The Mark Warawa reform

A proposal to change the way private members’ bills are handled

Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott has tabled a motion that would amend the process by which private members’ bills and motions are deemed to be voteable.

The history of private members’ business is long, but the current system dates to the McGrath committee’s reforms. Essentially, at present, the Subcommittee on Private Members’ Business meets regularly to determine whether the proposals of eligible MPs are in order. That determination is to be made on the basis of four criteria.

* bills and motions must not concern questions that are outside federal jurisdiction;

* bills and motions must not clearly violate the Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms;

* bills and motions must not concern questions that are substantially the same as ones already voted on by the House of Commons in the current session of Parliament, or as ones preceding them in the Order of Precedence; and

* bills and motions must not concern questions that are currently on the Order Paper or Notice Paper as items of government business.

If an MP’s proposal is ruled non-voteable, the MP can appeal that decision to the larger Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. If the Procedure and House Affairs committee also rules against the bill or motion, the MP can appeal to the House of Commons with the proposal’s fate determined by a secret ballot vote.

Mr. Vellacott proposes that the first two criteria—on jurisdiction and constitutionality—be eliminated from consideration and the decision would be taken away from MPs and given to House staff, acting on behalf of the Speaker.

In the backgrounder distributed by Mr. Vellacott’s office, the MP cites two precedents for his concern—Conservative MP Leon Benoit’s C-291 (which would have doubled the penalty for anyone who, in harming a pregnant woman, harmed an unborn child) and Mark Warawa’s Motion 408 (which asked the House to condemn sex-selective abortion).

C-291 was ruled non-voteable during an in camera meeting of the subcommittee in May 2006 and Mr. Benoit then took his case to the standing committee and though the committee concurred with the subcommittee, the bill still received an hour of discussion in the House, during which the government explained its view that the bill was unconstitutional.

Motion 408 was ruled non-voteable last March. The transcript of the subcommittee’s meeting is here. Though the committee clerk advised that the motion was within federal jurisdiction, did not offend the constitution and was not similar to any other bill or motion on the order paper, the MPs on the committee voted to deem the motion non-voteable. Liberal MP Stephane Dion and Conservative MP Scott Armstrong argued Motion 408 was similar to Motion 312, an earlier proposal of Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth that sought to establish a committee study of the Criminal Code section that defines when a human being becomes a human being. Mr. Warawa appealed that decision to the Procedure and House Affairs committee, but when that committee agreed with the subcommittee (the vote was conducted in camera), he declined to appeal to the House.

The grounds for deeming Mr. Warawa’s motion were at least debatable, but the question now might be whether that suggests the system is critically flawed.

Update 11:50am. And this is all now moot for the moment because Mr. Vellacott has decided to pursue a different bill.

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