When this article was first published Nora
Lever was Principal Clerk responsible for Private Members' Business in the
House of Commons.
The role of the Private Member had been of
concern over the past several years. In fact, the opening paragraph of the
final report of the McGrath Committee on Reform of the House of Commons went to
the core of that concern by stating: "The purpose of reform of the House
of Commons in 1985 is to restore to private members an effective legislative
function to give them a meaningful role in the formation of public policy and,
in so doing, to restore the House of Commons to its rightful place in the
Canadian political process." Chapter VII of that report was devoted to
Private Members' Business which concerns debate dedicated to bills and motions
proposed by individual Members of Parliament, as distinguished from the program
of the government presented by Ministers of the Crown.
Recommendations regarding Private Members'
Business were designed to "tighten the conditions of the ballot, widen the
scope of Private Members' legislation, and ensure that some Private Members'
bills and motions come to a vote". Provisional Standing Orders now give
effect to these proposals and will continue for an experimental period until
the end of December, 1986. During that time the success of the experiment will
depend on the willingness of Members to grapple with the details of the process
until they have a workable system as a finished product. House leaders and
their staff, members of the new Standing Committee on Private Members' Business
and officials of the House are making an effort to devise guidelines or
adjustments to the Standing Orders so that the new procedures may meet the high
expectations expressed in the McGrath Committee report.
The New System
Members of Parliament intending to introduce
legislation must send it to the Journals Branch. Notice is printed in the Notice
Paper and, after twenty-four hours, is moved forward to "Routine
Proceedings" in the Order Paper where the motions for introduction and
first reading are entertained by the Speaker whenever the MP indicates an
intention to proceed. (In the case of a motion, a Member of Parliament has only
to send it to the Journals Branch which publishes it in the Notice Paper and,
subsequently, in the Order Paper.)
From time to time, the Clerk of the House
convenes Members for a random draw to establish an order of precedence for
twenty bills or motions to be debated in the House. The Deputy Speaker presides
over the draw, selecting items from a beautifully carved ballot box which was
recently built for the new process of electing the Speaker. All items not
chosen in the draw remain on the Order Paper in a list outside the order of
precedence. They will be eligible for any subsequent draws throughout a
Each of the twenty items in the order of
precedence will have at least one hour of debate. As many as six, however,
could have up to five hours of debate. This is determined by the new Standing
Committee on Private Members' Business.
The Standing Committee on Private Members'
The McGrath Committee on Reform recommended
that there be a small Committee which would decide the criteria to be applied
to measures selected to come to a vote and would have complete discretion in
arriving at these decisions.
The first chairman is Bill Kempling, an
experienced Member of Parliament, who determined to ensure that choices be made
by consensus in a non partisan manner if possible. André Plourde is
Vice-Chairman and the other members include André Ouellet and Bill Blaikie,
both of whom were members of the McGrath Committee, and Arnold Malone, John
Reimer and Gerry St. Germain. The Committee is charged with selecting up to six
items upon which a vote must be taken at the end of debate. A major criticism
of the old system was that private members' bills could be discussed but rarely
come to a vote.
In making its first selection from the
twenty bills and motions in the order of precedence, the Committee agreed to
hear the sponsors of each for about fifteen minutes. Then its members met in
camera to devise a set of criteria by which they could make their choice in as
equitable a manner as possible. Acutely aware they were breaking new ground,
the Committee decided to publish the criteria used in the first selection in
the hopes that Members would be guided by them when introducing motions and
bills and would, perhaps, contribute to the development of a just method of
selection by expressing views to the Committee or its members.
In a report to the House on May 23, 1986,
they set out the criteria as follows:
1. Private Members' bills or motions may be
of national, regional or local significance, highly contentious or non
controversial; but to be selected as "votable items", motions or
bills must not be trivial or insignificant.
2. Bills or motions which appear to
discriminate in favour of or against a certain area or region in the country
should not be selected as "votable items".
3. Bills regarding electoral boundaries or
constituency names should not be selected. The Committee feels that other
avenues are available to Members without using up to five hours of Private
Members' time allotted to "votable items".
