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The Role of the Private Member of Parliament
Stan Hovdebo

At the time this article was written Stan Hovdebo was the Member of Parliament for Prince Albert, (Saskatchewan).

Many things have changes since the days of King John, but not the basic function of Parliament. King John summoned Parliament to sit for a couple of days every few years, so that it could vote money to make it possible for him to rule the country, wage a war, or send out an expedition. Parliament still sits primarily to pass the money bills and a few other items of legislation which allow the cabinet to rule the country.

But Parliament has changed. Instead of a small group of barons, we have in Canada 282 full time Members of Parliament. King John's barons had no legislative powers. Our Parliament has legislative powers–but how real are they? Most of the members of the House of Commons are backbenchers and members of the opposition. Is the legislative power of these individuals commensurate with the time they contribute and the staff support they have available?

Legislation and the Private Member

For all intents and purposes, bills of any importance originate with the government. They are presented to the House to be passed – not to be drafted, produced, or even amended extensively. The procedure is something like this. A minister is informed by bureaucrats, constituencies, or fellow party members that legislation is needed, would be valuable to the country, or would be of political value to the party. The minister instructs government officials to produce a policy on the subject and to look at the requirements for legislation. Bureaucrats produce a draft. The draft is presented to an assistant deputy minister, a deputy minister, and finally to the minister. Each in turn gives it his approval. The minister then presents the draft to a cabinet committee, which may allocate some time to discuss it. The draft is then presented by the minister to cabinet. It may be one item among fifty on the agenda for that meeting. The draft bill may get three minutes of discussion. It is then tabled in the House. Usually, this is the first time that most of the legislators see the bill. Next comes second reading.

Second reading may elicit some hurried speeches by members based on their interest in the area, but not necessarily relative to the particular bill. The bill then goes to committee. This is the period when legislators are to study and change the bill.

Amendments may be presented by the opposition only if they do not involve the spending of money. King John would be pleased. Other substantive amendments are theoretically possible. The bill then passes committee and is reported to the House. There are more speeches and some votes, but no real changes. The reporting of the bill simply give House exposure to the position reached and agreed or disagreed to in committee. The bill then passes third reading, and goes to the Senate before receiving Royal Assent.

The present procedure amounts essentially to legislation by bureaucrats. It is an inward looking, closed formula. The different levels of government formulate the policy direction within government guidelines. They continue to develop all the stages of the process through the different echelons without any input from the people or the legislators representing those people. Because of this close and controlling interest by bureaucrats, it is very difficult for legislators to affect the direction of a bill. On many occasions, only one legislator, of the 282 sent to Ottawa at great expense, will have anything to do with establishing the fine tuning of policy. Only one legislator, at most, had anything to do with the drafting of the bill.

By the time the bill gets to the other legislators and eventually to committee stage, it has the support of cabinet (regardless of how little cabinet knows about the issue), and therefore of all the government members. By the time it gets to committee, it has the backing and prestige of the 'closed shop' levels of government that initiated and implemented it.

Does the bill (coddled as it is by the bureaucracy) really represent the wishes of the electorate or even of a majority of the representatives? The Members of Parliament may not have had an opportunity to have an input into the basic thinking which initiated the legislation. Policy should be made mostly by the interaction of various points of view from various regions of the country. Does this happen in the confines of the bureaucracy?

The traditions of the British parliamentary system developed for good reasons. When the reasons changed, particular procedures become obsolete. In Canada, the procedure for developing and presenting legislation to Parliament has become obsolete in this way.

In the past, a member spent only a limited time in Parliament. He required another job, profession or business to survive. He did not have the time or resources to be a real legislator. So the tradition of letting the bureaucracy do the basic legislation developed. Today in Canada, we have mainly full time members, each with fairly adequate staff and research facilities at their disposal. Not only do these members expect to have some part in the development of legislation, but their electors expect it as well and are dismayed that the system excludes them. The alternative I suggest here is not new: let the legislators legislate and the bureaucrats administer.

One technique which has been fairly successful in bringing the contents of policy and legislation to the House is the White, Blue or Green paper approach to policy making. Another is the use of legislative task forces or special committees. The task forces have had illuminating results, even if few of the reports have become policy of the government. They have opened the door to the needs and desires of private members and in many cases have developed solutions to longstanding problems. These are variations of the committee structure which could help make the contents of policy and legislation a product of members direction. Let it suffice to say that any technique which would allow Members of Parliament to have an input into legislation before it is drafted and presented to the House would greatly increase the representation of the electorate in the act of legislation. Passing a bill is not legislating' Producing the policy and defining the direction is legislating!

As long as the present method of preparing legislation is followed, the value of committees is minimal. Committees have been described as playpens for members of the opposition and government backbenchers. It must be granted that, on occasion, committees have succeeded in changing legislation often after hearing witnesses from the public. This is a good and valuable service: but would it not be more valuable to have an input in the preparation of legislation rather than simply to react to legislation which is already drafted and, in the minds of many people, therefore already passed.

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 6 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-09-14