Last night the members at First Oakville Toastmasters were treated to a two-hour workshop by Dennis Bartel, DTM on parliamentary procedure. For those of us who have struggled to understand parliamentary procedure, Dennis’s workshop was fabulous.
Dennis has been giving this workshop at District conferences so we were very fortunate to have had this private session.
One thing I think we should remember is not all of our members come from western nations with a history that includes a heritage of western democratic processes.
So where does parliamentary process come from?
Back in 1215 King John of England was facing a rebellion by his barons who were the wealthy landowners of the day. They didn’t want to pay for any more of the king’s costly wars in Europe.
Drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in an effort to make peace between the barons and the king a document called Magna Carta (or Great Charter) was signed at Runnymede, England on June 15.
Among other protections including church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, it also limited the king’s ability to demand feudal payments from the barons.
While the charter was annulled (which resulted in a war), it was reinstated by John’s son Henry III and over the centuries to follow it began to be considered as the basis of English Common law from which Parliament itself finds its origins.
Essentially the Great Charter made it clear that the king and his agents are not above the law.
So what does this mean for our business sessions at Toastmasters?
It means that the business session and indeed the entire meeting as reflected by the agenda does not belong to the chair of the evening or even the president of the club. It belongs to all of us at the meeting. (And perhaps we should accept the agenda as presented at the start of the meeting as suggested last night.)
It also means that as a club member you have the right to be heard and to vote on matters of interest to the club. How you do that is by using parliamentary procedure.
Our leaders in Toastmasters serve the club and they do not govern. And while they are responsible for the smooth running of the meetings, they only do so with the express approval of the members.
Parliamentary procedure also includes the concept that every member should be treated with respect and every member must have the opportunity to express their opinion. It also holds that the majority opinion should rule but the minority opinion should always be heard.
The actual rules of parliamentary procedure aren’t all that complicated.
Essentially everything begins with the chair recognizing a member who moves a motion that is expressed as “I move that…”.
Most, but not all, motions require somebody else to agree that the motion should be debated and this person is called the seconder (who doesn’t necessarily agree with the motion but thinks it is in the club interest to hold a debate even if they plan to vote against).
Once a motion is moved and seconded, the chair usually invites the mover to speak to their motion. From there on any member who is recognized by the chair can stand and then state whether they are for or against the motion and why. Each member gets to speak once and may speak again if all the other members of the club have been given an opportunity to speak.
Sooner or later someone may “call the question” which is an informal request to the chair, which they can ignore, to go to a vote. The chair can ask at any time whether or not the members are ready to vote.
During the debate, any member may amend a motion but the amendment must not change the main motion in any substantive way. In other words, a motion to buy a new gavel might be amended to include the word “black” gavel.
Motions can have a second amendment and no more and again the second amendment can not substantially change the newly amended motion “to buy a new black gavel” so adding “at a cost not to exceed $50” would likely be considered okay.
There are a whole bunch of other procedural motions but newcomers only need to know a couple more to join in the fun.
The next one I’d recommend is to rise to a point of parliamentary inquiry.
Closely associated with rising to a point of order (where you’re offering an opinion that something is not being done correctly), rising to a point of parliamentary inquiry allows you ask the chair a question. Perhaps you might wish to ask if now is the time to add an amendment?
The other motion I think every member should know and practice is how to appeal a decision made by the chair. Remember the chair doesn’t make rulings that can’t be appealed.
If the chair does something (say declaring the end of debate), any member can rise immediate and state: “I appeal from the decision of the chair” and this forces an immediate vote by the assembly.
Any chair who ignores the wishes and will of the assembly will quickly discover that folly of that decision.
Every member will someday get to chair a meeting and conduct the business session. Every member will also get the opportunity to be the parliamentarian.
We learn these roles by doing them. The good news is everyone is eager to see you succeed.
As a new parliamentarian, it’s not a bad idea to sit beside a member who is experienced in parliamentary procedure and allow them to whisper in your ear. (That’s how I learned from one of our club’s great members the late George Pay. His whisper in my ear was called “the voice of God” which would precede any opinion I would offer to the chair.)
As a new chair it’s a good idea to speak with your mentor beforehand and use your parliamentarian anytime you’re not certain what to do next. Take your time and ask for help and all will go well.
Parliamentary procedure is used to get things done in Toastmasters; in local, provincial and national government; in public companies; by boards of directors, in non-profit and charitable agencies; by school boards; and anywhere were groups of individuals want to work together for the betterment of them all.
Also, it’s another opportunity to hear your own voice during your Toastmaster meeting.