4. The bill or motion should not require
obvious amendment because it is substantially redundant with the law, is
fundamentally ineffective to implement its own intent, is unclear in its
meaning or is otherwise defective in its drafting. It was recognized that the
Order Paper contains many motions and bills which were introduced early in this
Parliament and have subsequently become outdated in whole or in part. With a
new session, however, the Committee expects that all Members will exercise care
in introducing their new items of business.
5. The subject of the motion or bill should
be different from specific matters already declared by the Government to be on
its legislative agenda.
6. Depending on the context of political issues
and events, the number of times a topic has appeared in the House may be of
7. All other factors being equal, lower
priority should be given to motions which deal with matters which the House
could address in some other way or through another procedure.
8. Motions couched in partisan terms should
not be selected. The Committee believes that such language could have the
effect of violating the spirit of reform of Private Members' Business if a
division were required on a motion of this kind.
9. Bills will be set aside in this selection
process if they are clearly unconstitutional in that they infringe upon
provincial legislative authority, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
or other entrenched constitutional rules; or if they impede or are contrary to
normal federal-provincial or international relations.
The Committee chose three votable items
during the first selection. Jim Fulton, Member for Skeena, argued that it would
be useful to upcoming government negotiations with the United States to have in
place his Act respecting the International Land Boundary between Canada and the
State of Alaska. Bill Attewell's motion asks the government to consider the
advisability of introducing legislation to require an annual budget in which total
annual outlays do not exceed total annual receipts and such total receipts will
exclude those derived from borrowing and total outlays will exclude those for
interest costs on the national debt and for repayment of the debt principal.
Jim Manly's motion urging the government to establish a level of 0.7 percent of
the Gross National Product for official development aid brings this issue of
ongoing importance before the House for an expression of opinion.
Late in June, following a second draw for
ten items to bring the order of precedence up to twenty again, the Committee
met to consider the selection of additional "votable items". Their
choice of three motions brought to the maximum number of six in the order of
precedence to be designated "votable". John Parry's motion
recommends, the abolition of the Senate, while Gus Mitges proposes that section
7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms include a human foetus or unborn human
being. Finally, Jean Claude Ma1épart's motion urges that single, separated or
divorced persons in need between the ages of 60 and 64 be covered by the spouse
Allocation of Time in the House
The hour for discussing Private Members'
Business takes place four times per week. Items which have not been designated
as votable by the Private Members' Business Committee are debated for one hour,
then dropped from the Order Paper. Selected "votable items" receive
up to five hours of debate in the House in the initial stage. After one hour of
debate, the motion or bill moves to the bottom of the order of precedence,
works its way up to the top, receives a second hour of debate, drops to the
bottom of the order of precedence and so on. It has been calculated that it may
take about four months for an item to reach the fifth hour of debate and be
voted upon. Of course, if debate collapses earlier, the question is put
immediately whether or not the full five hours have been used.
In the case of a motion, after the House
makes its decision the item of business is disposed of. A bill, if agreed to,
is referred to a legislative committee where the usual practices of hearing
witnesses and clause by clause study take place. There is no time limit for the
committee stage. Upon report back to the House, the bill is placed at the
bottom of the order of precedence. It will have two separate Private Members'
hours for debate at report stage and third reading, with a drop to the bottom
of the order of precedence again at the end of the first hour. During the first
hour of report stage and third reading, a Member may propose a motion to extend
the debate on the second day by a period not exceeding five hours. Such a
motion must have the support of at least twenty Members.
Members of the Committee have felt that an
attempt should be made to resolve any problems encountered during experimental
period. In their Third Report to the House they noted that, although the
structure provided by the order of precedence has met with general approval and
Members look forward to being able to identify well in advance certain dates
for debates in which they wish to take part, there are certain difficulties.
Since debate had begun under the new rules on April 24, 1986, there had been,
theoretically, thirty-two hours for Private Members' Business; but only fifteen
had been used. Ten were suspended because of allotted days and seven were lost
because Members in whose name the motions stood were unable to attend the
House. The suspension of Private Members' Business by allotted days caused too
many postponements of debates previously scheduled. Also, it appeared to be
unrealistic to have the schedule of debate established by a random draw without
regard to Members' previous commitments, and there is no provision for
substitution when a Member knows in advance that he or she is unable to conform
to that schedule. Moreover, the Standing Orders provide no guidance as to the
disposition of bills and motions not taken up as scheduled.
