Private Members’ Bills don’t mean much for debate

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This past week, in the lead up to the Supreme Court of Canada hearing on assisted suicide, we heard repeatedly that Parliament has addressed the topic numerous times.  We heard about the Bloc private member’s bill that was defeated as somehow meaning that “Parliament has spoken.”  Other opponents of the court challenge took to the airwaves to say that all of those bills that keep getting introduced in the Commons on this topic die, so that must mean that Parliament doesn’t want to deal with the issue.  None of these assertions could be further from the truth.

One of the interesting parts of our Westminster system of democracy is the way in which individual MPs – either backbenchers or opposition members – can sponsor their own bills in the hopes of winning support and getting it passed.  For the majority of our history, few of these bills were made voteable, and few made it to debate.  Only when changes to the Standing Orders happened in 1985 did they suddenly proliferate and an hour every sitting day is set aside to the topic of private members’ business, meaning either one of the aforementioned bills or a motion which is generally non-binding.

Because these bills have not originated from the government, they are very narrow and cannot propose the spending of government funds.  While the intention was to assist members in holding the government to account – identifying and plugging holes in existing statutes for example – they have largely grown to become the purveyor of individual MPs’ policy hobbyhorses.  In some cases, individual MPs who lack either the imagination or passion to have an issue of their own will try to champion a bill on their party’s behalf – witness the raft of “tough on crime” bills from Conservative backbenchers, or those that set into legislation some particular policy plank that an opposition party has decided to champion – but the basic rules remain the same.

The other thing to keep in mind is that because there is such a limited amount of time that can be spent on private members’ business, and in the issue of fairness, the order in which they get determined is decided by a lottery at the beginning of each parliament.  That means that in a House of Commons the size of ours, MPs might – and I stress might – get one chance at a PMB every parliament.  What this limitation hasn’t done is stopped MPs from tabling multiple bills, with the excuses that they are drawing attention to an issue, or providing an opening for the government to pick it up and run with it if they wanted to.  For some, it’s a way of laying down policy ideas or markers should they ever be fortunate enough to form government.  For others, it’s a kind of grandstanding to demonstrate that they are taking an issue seriously – never mind that the quality of PMBs are often poor as they are not drafted by legal experts in the Department of Justice.

It is with these facts in mind that it needs to be stated that the vast majority of private members’ bills will never, ever see the light of day.  That such a bill has been tabled is a fairly meaningless statistic because they not only die on the Order Paper all the time, but they are in some ways designed to die, only tabled for symbolic purposes in the first place.  For those bills that do make it to debate, they get a mere two hours at second reading, and those two hours are separated by an average of five or six weeks.  If they’re fortunate enough to make it to committee stage, they tend to get a mere two hours to hear from both the MP who tabled the bill, and from witnesses who are either for or against it.

The bill in the previous parliament on assisted suicide, Bill C-384, had a mere two hours of debate before being defeated at Second Reading.  It was a very limited bill that was restricted to a narrow slice of the law.  That’s it.  There is no way that it could be considered to have been adequate debate, or for Parliament to have pronounced on anything in a substantive manner.  There is no way to say, with a straight face, that Parliament has been seized with this issue consistently since the Sue Rodriguez case because that simply has not happened.  And for the government or opponents of the current Supreme Court case to insist otherwise is dishonest and disingenuous.

Conservative MP Stephen Fletcher’s pair of PMBs on the subject, each tackling one narrow aspect of the current law, also won’t offer much in the way of debate as there is no way they would ordinarily see the light of day, he being too far down the list.  He is looking to try and get them introduced in the Senate as a kind of backdoor means, by getting a Senator to introduce an identical bill to have it pass that chamber first, and while they may actually see more debate there, the tactic itself is problematic because it could be a troubling precedent of other MPs trying to use the Senate to try and bypass the Order of Precedence.  That aside, it doesn’t escape the fact that it will nevertheless not be a substantive debate on the issue because it could only address one narrow slice of the law as it exists.

To have a serious debate on a serious issue like assisted suicide in this country, it can’t be done by means of a private member’s bill or motion.  Even an opposition supply day debate is too limited, as it is merely four or five hours in length.  If we want a proper airing of the issue, the government needs to step forward with a proposal or motion of their own.  They haven’t.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

For want of an activist Speaker
The ethics of crowd-sourcing your re-election
Term limits and the outsider fetish
Co-opting backbenchers
Democracy, not technocracy

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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