Private Members' Bills in Recent Minority and Majority Parliaments

By Sotiropoulos, Evan | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Private Members' Bills in Recent Minority and Majority Parliaments


Sotiropoulos, Evan, Canadian Parliamentary Review


This article compares the use of Private Members' Bills (PMB) during the 40th Parliament with the four previous Parliaments, two of which were minorities and two were majorities. Among other things it compares the number of bills, the bills introduced by party and the few bills that eventually receive Royal Assent. The article shows how Private Members" Bills have been effected by the shift from majority governments (1997-2004) to minority ones (2004-2011) and suggests some reforms for consideration as we head back to a period of majority government.

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A "Private Member" is one not part of the Ministry and, according to the Standing Orders, not the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker or a Parliamentary Secretary. Currently, one hour is set aside each sitting day of the House of Commons for the consideration of private Members' business. The time is typically used to advance proposed legislation and to express views on a wide range of topics.

Unlike recent Parliamentary history, at the beginning of Confederation the time allocation was actually skewed in favour of the private Member. Over the years, however, the use of special orders and changes to the rules that govern the House gave precedence to government business, leaving little time for private Members. (1)

Today, the way in which private Members' business is conducted is largely influenced by the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons--commonly referred to as the McGrath Report.

Chaired by James McGrath (who would go on to become Newfoundland and Labrador's Lieutenant Governor), this seven member all party task force tabled its final report in June 1985. The committee's analysis was positively received by the House and many of its recommendations (e.g., Speaker election by secret ballot and creating the Board of Internal Economy) were eventually enacted. McGrath's efforts were aided by the strong support provided by party leaders, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who highlighted the committee's work in the Speech from the Throne.

The task force noted that, "One step needed to enhance the role of the private Member is to change significantly the method of dealing with private Members' business [since] the House does not attach any great importance to private Members' business as it is now organized." (2) Following the final report, the Order of Precedence was established and a process was put in place to decide on which items would be deemed votable and how they would be debated in the House.

Building on those recommendations, there have been a number of adjustments made to private Members' business since the mid-1980s, including: the ordering of items caused by the absence of MPs; an increase in the number of days which private Members' business would be considered; and, allowing each item in the Order of Precedence to be votable unless procedurally inadmissible or unless its sponsor opts to make it non-votable.

Regarding private Members' bills specifically, there are two types, public and private, with the former being the most common. According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, "Public bills deal with matters of public policy under federal jurisdiction, whereas private bills concern matters of a private or special interest to specific corporations and individuals and are designed to confer special powers or benefits upon the beneficiary or to exclude the beneficiary from the general application of the law." (3) The Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel help MPs with legislative drafting to ensure that proper process and protocols are followed. For example:

* Those proposing the expenditure of public funds or the raising of revenue must secure a royal recommendation or a ways and means motion, respectively, both of which only a Minister can provide.

* The Standing Orders give the Speaker authority to reject a PMB deemed too similar to an existing proposal. …

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