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Believe it or not, Private Members Bills are 'rattling a few cages'

In the House

Believe it or not, Private Members Bills are ‘rattling a few cages’
Of the 1,142 private member’s bills tabled since 1993, only 18, or 1.5 per cent of them, received Royal Assent 

By Bill Curry
The Hill Times

A recent article on Private Members" Business by an Ottawa-based lobby group shows that while very few of the bills become law, they do influence government policy in many other ways.

Entitled, "Are Private Members" Bills More Important Than They Used to Be?" the article was written and researched by the Hillwatch lobbying firm and posted on its Web site, hillwatch.com, which is geared toward public policy buffs. The article states that over the past few years, a number of Private Members" Bills "have been rattling a few industry cages and generating attention," citing four backbench Liberal bills as examples: Dan McTeague"s bill on

the Competition Act; Roger Gallaway"s campaign against negative option practices in the cable industry; Paul Szabo"s bill on alcohol warning labels; and Charles Caccia"s bills on both wildlife protection and GMO food labelling. It also points to NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis" motion on health warning labels that was recently passed in the House and Liberal Senator Colin Kenny"s bill on tobacco and youth which, though recently ruled out of order by House Speaker Peter Milliken, pressured Health Minister Allan Rock to put $100-million over five years into fighting youth smoking.

You could bring up even more examples. Just last week, Treasury Board President Lucienne Robillard launched a new watchdog position to deal with complaints from public servants. The move was in response to several Private Members" Bills on whistle-blowing from Tory Sen. Noel Kinsella, as well as Alliance MPs Gurmant Grewal and Myron Thompson.

"This range of activity has observers wondering whether Private Members Bills are on the rise as a source of Canadian Law," states the article, which was researched and written by former Hill staffer Matt O"Leary and Hillwatch co-chairman Scott Proudfoot.

The report analysed Private Members" Bills from the past three Parliaments and came up with some interesting stats: Private Members" Bills outnumber Government Bills by approximately four to one in most Parliamentary sessions. Of the 1,142 Private Member"s Bills tabled since the Liberals came to power in 1993, only 18, or 1.5 per cent of them, received Royal Assent.

At any given time, there are 30 Private Members" Bills on the "Order of Precedence," scheduled to come up for debate. But among those, the Sub-Committee on Private Members" Business of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee chooses up to five bills and five motions as ";votable," meaning they stay on the Order of Precedence until they become law. All other Private Members Bills make it onto the Order of Precedence by lottery and only come up for debate for an hour before disappearing.

In the 35th Parliament, 207 Private Members" Bills and motions were drawn, with 77, or 37 per cent, made votable. In the 36th Parliament, 223 Private Members" Bills and motions were drawn, with 58, or 26 per cent, made votable. So far in this 37th Parliament, 60 Private Members" Bills and motions have been drawn but only 12, or 20 per cent, have been deemed votable.

"The importance of the trend can be overstated but it is obviously downwards," states the article.

Citing senior House sources, the report lists the success factors that lead to a bill becoming votable. First is chance, meaning a bill being drawn in the lottery is key. The second factor is timing. If a bill relates to an issue that"s hot at the moment, its chances go up. The third factor is the bill"s sponsor. The MP must be able to sell his or her bill to the subcommittee. The success rate also goes up if the MP is a member of the governing caucus, i.e. if you"re a Liberal. Of the bills that become law, "virtually all are sponsored by Members" of the government caucus," it states. "  Membership in the largest caucus in Parliament makes the task of politicking the bill through Parliament easier."

Finally, the bill must be in line with government policy, otherwise ministers will put a stop to it. But if a minister waits too long, the MP may get the upper hand if he or she can build enough momentum and attention because ministers don"t want to be seen as hostile to private members business.

The report concludes that while the numbers show Private Members" Bills aren't increasing in importance, policy observers would be foolish to ignore them.

"On the government relations side of the Hillwatch business, we take Private Members" Bills seriously and we monitor them for our clients. If you are too complacent and assume Private Members" Bills do not pass, you are more likely to be blindsided by one that does," Mr. Proudfoot states.

"If you have an interest in an area, you should examine each bill on its own merits. Does the sponsor have some standing and determination? Is the bill well-crafted? Is the bill in sync with evolving government policy? Is this a "a hot button" issue? What is the sentiment of the House?

"As well, a Private Member"s Bill does not have to pass to affect government policy. Many Private Members" Bill subsequently find their way into government legislation. Private Members" bills offer a public platform to certain interest groups. They can push departments to be more active. They may establish a benchmark that the press and public use to judge government action. Ministers and Departments use them to pressure groups to make more concessions in industry practices. Private Members" Bills rarely have the power to drive the public agenda but they are one of the factors that can push it in a particular direction."

As for all the MPs who rise in the House each week to talk to an empty chamber, they should take heart in the Hillwatch article. At least someone"s listening.

On the reform front

When the House returns in September, the Subcommittee on Private Members" Business will be looking at ways to improve the Private Members Bills situation. Government House Leader Don Boudria had proposed the idea of a second House Chamber on the Hill as way to free up more time for Private Members" Bills, as well as special debates, but the idea didn't make it through the House Committee on Modernization. He said he has no plans to raise the issue again.

"Not in the foreseeable future," he told The Hill Times last week, adding that the recommendations for more "take-note" debates and committees of the whole was a way to allow for some of the special debates that would have taken place in a second chamber. As for private Members business, Mr. Boudria said it was outside of the scope of the Modernization Committee and is in the hands of the sub-committee of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee.

The subcommittee sent out a survey earlier this year to MPs to find out their thoughts on Private Members Business and the rule that allowed certain bills to be fast-tracked on to the Order Paper if they received 100 signatures from MPs.

But MPs said the rule wasn't clear, which is why it was dropped, said Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish, who chairs the Subcommittee on Private Members" Business.

"I think what the House seems to want, although it's not a clear majority, is they"d like to make all Private Members Bills votable," she said. "Now, I personally would caution against that because I think it diminishes the value of them. It also puts people in an awkward position that want an hour of debate to bring an issue up but don"t particularly want a vote."

Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955