Opinion

OPINION: What Is The Order Paper?

Welcome back to Parliament 101. Last week Parliament 101 reviewed the stages by which a bill becomes a law. The first formal parliamentary step in that process is putting the
13 Apr 2015 15:13
OPINION: What Is The Order Paper?

Welcome back to Parliament 101. Last week Parliament 101 reviewed the stages by which a bill becomes a law. The first formal parliamentary step in that process is putting the proposal onto the Order Paper to enable it to be debated. So, this week Parliament 101 explores this important step by answering the question “what is the Order Paper?”

You are probably familiar with the idea of an agenda for a meeting. Any properly organised meeting – school, club or church – will have a programme or order of business. This is to help all those attending the meeting to know what to expect and to prepare for it.

A meeting agenda does more than give advanced notice for preparation. It promotes transparency so all members can know what the meeting is about. It assists with efficiency by preventing a meeting losing its focus on its purpose. An agenda also helps to keep order by making clear when interventions are permitted.

Parliamentary sittings are meetings, of course, and so they do have rules and procedures just like other types of meetings to allow them to work effectively. This includes having a programme of proceedings.

At its simplest, the Order Paper is a daily agenda for the Parliament.   It serves all the purposes of a meeting agenda. It sets out the order in which the Parliament will conduct its business for every day that the Parliament sits.

The Parliament’s Standing Orders require the Secretary-General to prepare the Order Paper and to circulate it to Members at least two hours before the Parliament sits. However, this responsibility does not mean she actually decides the priorities or the business of the Parliament.

Standing Orders also prescribe the order of business that goes onto the Order Paper.   If you look at Standing Order 34(1), you will see that there 16 items of business starting with the Prayer and ending with “any other business” that make up the Parliament’s daily agenda.

So, that is it? Every aspect of the Parliament’s business is predetermined by Standing Orders? Well, no, not quite. It is not that simple.

The prescribed order of business may seem very comprehensive until you look closely at the catalogue of items for inclusion. You will see most of the items are fairly routine matters and serve mainly as a reminder or “to do” list of housekeeping subjects.

This is deliberate. Standing Orders really intends only to set out the blueprint or template for the conduct of parliamentary business.   The content of that business still has to be decided and sometimes even the order has to be changed. Moreover, just because there is a heading in the order of business, it does not mean there is an item of business under the heading.

The real work comes with filling out the content of the Order Paper.

Thus, it is vital to know who actually controls the content on the Order Paper and how this is done if you are to understand the outcomes of the Parliament – how laws are made and policies debated.

The principal decision maker for the substantive content of the Order Paper is the Business Committee. This committee is one of Parliament’s four select committees and perhaps its most powerful, at least in terms of its membership and impact on the work of the Parliament.

The Speaker chairs this committee and Standing Orders provide that its other members include the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and the Leader of the National Federation Party (as the only other party leader in the Parliament) as well as up to five other members as long as the balance between Government and Opposition members remain equal.

The Business Committee is charged with more than the daily agenda of the Parliament. Its first job is to decide the number and pattern of Parliament’s sitting days over the course of a year.

Once the Business Committee decides on how many days a year to meet, when and for what purpose, its primary work shifts to filling out what goes onto the Order Paper for each of these days on a daily basis.

The Business Committee is not entirely free to do as it chooses in filling out the Order Paper. The Standing Orders tell the Business Committee what it must do to preserve some balance or fairness in the matters the Parliament considers.

The most critical apportioning of time is between Government business and Members’ business.

Under Standing Orders, the Government decides the order of its business on the Order Paper and the Business Committee determines the order for Members’ business.

While this may seem a little confusing in terms of the role of the Business Committee, it is not in practice.   The Government members of the Committee know what the Government’s priorities are.

Standing Orders further clarify the Government’s pre-eminence on the Order Paper. Standing Order 34(5) states that Government business takes priority over all other public business except on a Friday sitting day when Members’ business takes precedence.

So, what is Government business? And, as you might expect, the Standing Orders make this clear as well. Government business is any motion or bill that comes into to the chamber by a Minister.   All other business – whether from the Opposition or Backbench – counts as Members’ business.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Standing Orders and the Business Committee between them will have covered everything but never forget that the Parliament is supreme.   It can change its mind!

 

This is important because the standard order of business can be changed with the permission of the Parliament.

Much of the tactics in the chamber revolve around using Standing Orders to either affect the timing or the content of the Order Paper. Both can be modified with the concurrence of the Parliament.

Normally, you would think that this will work in the favour of the Government since the Government has the majority in the chamber and so can be expected to win any motion put to the vote. And, usually you would be right.

However, skilful Opposition can use the rules and procedures of Parliament to draw out a debate or introduce a subject that the Government would prefer was not given a public airing.

They may not win, but the Opposition can frustrate the Government’s agenda by delay or adverse publicity.   Thus, it worth the effort of the Government to work with the Opposition at times so they can stick to a mutually supported Order Paper.

This helps to explain why good Members are effective parliamentarians and not just cunning politicians. Effective parliamentarians understand the practices and procedures of Parliament so thoroughly that they can make these work for them – both as individual Members as well as for their party – almost automatically.

 

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