How to win while losing: private members’ bills and the virtues of going big

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There is something to be said for doomed efforts — like the ill-fated private members bill that would have lowered the federal voting age to 16.

Bill C-210, sponsored by NDP MP Taylor Bachrach, was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon. The result was not particularly close. With most Liberals voting against and all Conservatives voting against, the final score was 246 to 77.

“Today was a great missed opportunity to include more diverse perspectives and strengthen our democracy,” Bachrach lamented in a statement released after the vote.

Whether C-210 was a missed opportunity – opinions can differ – it wasn’t a waste of time.

NDP MP Taylor Bachrach attends a press conference with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in Ottawa on October 30, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bachrach’s bill at least went further than previous versions of the same idea, dating back to 2011. These bills – most of which were tabled by NDP MP Don Davies – were not even brought up for debate. Bachrach’s bill also won support from 20 Liberal backbenchers.

These 20 Liberals could offer voting-age reformers a way to push the idea further. But the discussion is probably far from over. For one thing, a similar bill is still floating around in the Senate. On the other hand, a legal challenge to the existing voting age is still being prosecuted.

If this legal challenge is successful, the question of where to set the voting age will be referred back to Parliament. In that case, Bill C-210 could look prophetic – and many more MPs could decide that 16 is indeed a good place to draw the line on eligibility to vote.

The long quotas on bills from private members

Relatively few of the bills debated by Private Members pass both the House and Senate and become law — and there are limits to how much a backbencher can propose at all.

Members of Parliament can only put one bill or motion for debate at each session of Parliament. Such bills or motions must operate within federal jurisdiction and must not oblige the government to generate new revenue or spend new funds. (Of course, MEPs also tend to think about what kind of initiatives their parties might expect from them.)

Given these considerations, an MP might be well advised to vote for a small and relatively uncontroversial amendment that has an obvious chance of garnering broad, all-party support. Backbench MPs often toil away in anonymity. Passing a bill is an opportunity—an absolute good opportunity—for a member to stand out and make a mark.

But there is a good case for MPs to use their privileges and platforms to more aggressively probe and test the boundaries of public policy – even if it means defeat.

For Parliament to be truly representative and relevant, it needs to be a place where new and unknown ideas are regularly tested. If an idea is really worth considering, a rejected private member’s bill can be part of that necessary discussion.

In the past 15 years, private membership bills have been increasing Decriminalization of marijuana, Set greenhouse gas emission targets, sports betting, Transgender Rights and medical help in dying all passed neither the House nor the Senate – but each awaited eventual changes in the law. Recent initiatives such as C-210 or C-216that would have implemented comprehensive drug decriminalization could potentially follow a similar path.

Ideas often have to marinate in the public consciousness for a while before the majority is ready to move forward. And if the voting age changes sometime in the foreseeable future, C-210 might end up being at least one reason.

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