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The Senate Explained
March 18, 2019
HOW & WHY

What’s so special about a standing vote? Have you ever heard of a Senate public bill? Why is the word “stand” called out during Senate sittings?

Senate procedure can sometimes seem a little bit intimidating, but fear not — the short videos and tiles below provide a parliamentary primer on the Red Chamber so you can understand exactly what’s going on.

Welcome to our series: The Senate Explained in Under a Minute.

  • A
  • B
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F
  • G
  • H
  • I
  • J
  • K
  • L
  • M
  • N
  • O
  • P
  • Q
  • R
  • S
  • T
  • U
  • V
  • W
  • X
  • Y
  • Z

C

Committee of the Whole

The entire Senate sits as a committee so that all senators can participate in the study of urgent legislation, hear from people nominated for senior public positions (like the Commissioner of Official Languages) or hear testimony from a minister or expert witness.

E

Emergency Debates

Any senator can raise a matter of urgent public interest by requesting an emergency debate. If the Speaker of the Senate determines that certain criteria have been met, the debate takes place later in the sitting. It can last a maximum of four hours and senators can speak only once.

F

First Reading

Bills must be read three times in the Senate to become law. At first reading, the Senate receives a bill without any debate. It’s an official FYI that a bill has been proposed and that senators should prepare to study it.

G

Government Business 

Government Business This includes bills, motions and inquiries initiated by the government. Government business has priority in the Senate. Government business generally originates in the House of Commons but most government legislation can start in the Senate as well.

O

On Division

When senators want to show a Senate decision is not unanimous without having to hold a voice vote or standing vote, they can call out “on division” when the Speaker puts the question.

When this occurs, the question is recorded in the Journals of the Senate as being adopted or defeated “on division,” i.e., without unanimous support. The Journals do not record which senators were for or against the question.

Other Business

All items before the Senate that are not government business. This includes legislation proposed by individual senators (Senate public bills) and legislation proposed by individual members of the House of Commons (private members’ bills).

Q

Question

In most situations, a question is a proposal made by a senator that requires the Senate to make a decision, for example, that a bill be adopted. A question can be adopted or defeated.

Question Period 

Senators may ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Government Representative) about matters relating to public affairs, or committee chairs about committee activities. Federal government cabinet ministers can also be invited to answer questions related to their ministerial responsibilities — another way in which the Senate promotes accountability and transparency in Parliament.

S

Second Reading

Bills must be read three times in the Senate to become law. At second reading, senators debate the principle of the bill, but no amendments can be proposed. If a bill passes second reading, it usually goes to committee for further study.

Senate Public Bills

Senators can introduce their own bills on subject that are important to Canadians they represent. Senate public bills can have an easier time going through the legislative process than House of Commons private member’s bills, making it simpler for individual senators to introduce laws to help improve Canadians lives.

Senators’ Statements

For 15 minutes at the beginning of each sitting day, senators make remarks on matters of public interest that are not on the current Senate agenda, like community events, the accomplishments of someone in the senator’s region or an issue that is important to them.

Stand

Every item on the Order Paper and Notice Paper is called during a typical sitting of the Senate; any senator can generally engage in debate without notice when the item is called.

If no senator wishes to speak about a given item, the word “stand” is called out.  If there is no objection, the next item of business is then called.

Standing Votes

At the start of a standing vote, senators who are voting yes stand to show their support and their names are read out. Senators voting no then rise, followed by senators who wish to abstain. The Speaker then announces whether the question has been adopted or defeated. A tie vote means the question is defeated.

T

Third Reading

Bills must be read three times in the Senate to become law. At third reading, senators debate the bill and propose amendments. Once adopted, it goes to the House of Commons. If the House has already passed the bill, it can receive Royal Assent and become law.

V

Voice Votes

When senators are ready to vote on a question, the Speaker asks those in favour to say “Yea!” and for those opposed to say “Nay!” The Speaker decides which side has the most support. But if two senators rise, a standing vote will take place, where senators vote one by one. .