An essential feature of parliamentary
government is that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are responsible to, or
must answer to, the House of Commons for their actions and must enjoy the
support and the confidence of a majority of the Members of that Chamber to
remain in office. This is commonly referred to as the confidence convention.
This complex constitutional subject, a matter of tradition that is not written
into any statute or Standing Order of the House, is thoroughly reviewed in
other authorities more properly concerned with the subject.
Simply stated, the convention provides that
if the government is defeated in the House on a confidence question, then it is
expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament in order for a general
election to be held. This relationship between the executive and the House of
Commons can ultimately decide the duration of each Parliament and of each
Ministry. The confidence convention applies whether a government is formed by
the party or the coalition of parties holding the majority of the seats in the
House of Commons, or by one or more parties holding a minority of seats.
Naturally, it is more likely that the government will fail to retain the
confidence of the House when the government party or parties are in a minority
What constitutes a question of confidence
in the government varies with the circumstances. Confidence is not a matter of
parliamentary procedure, nor is it something on which the Speaker can be asked
It is generally acknowledged, however, that confidence motions may be:
worded motions which state, in express terms, that the House has, or has not,
confidence in the government;
expressly declared by the government to be questions of confidence; and
motions of confidence, that is, motions traditionally deemed to be questions of
confidence, such as motions for the granting of supply (although not
necessarily an individual item of supply),
motions concerning the budgetary policy of the government and motions respecting the
Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.
When the Standing Orders respecting supply
were amended in 1968, it was specified that, in each of the three supply
periods, the opposition could designate not more than two of the motions
proposed on allotted days as motions of non‑confidence in the government.
This was the first time the notion of confidence found expression in the
Standing Orders. This rule was modified provisionally in March 1975 to
remove the non‑confidence qualification; the motions would still be
brought to a vote but the vote would not automatically be considered an
expression of confidence in the government.
The provisional Standing Orders lapsed at the beginning of the following
session and the term found its way back into the 1977 version of the Standing
Orders. No further changes were made until June 1985, when the Standing Orders
were again modified to remove the non‑confidence provision with regard to
Meanwhile, in 1984, a recommendation was made that a change be made in the manner of electing a Speaker.
This proposal found favour and a variant of it was adopted by the House in
One of these rules still provides that the election of a Speaker shall not be
considered to be a question of confidence in the government.
For further information, see Forsey, E.A. and Eglington, G.C., “The Question of
Confidence in Responsible Government”, study prepared for the Special Committee
on the Reform of the House of Commons, Ottawa, 1985. Also of interest are
the First and Third Reports of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House
of Commons (the McGrath Committee) respectively presented to the House on
December 20, 1984 (Journals, p. 211) and June 18, 1985 (Journals,
p. 839), as well as Desserud, D., “The Confidence Convention under the
Canadian Parliamentary System”, Canadian Study of Parliament Group:
Parliamentary Perspectives, No. 7, October 2006.
See, for example, Speaker Lamoureux's rulings, Journals, May 4,
1970, pp. 742‑3; March 6, 1973, pp. 166‑7. See
also Debates, October 20, 1981, p. 11974; March 4, 1988,
p. 13400, and Speaker Milliken’s ruling, Debates,
May 5, 2005, pp. 5725-7.
Norton, P., “Government Defeats in the House of Commons: The British
Experience”, Canadian Parliamentary Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter
1985‑86, pp. 6‑9.
 See, for example, Journals, November 28,
2005, pp. 1352‑3.
See, for example, Journals, March 26, 1973, pp. 212‑3. A
number of opposition motions have been adopted on days allotted for the
Business of Supply which were not framed as confidence matters; see, for
example, Journals, February 12, 1992, pp. 1010‑2;
March 8, 1994, pp. 220‑3. This tendency increased
dramatically during the Thirty-Eighth and Thirty-Ninth minority parliaments
when 17 opposition day motions were adopted during Paul Martin’s minority
parliament, including the one that ultimately toppled his government, and a
total of 27 such motions passed during Stephen Harper’s minority mandate in the
See statement of Prime Minister Joe Clark, Debates, December 13,
1979, p. 2362.
Journals, December 20, 1968, pp. 554, 557 (1968 Standing Order
Second Report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization,
presented to the House on March 14, 1975 (Journals, pp. 372‑6),
and concurred in on March 24, 1975 (Journals, p. 399). The
House adopted a supply motion for the first time under this rule on
February 12, 1976 (Journals, p. 1016). See also the
comments of the President of the Privy Council, Mitchell Sharp, Debates,
February 12, 1976, p. 10902.
Journals, June 27, 1985, pp. 910‑9. This change had been
proposed in the First Report of the Special Committee on the Reform of the
House of Commons (Journals, December 20, 1984, p. 211), and
the government had expressed support for the proposal (Debates,
April 18, 1985, pp. 3868‑9).
First Report of the Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons,
presented to the House on December 20, 1984 (Journals,
p. 211), and the government response to the First Report, tabled on
April 18, 1985 (Journals, p. 486).
Journals, June 27, 1985, pp. 910‑9. These are now
Standing Orders 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Standing Order 6.