In the News
House of Commons
“Private Member’s” Bills Drawn by Lottery
– Anna Di Carlo –
To present what is called a “private member’s” bill in the Parliament of Canada, eligible MPs put their names in a hat and the top thirty drawn have a chance to see the legislation they propose adopted.
This is what the people elected to the House of Commons are called – private members – unless they are appointed to a specific position by the Prime Minister or as a result of parliamentary procedures.
“Private members’ business” is a daily one-hour slot in the House of Commons during which MPs who are not ministers or parliamentary secretaries can propose bills and motions or give notice of requests for the production of government papers or documents in the House. However, only MPs who win the lottery held at the beginning of each Parliament can have their proposed legislation move forward.
The lottery for the current session of Parliament was held after the Parliament was convened. On November 30, the Speaker of the House announced the results of the draw, referred to as the “order of precedence,” for the 297 then-eligible MPs. Three of the 30 winners had to be dropped off the list because Trudeau appointed them as parliamentary secretaries. The next three names that had been drawn were then moved up.
MP’s must not only win the lottery. Their legislation cannot involve public spending unless they receive “Royal Leave,” granted by the Prime Minister. Nor can they deal with matters already on the agenda as government business. Legislation must also receive approval to proceed from the Subcommittee on Private Members’ Business of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
As of December 16, MPs had tabled 23 private bills, all of them deemed to be “outside of the order of precedence.” They sit at first reading unless the MPs who tabled the bills perchance move up to the top 30 at some later point. Conservative MPs have put forward two bills; NDP members have introduced 19; Greens put forward one. A Liberal MP introduced one as well. 
The irony of holding a lottery with thirty winners out of all the MPs in the House is that it was introduced in the first place because of the fact that the system called a representative democracy gives absolutely no role to those who it is said the people elect to represent them – except of course to obey the Party Whip on the grounds that the Party in Power or in Opposition are said to have a mandate from the people to do whatever they tell the MPs to do (as well as draw healthy salaries and pensions, if they can sit for at least two terms).
The current rules on private members’ legislation were introduced following a 1985 Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. The Committee introduced its report by quoting a newly elected Progressive Conservative MP who said: “I am absolutely amazed at how little input private members have into the formulation of legislation, policies and/or regulations. [M]ost of the time we are told what a minister will be announcing in 48 hours and we do not have access, any means to study or contribute or change the finished product. But members must go to their constituencies to explain and support the decision of the government. Sometimes this is extremely difficult.”
The report stated that the aim of its study and recommended reforms was: “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.”
That was in 1985 – 37 years ago. Canadians are still waiting for the House of Commons to be restored “to its rightful place in the Canadian political process.”
A Samara Centre for Democracy Study conducted ten years ago interviewed 65 long-serving former MPs about their experience, including on the subject of private members’ bills. The study, entitled “It’s My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered,” said that some MPs complained that “political parties were increasingly limiting the abilities of MPs to introduce their own private members’ bills, instead using them to test a potential piece of legislation.” This underscored again the party domination of elected MPs.
A modern democracy would enable all members of the polity to bring legislative initiatives forward for consideration. The current system is designed to block this. The rules for private members’ bills even stipulate that the legislation cannot be presented on behalf of a constituent. “Constituents” are permitted to have petitions presented on their behalf but no legislation need be forthcoming.
The fact that members of Parliament must participate in a lottery to advance legislation in the House shows the extent to which this political system bars the people the House is alleged to represent from participating in the decisions that affect their lives.
1. The list of these bills can be viewed here.
(Renewal Update, posted January 25, 2022)