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Private Members Bills Get A Little More Important

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal

Recent procedural changes made in the closing months of the Chrétien Government mean more private members’ bills are likely to pass when Mr. Martin takes power. Some interests in society will find themselves sideswiped by the new rules of the game.

Did you know legislation currently before the House of Commons would?

  • Prevent private hospitals
  • Legalize Prostitution
  • Prohibit chemical pesticides for non-essential use
  • Create a Credit Ombudsman
  • Establish national standards for labour market training, apprenticeship and certification
  • Require employers to provide defibrillators in the workplace
  • Establish the Office of Taxpayer Protection
  • Create a National Registry of Medical Devices
  • Kill the gun control agency
  • Provide tax breaks on herbal remedies, amateur sport fees, food donations, public transport costs, funeral expenses, to name a few.

These are Private Members bills. These bills (along with several hundred others) are currently on the Order Paper of the House of Commons. Few ever pass. Most don’t come to a vote.

A few years back, Hillwatch examined the fate of every private members’ bills introduced over a five-year period. Of 1,142 bills, only 18 or 1.5% actually passed.

Since most bills don’t pass or even come to a vote, the media ignores them – which is why we don’t hear about them.

That is about to change!  In fact, it changed last spring.  Most seasoned observers of Parliament missed amendments to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons governing private members business. These were adopted on March 17 and are to run for a year on a trial basis. Assuming no major problems, the new procedures will become permanent.

The bottom-line result is that, each year in Parliament, more private members’ bills will come to a vote. With more bills coming to a vote, more bills will pass. 

Backbench Frustration

Creating legislation has been the exclusive preserve of Ministers and their departments.

Members of Parliament (particularly government backbench and opposition members) have been frustrated by their limited role in the process.  Being a ‘trained seal’ can be galling. Members sought greater legislative input - but without much success. The Chrétien Government in particular, has maintained tight control from the center.

But there is growing pressure to loosen the reins. Political parties and Parliament are losing market share (voter interest, participation and engagement.)

Parliament itself is seen as an anachronism– bad reality programming in an 18th century setting characterized by loaded questions, non-edifying answers and schoolboy bantering across the aisles.

Parliament clearly does not command the respect and attention it once did.  A growing number of politicians believe giving individual MPs greater independence is part of a solution.

The New System

The simple objective is to give each Member of Parliament an opportunity to introduce a bill or motion that will be voted on during the life of the Parliament (i.e. between general elections). 

  • Following an election, there will be a draw of the names of all MPs and list will be established of all eligible Members of the House of Commons.
  • Some MPs are ineligible to introduce private members bills by virtue of the office they hold.  These include the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. Effectively, about 240 Members of Parliament have the right to put forward votable legislation.
  • From time to time, an order of precedence will be established from the list and contain up to 20 names of Members. These members then have the right to have one of their bills debated and voted on.
  • A MP with multiple bills and motions before the House (not uncommon for many members) must pick the motion or bill that they want to move forward. If they do not choose, then the first one that they have sponsored is put on the Order Paper.
  • Each bill gets debated for two hours and then comes to a vote.
  • Given the time the House sits in the course of a year and the time set aside in the weekly schedule for Private Members’ Business, then 50 to 60 bills could come to a vote each year.  Once a member’s bill comes up on Order of Precedence and enters into the House process, it is expected that there will be between 30 –60 sitting days between the bill coming into play and then the vote.
  • Effectively this means two to three times as many private members bills could be voted on in the course of a Parliamentary year as we have traditionally seen.

Impact on Public Policy

It always takes a few years for the full implications of a change in Parliamentary procedure to have their effect but here are some predictions.

Private Members Bills will get better

Some private members’ bills are thoughtfully drafted. Many appear to have been written on the back of an envelope. That was OK when the intention was purely symbolic and most bills never came to a vote.  But, knowing their bill will have a vote will encourage MPs to pay more attention to crafting legislation with a better chance of passage. They will start to line up support among their colleagues and seek outside supporters.

More Private Members bills will pass

It was easier for the government to kill a bill it did not like when it did not publicly vote it down (the situation before this change.) It is more problematic to publicly oppose popular legislation.  By design, the Government has less direct control over this process. Individual Members of Parliament will want to support each other by allowing legislation with broad support to pass.

Some bills have a better chance of passing than others

Social ‘feel good’ legislation; bills that hit a ‘hot issue’ at the right time; smaller regulatory changes and limited effect bills; bills not involving large direct government expenditures; bills clearly in the Federal jurisdictional domain; bills capturing Commons Committee recommendations – these types of private members bills will do well. And they will do better if they are introduced and promoted by a Government backbencher.

Associations, NGOs and Labour will actively seek MPs to sponsor legislation.

Want to raise the profile of your issue and get change? Find an MP who shares your concerns and ask him or her to sponsor a carefully crafted bill. Then build support and lobby for its acceptance. Even bills that do not pass can be used to raise the visibility of an issue. Having a bill come to a vote raises the stakes and your options.

Some groups’ interests will be run over by Private Members’ bills!

Once in the queue, private members bills may pass through the process much faster than government bills normally do. With shorter time for debate and scrutiny, there is limited time to lobby against legislation that you view as flawed. But, since many bills will still die on their own, heavy intervention could simply draw attention to the issue and support for the legislation. Trying to get a Minister’s help to kill a bill may create a backlash amongst MPs who see this as their preserve.

These procedural changes mean industry and association executives and NGOs who track Parliamentary developments just got one more task added to their to-do list.

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