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Ask Kady Anything

The debut edition: Parliament's weird dress code, passing laws, Doctor Who

Ask Kady Anything debuts: Parliament’s weird dress code, passing laws, Doctor Who

Greetings, VICE readers!

My name is Kady O’Malley and I spend my days (and too many nights) wandering the parliamentary precinct in search of stuff I figure the public either has a right to know, or might just want to know, because it’s interesting or horrifying or hilarious or otherwise worthy of note.

To submit a question, tweet me @kady or @vicecanada

Let’s start with a query that goes right to the heart of what I’m hoping to do here at VICE News: namely, dispel the notion that our parliamentary democracy is hard to follow.

I’m going to assume, for the purposes of this answer, that we’re talking about passing a law within the current parliamentary configuration, since if the New Democrats actually managed to win a majority of seats and formed government, there wouldn’t be much doubt on whether they could pass a law.

I’m also going to assume that you’re all at least reasonably familiar with the basics on how a bill becomes a law: that it gets tabled in the House, and goes through the various stages – first and second reading, committee, report and third reading.

With those contextifiers out of the way, let’s get to the heart of what I think you really want to know: Can an opposition party like the NDP actually get legislation through the House?
The answer: Yes, although it would be framed as a private members’ bill, which means it would technically be sponsored by an individual New Democrat MP, and not the party as an entity.

That MP would take his or her idea – tightening the rules on shark finning, let’s say – and put it into legislative format, either as proposed changes or additions to an existing law, or a whole new one.

They would then have to wait until their spot in the private members’ priority list comes up – which is assigned by lottery, and, depending on where our MP landed, could happen anytime between a few months away to a couple of years.

After two rounds of debate, it would go to a vote, and with the blessing of a majority of members, it would proceed to committee, where it may or may not be amended before coming back to the House, where it may eventually be adopted at third reading and sent to the Senate.

To make it any further, the New Democrat sponsor would have to find a senator willing to push it through the Upper House, which also has the power to reject bills outright, or amend them and send them back to the House.

There are also fairly strict limits on what kind of bill can even be put forward by a rank-and-file MP without the formal support of the government: it can’t impose a tax on the treasury, nor can it clearly violate the constitution, or deal with a matter already decided by that particular parliament.

Given all that — and given the regrettable tendency of governments to use their majorities to kill off private members’ bills that they don’t support – it’s a frustratingly rare occurrence for a backbencher of any party to successfully change or create a law, but it is absolutely possible.

Let’s move on to a pair of separate but related questions on the House Commons and specifically, the public galleries that overlook the Chamber itself.

For context, here’s a quick rundown on the overall protocol: According to the parliamentary website, “visitors are welcome” to watch the proceedings. They undergo two levels of screening and there’s a long list of items that they can’t bring in with them, most of which are pretty self-explanatory: cameras, tape recorders, umbrellas, purses and overcoats.
There is also a dress code of sorts, although it is spectacularly unhelpful: “At minimum,” it states, “visitors must wear casual dress and footwear.” (The rules actually mention the need for footwear in two separate items, which makes one wonder whether there was some sort of standoff over the issue in the past.)

“Clothing with visible political messages” is also forbidden, as it is viewed as participating in a form of demonstration – as, incidentally, is applauding, although it does occasionally break out without rousing a response from security.

So, to answer your question, Rachel: It doesn’t seem as though it is – not in all circumstances, at least.

There is an explicit exception for “recognized traditional dress,” both “native and religious,” and no explicit prohibition against scarves. However, as it generally falls to the security officers on duty to make the final call, it seems plausible that such haberdashery may often be viewed as ‘outerwear’ – like a topcoat, say – and is disallowed on those grounds.

On a more existential note, Miled Hill wants to know:

After researching the issue, I can answer with a confident “not really, but sort of-ish.” Under Commons rules, the only persons permitted on the floor are MPs and House officials. Everyone else – including spectators in the galleries are considered to be “strangers,” and are permitted to observe the proceedings only under the authority of the House, which can, at least in theory, be withdrawn at any time, at which point the House would order security to clear the galleries.

For the most part, though, MPs conduct their business without acknowledging, in any way, the presence of those watching from above, with the one exception being the speaker’s power to recognize visiting dignitaries seated in the speaker’s gallery, which is separate from the public benches.

But as far as it goes, the galleries can’t be considered to be inside the chamber for the purposes of, say, exercising parliamentary privilege to speak freely without fear of being sued for libel. That privilege applies only to MPs, and not those in the balconies.

Meanwhile, @MarkHorseman asks:

Aside from far less outbursts of applause on the government side of the House, I’d have to say no, not really. There’s still the more-than-occasional bit of heckling and cross-aisle off-mic bickering, and every now and then, there’s a flare-up, like that near-punch-up over the prime minister’s ostensibly accidental elbowing of an MP during a vote last spring.

More frustratingly, although not remotely surprisingly, is the eerie similarity in the repetitive non-answers from the current crop of ministers. You could blame it on the often hyper-partisan, equally repetitive and, in most cases, rhetorical questions, but that’s not going to do much to improve the situation, is it? (This, by the way, is why I encourage anyone who is able to do so to drop by to watch a debate from the galleries — so they all know you’re out there.)

Finally, because I did, perhaps foolishly, challenge you to ask me anything:

Although part of me will forever say “Rose,” the rest of me can’t help pointing out that she really did bring more than her fair share of drama into (and out of) the TARDIS, so I’m going to risk censure by the true fans (as opposed to the NuWhovians) and say – Rory and Amy. Not just Amy – really, I can’t stress that enough, it was the three-way dynamic that worked so well. And for the record, I reserve the right to change to the reanimated Nardole, who is doing just a fine job so far, and may eventually make the top slot.

(Editor’s Note on the above: Huh?)

Cover: Vice illustration

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