The Committee proposed that Private Members'
Business not be suspended on opposition days. Further, they would prefer
increased flexibility in scheduling debates, without changing dates fixed for
the "votable" motions and bills. Finally, they suggested that the
items of Private Members' business standing in the name of Members unable to be
present either drop to the bottom of the order of precedence or be removed from
the Order Paper entirely, depending upon whether or not the Members give
The first vote on an item of Private
Members' business took place on Monday, May 26, 1986. As it happened, it was
not a motion or bill which had been selected by the Standing Committee on
Private Members' Business. Rather, it was a case of there being no further
debate and the question being put by the Chair on an amendment to the motion of
Mr. Stackhouse regarding high interest rates associated with charge cards. The
bells rang to call the Members.
This raised two issues. First, there was a
question in the minds of some Members present as to the role of the Whips. On
the one hand, there was the view that Whips should possibly continue the
practice of ensuring that Members attend the House for the recorded division.
According to this view, the practice of having the Chief Government Whip and
the Opposition Whip march into the Chamber to indicate that the House was ready
for a vote would continue. Others expressed the opinion that members should not
be "whipped" for Private Members' Business and that, therefore, the
traditional role of the two Whips should be set aside. With the new rules, it
was argued, the bells were limited to thirty minutes and the Chair could put
the question without the advice of the Whips.
The second issue arose during the calling of
the division. The practice has been to call names by party and, in fact, the
division sheets used by the Clerk at the Table are printed to accommodate that
practice. However some Members expressed disappointment. Bill Blaikie, Member
for Winnipeg Birds Hill, said after the vote: I thought it was a shame that
this historical occasion was marred by the fact that we took the vote according
to Party instead of according to rows ... I think next time around that should
not happen at all". Warren Allmand agreed, saying: "We are not voting
on a government measure but on a Private Members "measure" and adding
that he hoped the Chair would consider that in the future.
Officials have produced newly designed
division sheets. It remains, however, for the House to determine the practice
to be followed.
The Private Members' Business Office
With the adoption. of the new Standing
Orders the Clerk of the House has established a small Office which dedicates
itself solely to the concerns of Private Members. The new Office has three
fulltime staff: Principal Clerk, Committee Clerk and Secretary. Additional
clerical support is secured from other offices as needed.
The procedural work includes careful study
and interpretation of the new Standing Orders and assisting the Chair occupants
to determine procedures or practices to follow where the new Standing Orders
appear to be silent. Further procedural expertise is applied to the daily
examination of the Order Paper and Notices which is essential in order to be
able to provide advice to Members of Parliament and their staff. Procedural and
administrative responsibilities are brought to bear jointly in the
responsibility for private bills.
The administrative support provided by the
PMBO has a number of aspects: scheduling of the Adjournment Proceedings;
ensuring that Members and staff are aware of the order of precedence and dates
for debates; arrangements for the Draw and support for the Standing Committee
on Private Members' Business including arrangements for meetings, preparation
of reports and budgets, etc. As time and resources permit, the Office hopes to
develop information sessions and materials for Members and staff to increase
their awareness of the possibilities open to them.
The Private Members' Business Office has
been established on a provisional basis only until December, 1986. If the PMBO
becomes permanent at that time, it will no doubt be staffed from time to time
though the rotation process provided by the Career Structure in the Clerk's
Sector. Staff who have an interest in a variety of experiences including
procedure relating to both House and Committee may see this small Office as an
excellent opportunity for career development.
Changes in the procedures relating to
Private Members' Business are part of a whole new system modelled, as the
McGrath Report has said, neither on the traditional model of Westminster nor on
the congressional system. But changes in the rules alone will not bring about a
new role for Private Members. The Reform Committee exhorted Members to action,
pointing out that much depends on Members themselves and on the political
parties to which. they belong. "Without a significant change in attitudes
on the part of all those who concern themselves with Canadian politics,
implementing these changes will accomplish little."
Concerned members of the public, as well as
Members and officials who have an abiding interest in parliamentary procedure,
will be watching.