At the time this
article was written David McNeil was Clerk of the Alberta Legislative Assembly.
What are the consequences
when private members are provided a greater opportunity to introduce
legislation which reflects their constituents or their personal perspectives on
particular issues and the probability of that legislation being passed is
significantly increased? This article explores this question in light of
Alberta’s experience over the past eight years following changes to the
Standing Orders in 1993 relating to private members’ business.
Following the 1993 General Election in Alberta which saw a
significant increase in the size of the Official Opposition, Premier Ralph
Klein and the then Leader of the Official Opposition, Laurence Decore reached
an agreement to explore possible changes to Standing Orders which would allow
greater participation by private members in the business of the House.
Subsequently, the House Leaders, Ken Kowalski (now Speaker of the Legislative
Assembly) and Grant Mitchell (subsequently Leader of the Opposition) developed
a series of proposals to give effect to this objective.
A number of changes were made
to Alberta’s Standing Orders in 1993 which impacted on the role of the Private
Member. Prior to 1993 Private Members’ Public Bills were each debated for one
hour at second reading and then dropped to the bottom of the Order Paper, never
to be considered again unless they were taken up as Government Bills. Time
limits were established within which a Bill must be considered at various
stages. Private Members’ Public Bills now maintain their place on the Order
Paper until debated for a specified length of time at each stage unless voted
upon sooner The times are Second Reading – 120 minutes; Committee Stage – 120
minutes and Third Reading – 60 minutes.
In addition to changes in
Standing Orders, an agreement was reached between House Leaders respecting
Private Members’ Business which among other things – encouraged free votes by
committing to the conduct of Private Members’ Business free of whips. This
agreement applied during the life of the 23rd Legislature.
There have been a number of
consequences, both intended and unintended, arising from these changes. For
example, a significant percentage of bills debated are being passed in
comparison to the experience prior to the changes in Standing Orders. Secondly,
the potential of passage has created increased emphasis on the quality of
legislative drafting. As a result, fewer bills are being drafted and introduced
as drafting resources have not been increased. As shown in Table 1, since the
Standing Order changes were implemented, only bills sponsored by private
government members have been passed.
The trend towards cross-party
voting established in the two years following the Standing Order changes
Given the success rate for
members of the Government Caucus in the passage of Private Members’ Public
Bills, the obvious question is whether these bills reflect the wishes and
intentions of the individual member or do they reflect the wishes of the
Bills range from those
that will have little impact (Emblems of Alberta Amendment Act, 1995) to
those with the potential of significant impact (Limitations Act). In
reviewing the history of each of these pieces of legislation, I am confident in
stating that very few of them were reflective of policies that the
government was particularly interested in promoting at the time they were
introduced. In fact, in a number of cases, the Executive seemed unaware of
their implications until the legislative process was somewhat advanced.
A case in point was the
consideration of the Protection of Persons in Care Act. While the bill
was introduced and approved in principle in May of 1994, it was not considered
in Committee until the House resumed sitting in the fall of 1944. By that time,
the Department involved had become aware of its implications and a series of
amendments were introduced by the sponsoring Member as a result of his
consultation with departmental staff. The Bill was agreed to unanimously in
October of 1994 and received Royal Assent. However, the bill was not proclaimed
until January of 1998. In the interim, the sponsor of the bill introduced
another series of amendments to the Act in the form of a government bill in the
first session of the 24th Legislature (1997). The Bill was finally proclaimed
in January of 1998.
Alberta’s Private Members’ Bills
Introduction determined by random draw. Once draw order is established,
members may trade positions up to a certain date prior to session.
Parliamentary Counsel guarantee drafting of 20 bills for introduction at
beginning of session
in numerical order on private members’ business days
be called in Committee within 8 sitting days of second reading passage
be called for third reading within 4 sitting days of being reported in
The experience with this bill points out one of the major barriers to the
successful passage of private members’ legislation. That is the general lack of
time and resources for the member to undertake the appropriate consultation
with groups impacted by the proposed legislation. While the government caucus
has introduced mechanisms by which the concepts of private members’ legislation
being proposed by their member is vetted by caucus and the appropriate
government standing policy committee, there is evidence that the speed of the
process once debate commences on a bill at second reading does not allow for
sufficient consultation with interested parties, especially the government
entities who would be responsible for implementing the legislation. As a
result, there have been a significant number of bills delayed or hoisted despite
a significant level of support among members on both sides of the House.
While passage of a Private
Members’ Public Bill would seem to be an obvious measure of the success of the
process, some of the consequences of the introduction and debate of legislation
which does not pass may be as far-reaching. The following examples support this
In 1996, a Liberal member,
Alice Hanson introduced Bill 214, Victims of Domestic Violence Act,
which was directed at providing greater protection to victims of violence by
establishing a mechanism for victims to obtain immediate protection orders from
the courts. After receiving 120 minutes of debate at second reading with both
opposition and government members strongly supporting the bill, it was approved
unanimously. There was considerable positive press coverage at the time lauding
the government’s willingness to support the private member’s bill on this
issue. The Justice Minister was quoted as being a supporter. Shortly thereafter,
the House adjourned the spring sitting of the Assembly.
When the House reconvened in
August, the bill came up immediately for committee consideration. During the
summer recess, the sponsor had consulted extensively with concerned parties and
had drafted a number of amendments in cooperation with the Family and Social
Services department which were purported to deal with concerns about the bill.
