Newly elected members of Parliament are eager to get started on changing legislation for the better. They burst into the House of Commons with good ideas to make life easier for their constituents. But MPs soon learn that not being in cabinet is a major barrier to advancing their ideas.

Backbench MPs might spend hours consulting on a new policy to introduce as a private member’s bill only to discover that the procedural realities of Parliament mean the ability to advance an item under their name is subject to a random draw. That is, the names of members are put into a box at the beginning of the session and drawn to determine who has priority advancing backbench legislation. For unlucky members, whole parliamentary sessions can go by without a single opportunity to move a bill forward. Some sessions can last several years.

Pity the MP appointed as parliamentary secretary. They and certain others are excluded entirely from the draw. Senators, too, must contend with a practice that prioritizes bills introduced early in the session.

So what if an MP has bad luck in the draw, or a senator has a great idea late in the parliamentary calendar? They will struggle mightily to get good legislative ideas seriously considered. Even making minor changes or technical tweaks to existing laws can be a frustrating process for regular MPs.

It’s a longstanding problem, and a mechanism is needed that could facilitate these sorts of changes and provide members with an effective legislative function. Giving greater voice and value to the legislative proposals of individual parliamentarians is possible, and all Canadians stand to benefit.

Former MPs express worry, frustration with state of Parliament

The virtues of a parallel chamber

In 1985, James McGrath’s celebrated special committee report recommended reforming the House of Commons to empower individual legislators. The power of the prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office was growing steadily at the time, diminishing the effectiveness of regular MPs. The report aimed “to restore to private members an effective legislative function, to give them a meaningful role in the formation of public policy.” The reality remains, however, that convincing the government to adopt a backbench initiative is no easy feat.

Today, parliamentarians vie for the attention of exceedingly busy ministers to consider a matter, and the minister in turn engages the public service for analysis. Meanwhile, the parliamentary clock ticks away. Between allocated opposition days, winter breaks, summer recesses, and the vagaries of events that steal attention and become the legislative focus of the moment (not to mention minority parliaments, when an election is always in the offing), there is rarely enough time to get through the governing party’s platform promises, much less ideas from the backbench or opposition members. And it goes without saying that from the cabinet’s point of view, any proposal from a regular MP with significant cost implications is a non-starter.

Consider the plight of a legislator with a modest proposal. Say, for example, a backbench MP wants to enshrine and expand in law the Canada Post holiday program that lets families send parcels for free to loved ones serving abroad in the Canadian Forces. Nothing in the law requires Canada Post to continue the program, and the legislator would like this service extended for service members’ birthdays. But the MP is unsure how to achieve this legislatively. None of the relevant cabinet ministers who would need to weigh in is showing interest. The proposal is too low on their priority list.

The MP could move a motion calling on the government to do something, but this rarely accomplishes anything concrete. With some luck they might be able to table their own private member’s bill, but there’s no guarantee the government would support it, and most private members’ bills ultimately go nowhere. Some legislators may seek to make a splash in their own name, but there are plenty of parliamentarians who would simply say, “I don’t care how this gets done, I’d just like it done,” particularly for smaller amendments or technical changes to a statute.

Perspective is important: few will read the statute book years from now and ask whether something came from the government or the backbench, whether it was initiated in the Senate or House of Commons, or whether its sponsor was of a particular political stripe.

A legislative package of many ideas

What could help is a formalized process to collect legislative ideas from parliamentarians to be advanced in one legislative package. Omnibus is a word with negative connotation for some people, but it is important to consider that Parliament often uses big bills for low-profile matters. In the current Parliament, this has occurred for regulatory modernization (modifying 25+ statutes) or civil law harmonization (modifying 50+ statutes). Indeed, there is even something called The Miscellaneous Statute Law Amendment Program, which generates non-controversial bills from time to time that, among other things, repeal out-of-date provisions.

How might it work?

The government could put out an annual call for legislative ideas similar to the call it puts out to all Canadians for its annual pre-budget consultations. A committee could be empowered to bring in an annual bill formed entirely of parliamentarian suggestions. Or caucuses could collaborate so that someone selected in the random draw for private members’ business in the House, for example, advances an initiative that includes measures from all groups.

In whatever form such a bill is advanced, it would be for parliamentarians in both Houses to decide what to keep, reject, or amend, but it would allow for easier consideration of issues that – while off the government’s radar – are important nonetheless to our elected representatives.

The cabinet would, of course, want to carefully consider such a bill, but one suspects the ministers would be more likely to respond to a bill crafted in this manner rather than to individual parliamentarians continually knocking on their office doors.

Let’s face it – some minor and technical tweaks are never going to be priorities, such as updating statutes with older language such as “chairman” to describe positions that can be (and have been) filled by women, or repealing provisions that have been struck down by the courts and never replaced. There are also odd provisions that may warrant revisiting – if an MP is expelled from the House, for example, they lose their pension benefits, but an expelled senator keeps theirs.

Conservative MP Ed Fast speaks during a news conference on his private member’s bill on medical assistance in dying, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

No one entity in Parliament has a monopoly on ideas worth legislating. Ideas initially introduced in non-government bills have been advanced in government legislative initiatives. In recent years these have included measures expanding bereavement leave for pregnancy miscarriages and stillbirths, prohibiting the promotion of antisemitism, requiring sexual assault law training for certain judges, banning conversion therapy, and changing government powers for the seizure and forfeiture of foreign assets. Most of these measures were supported unanimously in one House or the other in some form.

Parliamentarians, particularly those long-serving, have likely encountered issues in the law that required just a small change to make them better for Canadians. There are few avenues available to advance such changes without either expending significant energy and potential political capital, or holding out hope to be randomly selected for private members’ business.

Recognizing one another as legislators and working together co-operatively may allow our parliamentarians to advance good ideas in a more efficient, collective, and collaborative way. Even putting aside partisanship is possible, evidenced by the unanimous support achieved for some of the measures described above. For new MPs, such a process could give them a meaningful role in shaping public policy, just as they’d hoped.

This article is part of the Making a Better Parliament special feature series.

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Anna Lennox Esselment
Anna Lennox Esselment is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. She has published articles and book chapters on Canadian institutions, intergovernmental relations, partisanship and political marketing.

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