Interim Staff

Debate over the treatment of private members’ bills continued to divide Members of Parliament as the House broke for the June election. Several members, inkling some pro-life MP’s, have called for changes in the way private members’ bills or motions are selected for further action.

Under the existing system, members submit bills or motions, which are then made into a list and drawn by lottery. A standing committee of three Liberals, one Reform and one Bloc Quebecois member determines which of these items will be “votable” or “non-votable”. More than five bills and five motions can be votable at any given time. A non-votable item is debated for one hour in the House of Commons before being dropped. A votable item goes forward for further debate in the House, but there is still little likelihood it will survive all the way to Royal Assent.

The private members’ bill issue intensified over the winter with the selection of two bills put forward by NDP member Svend Robinson. Some observers wondered if the standing committee choosing bills for further action are completely unbiased when in its choices. Scarborough MP Tom Wappel was one of the few MP’s to have a private members’ bill survive the preliminary stages. His motion on criminals not profiting from their crimes made it through Third Reading in the House of Commons but died in a Senate Justice committee.

Although his bill failed to receive Royal Assent, Wappel believes he was treated fairly throughout the process. A number of his colleagues however, have a less flattering view of private members’ business.

“Some MPs have described the selection process as a kangaroo court,” Wappel told The Interim.

In March the government tabled a subcommittee reported aimed at improving private members’ business. The committee, chaired by Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish (Mississauga West), issued a number of recommendations which would give greater flexibility to members in introducing new bills.

The report was not adopted by Parliament’s Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. It has since died with the dissolution of Parliament for the general election. Mississauga East Liberal MP Albina Guarnieri has been one of the most vocal critics of the current system of dealing with private members’ bills. In a submission to the Parish subcommittee, Guarnieri took exception to the committee determining which private members’ bills should become votable.

The [sub] committee as currently struck is an infringement on the rights of all Members of Parliament,” Guarnieri said. “The current practice of rendering completely arbitrary decisions on which bills shall be votable and then refusing to provide a reasoned basis for judgment defeats any facade of a connection to any official criteria.” She added that the subcommittee is often influenced by private lobbying, rather than merit, in determining the future of private member’s legislation.

There are no justifiable reasons why bills presented by elected representatives of the public should be subject to obstruction by a committee acting arbitrarily, unaccountably, and in secret,” Guarnieri said.