From time to time, senators use a procedural tool known as committee of the whole, which allows all 105 senators in the Chamber to conduct business according to the rules that govern Senate committees.
Taking advantage of the more informal committee rules can be helpful when questioning invited guests like cabinet ministers, parliamentary officers or expert witnesses. A committee of the whole can also be effective when senators want to consider urgent legislation or hear from people nominated to senior positions.
A committee of the whole may also be convened for any other purpose ordered by the Senate.
For example, the Senate resolved itself into a committee of the whole in June 2016 to debate Bill C-14, commonly known as the physician-assisted dying bill. A court-imposed deadline to enact legislation governing assisted dying meant senators had little time to deliberate after the bill arrived from the House of Commons. Two federal cabinet ministers answered senators’ questions in a wide-ranging debate that helped to crystalize the issues.
Typically, however, committees of the whole are forums to meet and question people nominated to senior public positions, like that of the Commissioner of Official Languages or the Auditor General.
They provide opportunities for senators to hear from and ask questions of the nominee so that they can make an informed decision when they vote on the motion to appoint the person.
Although a committee of the whole meets in the Chamber, the Speaker of the Senate does not preside. The Speaker pro tempore — basically the Speaker’s deputy — usually does so but any senator may assume the task.
Senators can invite whom they wish to the committee. For example, a cabinet minister who is not a member of the Senate, can be invited to speak and take questions if the matter being discussed relates to the responsibility of his or her department.
Senators are allowed to speak as often as they wish but they are limited to 10 minutes for each intervention.
Once a committee of the whole has completed its work, it is dissolved and the Speaker returns to the Chamber. The Speaker pro tempore then gives a brief verbal report about the proceedings. If required, a vote will then take place. Otherwise, senators use the information gathered during the meeting to further their understanding of an issue and inform their deliberations.