However, after 61 minutes of consideration in committee, a government member
moved that the Chairman do now leave the chair, effectively killing the bill in
committee. The mover of that motion was quoted as saying that there had been
insufficient time for consultation on the bill and that “With a Private
Members’ Bill, you are limited to a two-hour debate and that is just not
enough, because everyone in Alberta is affected by this legislation.”
Subsequently there was extensive press coverage strongly critical of the
government for dealing with the bill in this manner.
That was not the end of the
story however. In 1998, a government bill, entitled Protection Against
Family Violence Act was introduced and passed. This bill replaced
essentially the same principle as the bill defeated two years earlier.
The next year, a member of the
government caucus introduced the School Amendment Act, 1997, which
proposed amending the funding formula for accredited private schools increasing
per pupil funding from 50% to 75% of that provided to public schools. The bill
created extensive public controversy and highlighted obvious divisions within
the government caucus on the issue. Given the firestorm that was created, the
Minister of Education quickly announced a task force to consider the issue.
Upon the announcement of the task force, the government whip moved a hoist
amendment on the Bill, effectively killing it.
The task force, chaired by a government MLA with representatives from various
interest groups held public hearings and received briefs from the public over a
six month period. In March 1998, the task force came forward with a proposal
for increasing the level of private school funding from 50% to 60% of the
standard per pupil grant. The government immediately adopted the proposal. It
was interesting to note that the Conservative Party convention in the fall of
1997 had voted to cut off all funding to private schools.
The final instance relates to Workers’
Compensation Amendment Act, 1998 which proposed: 1) lifting the bar against
legal actions involving transportation accidents caused by negligent third
parties who are also covered by workers’ compensation legislation and 2)
introducing the concept of a medical panel where conflicts in medical
The introduction of this bill
brought immediate and negative public response from the Workers’ Compensation
Board and some employers, especially in relation to the first objective of the
bill. Given members extensive involvement in workers’ compensation issues, the
bill generated extensive debate in the House and received strong support at
second reading after 120 minutes of debate. With approval in principle, debate
on the issue outside the House appeared to escalate. The WCB issued a
newsletter critical of the bill. The sponsor responded in the House by
suggesting that the WCB was strongly planting fears among employers as to the
implications of the bill.
In committee, the sponsor
requested and received permission to delay further consideration until a
certain date in order to consult more extensively with the Board, employers and
clients. Upon resumption of debate in committee, the bill was reported from
committee after 104 minutes of debate and scheduled for third reading
consideration as per the requirements of Standing Orders. With the stakes
raised with the bill essentially unchanged out of committee, there was
increasing lobbying and press coverage on the issue. It seems there was great
pressure on the sponsor to have the bill hoisted while the member was insisting
that it be passed and that further consultation take place before proclamation.
During third reading debate, a
letter was tabled in which the Workers’ Compensation Board indicated that they
would be implementing the less contentious of the bill’s two principles. After
22 minutes of debate at third reading, a six month hoist was approved by the
House, effectively killing the bill.
The three cases cited above
indicate clearly that the number of bills passed should not be the only
criteria used in assessing the impact of this change in procedure.
In dealing with the new rules
for the handling of private members’ legislation, the Table has been faced with
some interesting procedural issues. One of the first issues was that of determining
the appropriate procedures to handle the Committee of the Whole’s desire to
defeat a bill in committee. This issue caught us somewhat unaware the first
Another issue that continues
to come forward relates to the speed with which the bills are dealt with once
they come up for second reading. We have had to give advice with respect to
both slowing down or delaying the process as well as speeding it up. We have
had to help members distinguish between a hoist amendment and its consequences and
dilatory motion which requests a specific time delay in considering a bill.
The third issue which has
arisen on at least two occasions is that of having both a government bill and a
private member’s bill on the Order Paper which contain essentially the same
provisions. In both instances the government bill received second reading prior
to consideration of the private member’s public bill resulting in Speaker’s
rulings removing the latter from the Order Paper. In the most recent case, it
appeared that there might be a race to the wire as to which bill would first
come to a vote at second reading. Had the private member’s public bill done so
and been defeated, there would have been a fierce battle as to whether the
government bill which implemented a tuition cap for post-secondary institutions
would have had to been removed from the Order Paper.
The following are some
comments received from a survey of Alberta members the majority of whom were
elected prior to 1993 and are in the best position to comment on the impact of
the Standing Order changes.
Prior to 1993,
private members’ public bills were used to put forward ideas. Details in bills
were loosely written. After 1993, the process is much more serious. It allows
the private member to deal with certain issues that government departments seem
reluctant to. Gives the private member some power to influence Ministers on
certain issues. Members are now more covetous of their draw positions. It is a
significant improvement but there are risks of moving ahead too quickly without
Has worked well. The rush of
the clock is a problem. Gives the private member a serious opportunity to bring
forward concerns that have to be dealt with. Brings good ideas forward. There
is a danger that the government could use the private members’ public bill
process as a form of closure. Private members have forced ministers and
departments to take notice.
Has allowed private members to
get into detail on legislative changes. Adds to the democratic process.
Believe it is extremely
valuable. Ministers not involved early enough in the process. Gives every
member the opportunity to put forward gut issues and realize results.
Otherwise, the private member can be frustrated. It is a valuable and important
It would appear that changes
in how private members’ legislation is dealt within the Alberta Legislative
Assembly has led to the empowerment of private members. Not only do they have a
forum in which to put forward their ideas and debate, but the possibility of
their ideas being translated into law is significantly enhanced. Even if
members are not successful in having their legislation passed, there is strong
evidence that the process enables them to obtain concessions on issues relating
to their legislative proposals.