A bill of one’s own

Local MP seeks citizens’ ideas for legislation

Robert-Falcon Ouellette on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Photo by Matthew Cavett-Goodwin

A new approach by a Winnipeg Member of Parliament will give ordinary Canadians a chance to propose legislation. 

On Feb. 23, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, MP for Winnipeg Centre, announced on Facebook that he will be accepting ideas for private members’ bills. 

“I’m taking a different approach to the way things are done in Ottawa,” Ouellette wrote. 

“With some hard work, your ideas can be introduced in your House of Commons.” 

A private member’s bill is a piece of draft legislation crafted by an individual MP rather than the government. The House of Commons devotes only one hour per day to debating such bills. Although 3,322 have been introduced since 2001, only 59 have become laws, versus 372 of the 647 government-sponsored bills. However, private members’ bills do influence government. 

“I was looking for a way to involve more people in the democratic process because sometimes governments will take those private members’ bills, and might convert them or add them to a line of major legislation,” Ouellette says. 

Although a lottery determined that Ouellette is number 236 on a list of MPs to have one of their bills reach second reading – not until 2018 or 2019, he estimates – like others, he can announce new bills and use them as concrete talking points with the media and ministers’ offices. 

Dr. Royce Koop, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba who has written about private members’ bills, has never heard of a politician drafting them based directly on citizens’ ideas. Although he finds the approach “neat”, he doesn’t see it as “radical.” He believes that MPs already champion their constituents’ ideas. 

“If you convince an MP that there’s this big issue, you know, growing in importance, then there’s a good chance they’ll act on it. (MPs) need to be re-elected. And so they’re looking for issues that they can embrace. They’re looking for things that they can fight on behalf of their constituents for.” 

However, individual MPs have limited legislative power in a system focused on government-proposed legislation and party discipline. Koop believes that private members’ bills are a way of breaking ground on an issue, citing a 2010 paper from Kelly Blidook. 

“His argument was that private members introduce issues, they get them onto the public radar, you kind of hash out debates, you see where the weak points are, what the main objections are, all that kind of stuff.” 

“The government can kinda see that, and (say) ‘So, well, do we want a government bill on this? Do we want to push this forward?’” 

Sometimes private members’ bills have led to dramatic results, as in 2012 when the long gun registry was eliminated. 

“There were bills to abolish the gun registry,” Koop says. “The government could never pass these, until it was proposed in a private member’s bill put forward by Candice Hoeppner. And the idea was, because it was a private member’s bill, the parties wouldn’t whip their members.” 

Recent private members’ bills by various MPs include acts to create a Leif Erickson Day, develop a national poverty reduction strategy, and allow police officers to use devices to detect airborne alcohol. 

All current bills can be viewed on the LEGISinfo system at the Parliament of Canada’s website.

Published in Volume 70, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 10, 2016)

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