Article review: Private Members' Bills in recent Minority & Majority Parliaments

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Monday, February 27, 2012 View Count = 1868

Article review: Private Members' Bills in recent Minority & Majority Parliaments

The following is a review of Evan Sotiropoulos' article Private Members' Bills in recent Minority and Majority Parliaments written by Samara volunteer and guest blogger Peter Bryce Dillon. Peter is currently working towards a joint Juris Doctor at the University of Ottawa and Master of Arts at the International Affairs Faculty at Carleton University. 

Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) are legislative motions brought by backbenchers (non-Cabinet Members of Parliament). In the last 15 years, there have been 1,600 PMBs proposed. However, as Evan Sotiropoulos notes in his article, Private Members’ Bills in recent Minority and Majority Parliaments, only a handful of these bills have been passed. Do PMBs hold relevance in Canadian politics?          

Sotiropoulos tables data which shows a steady increase in the number of PMBs since 2004. For instance, in the 36th Parliament there were 311 PMBs proposed in 376 sitting days. In the 40th Parliament, this increased to 441 PMBs in 290 sitting days. Overall, this amounts to a nearly two-fold increase in PMBs per day. None of this is surprising, according to Sotiropoulos, because Canada has had minority governments between 2004 and 2011. By definition, opposition party bills are PMBs. And under minority governments, opposition parties dominate, so PMBs are more likely to be brought forward and passed.  

Despite the numbers, Parliament has not returned to the days of early Confederation, when backbenchers ruled the roost. As Sotiropoulos notes, recent NDP efforts reflect the fate of PMBs more generally. Since 1997, the NDP has proposed nearly 600 bills, but only one received Royal Assent (about 0.2 percent). Other parties have been more successful, but only slightly. Since 2004, only 1.3 percent of all PMBs received Royal Assent.

Sotiropoulos offers three explanations for the low success-rates of PMBs in recent years. First, party discipline has handicapped many MPs, stopping them from voting according to conscience or constituency. He cites Samara’s research paper, “It’s My Party”: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered," to show that individual backbenchers are consistently ignored. He says, “Although in theory party discipline does not apply to private Members’ business in general and to PMB voting specifically, we see the opposite to be true in practice.”

Second, Sotiropoulos observes that the Senate has largely played an obstructionist role. Under minority governments, opposition PMBs have a better chance at being passed in the House of Commons. However, because Senators are appointed by the Prime Minister, many PMBs which make it to the Senate also die there.

Third, as the data shows, more PMBs are being proposed; as a result, more are also being rejected. According to Sotiropoulos, the vast increase in backbenchers’ bills has not led to a vast increase in democratic vibrancy. Indeed, bills are often drafted only to get a quick “media hit”, and even the members proposing the bills do not expect them to pass. This has led to an inefficient use of the limited time devoted to private Members’ business.

There are a few recommendations Sotiropoulos offers to restore the meaningful role backbenchers can play in Parliamentary politics. For instance, capping the number of PMBs each member can introduce would ensure less time is spent on hopeless proposals. In addition, rather than going through the entire law-making process for each individual PMB, grouping together similar PMBs would make the process more efficient.

According to Sotiropoulos, under the current majority government, the ruling party will likely prevent opposition parties from passing too many PMBs in the House or the Senate. This presents a paradoxical situation: since Parliament ignores the vast majority of PMBs, it will likely ignore any attempts at reform (which would probably be brought in the form of a PMB). Either way, if reforms are not made, then backbenchers’ bills will likely continue to suffer the same fate: most of them will die after their initial 60-second readings. 

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