Reform of private members’ business may curb government’s power to stifle pro-life bills

If they can use the new rules to their advantage, pro-life forces may benefit significantly from recent changes to parliamentary procedures forced upon the government by the Reform Party.

On Nov. 4, 1998, Reform MP Jason Kenney took advantage of a lack of Liberal representation in the House of Commons to pass a report recommending measures to increase the influence of individual members of parliament (opposition MPs and Liberal backbenchers).

The type of vote that was taken requires unanimous consent in the House, so the government always makes sure it has at least one representative in the chamber at all times to thwart surprise initiatives by opposition members (and renegade government MPs). This time, however, they were caught off guard, and Mr. Kenney was poised to act.

Reform House leader Randy White, in a press release publicizing the approval of the report, said that when the sub-committee on private members’ business presented its report to the committee on procedure and House affairs over a year ago, “the government laughed at us.” It was subsequently shelved by the Liberals until Mr. Kenney forced it back onto the agenda.

The recommendations in the report became the basis for legislation that was passed by the House of Commons on Nov. 30. These reforms are of particular interest to pro-life activists who have counted on opposition MPs and government backbenchers to fight for their cause on Parliament Hill. Pro-life forces have been shut out of cabinet-level discussions by Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments for almost a decade now. The Liberals under Jean Chrétien have even gone so far as to prevent the issue from arising even in private members’ business.

The new changes do not hold any guarantees, but they do give pro-life MPs and activists reason for optimism in their ongoing battle to see pro-life legislation introduced, debated on, and perhaps even passed, in the next few years.

Karen Murawsky, director of public affairs and chief lobbyist in Campaign Life Coalition’s national office, told The Interim that she is convinced the changes will be of benefit to CLC’s work on Parliament Hill. She noted that pro-life MPs were among the most active in pushing for change. “MPs doing work that was seen to be pro-life have been greatly hampered in the past,” she said. “So changes that improve their access (to the legislative process) will benefit us.”

One of the more significant changes will thwart what many critics charge is a tactic the government often uses to suppress bills it does not like but does not want to vote against in public. Private members’ bills which have passed Second Reading can no longer be buried at the bottom of the committee’s “To Do” list. If the committee does not report back to the House on the bill within 60 days (the previous limit was six months), or ask for an extension of 30 days to review it, the bill will be treated as automatically approved by the committee. It will then come back to the House for Third Reading.

Private members can also now bypass the random draw process for picking their bills for debate by finding 100 MPs (almost one-third of the House) to sign on to their proposed legislation as co-sponsors.

Pro-life enthusiasm for this measure is tempered by the knowledge that fewer than one-third of the current slate of MPs support a complete ban on abortion. This provision, however, provides members with an added incentive to gauge the degree of support for their proposals prior to bringing them forward, and the opportunity to seek input about how to reframe them to increase the amount of backing they will receive. This process may prove helpful in building support for measures such as defunding abortion and conscience-clause legislation.