of Chair to enforce order