Behold the empowered (Conservative) backbencher

On the successful passage of private members’ bills

<p>The Peace Tower is seen on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 5, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick</p>

The Peace Tower is seen on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 5, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

On the occasion of Parliament’s impending adjournment for the summer, Government House leader Peter Van Loan touted the legislative accomplishments we have witnessed, including an unprecedented level of backbench success:

In this Parliament, a record-breaking 20 substantive private member’s bills have become law so far and, as well, we expect four more to achieve royal assent today. This is an unprecedented level of individual members of parliament coming forward and passing ideas that are very important to their constituents. Never before in Canadian parliamentary history have we seen this number of substantive private member’s bills become law. Again, this is a strong record of hard work and delivering results, of which members of parliament can be proud.

Van Loan’s not wrong, though he does seem to be including bills sponsored by senators in his tally. Here is the official count of private members’ bills to have passed both houses of Parliament and, to the bills listed for the current Parliament, you can add C-217, C-394, C-489 and C-444, which received royal assent last week. For the record, 20 of those bills were sponsored by MPs.

There are a couple of trends therein. First, 18 of those 20 bills were proposed by Conservative MPs, the exceptions being Liberal MP Geoff Regan’s bill to establish a day for epilepsy awareness and NDP MP Alexandrine Latendresse’s bill to mandate an understanding of both official languages for various officers of Parliament. Of course, if you’re looking to get a bill through Parliament, it helps if a majority of members share your partisan affiliation. Seven of the 12 bills passed between 1984 and 1993 originated with Progressive Conservative MPs, and 12 of the 18 bills passed between 1993 and 2004 originated with Liberals.

There is also a bit of a theme to those 18 Conservative bills, or, at least half of those bills. Seven deal with the Criminal Code, while two others deal with issues of incarceration. Since private members’ bills can’t authorize the spending of public funds, the Criminal Code is perhaps an easy target for MPs looking to do something, and this also fits with a party that has made being “tough on crime” key to its identity. But concerns have been raised about rewriting the Criminal Code via private members’ bills.

There are another 13 private members’ bills that have passed the House and are now in the Senate. Nine of those were sponsored by Conservative MPs. (One NDP MP’s bill, C-290, which would clear the way for provinces to legalize single-game sports betting, first reached the Senate in March 2012, but has been stuck at third reading since the end of that year. The Windsor Star is unimpressed.)

Fifteen other private members’ bills have been defeated so far in the second session of this Parliament (listed here), all but one sponsored by an opposition MP and most voted down along party lines. Bills C-474 (transparency for payments by resource companies to foreign governments) and C-539 (promoting local food) managed to win one Conservative vote each, while C-567 (access to information reform) won two Conservative votes. Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott’s C-560 (equal parenting) split the Conservative caucus, while NDP MP Alex Atamanenko’s C-571 (horse slaughter) won two Conservative votes, but split the NDP caucus.

For all of that, the most interesting private member’s bill to have reached a vote in this Parliament might be C-461, which was neither passed, nor defeated, but withdrawn by Independent MP Brent Rathgeber after it was amended without his consent. It was those changes that inspired Rathgeber to quit the Conservative caucus, and it was that quitting that subsequently turned him into an interesting test case for MP independence and a symbol in the larger debate about the state of the House. And, in that regard, it might be said that the successful passage of private members’ bills is but one metric to judge the relative empowerment of MPs.