MPs' lottery sets private members' pecking order

What private members' business will the Commons debate next fall? The results of a lottery last month tell the tale.

B.C.'s Russ Hiebert to decide 1st private member's business for fall

NDP MP Olivia Chow won re-election on May 2, and won again when her name was pulled fifth in the lottery to determine which MPs will have their private members' business considered by the House of Commons this fall. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

For a lucky group of MPs, this summer will be anything but quiet on the legislative front.

They've got some big decisions to make, and a lot of lobbying to do, all because they won the lottery.

"It's about all I've been thinking about," admits the NDP's Ryan Cleary.

While the House of Commons spends most of its time on government business, a limited amount of time is allocated to "private members' business:" a chance for debate on motions or bills proposed by individual members of Parliament.

Each session, hundreds are introduced. But there's time for only a chosen few to be considered and potentially come to a vote.

And that's where luck comes into play.

Last month, a private draw was held to rank every MP who is not a cabinet minister or parliamentary secretary — some 240 names in all — in an order of precedence for considering private members' business.

For those drawn first, winning this legislative lottery can be a chance to bring a personal priority — a campaign pledge, a pet project, or a key local concern — to centre stage in the House of Commons. For a few precious hours, at least.

Top names in the 2011 private members' lottery

  • 1. Hiebert, Russ (Conservative)
  • 2. Cleary, Ryan (NDP)
  • 3. Brown, Patrick (Conservative)
  • 4. Smith, Joy (Conservative)
  • 5. Chow, Olivia (NDP)
  • 6. LeBlanc, Hélène (NDP)
  • 7. Carmichael, John (Conservative)
  • 8. Davidson, Patricia (Conservative)
  • 9. Comartin, Joe (NDP)
  • 10. Ravignat, Mathieu (NDP)
  • 11. Tilson, David (Conservative)
  • 12. Albas, Dan (Conservative)
  • 13. Regan, Geoff (Liberal)
  • 14. Rajotte, James (Conservative)
  • 15. Storseth, Brian (Conservative)
  • 16. Richards, Blake (Conservative)
  • 17. Albrecht, Harold (Conservative)
  • 18. Stoffer, Peter (NDP)
  • 19. Lauzon, Guy (Conservative)
  • 20. Coderre, Denis (Liberal)
  • 21. Scarpaleggia, Francis (Liberal)
  • 22. James, Roxanne (Conservative)
  • 23. Aubin, Robert (NDP)
  • 24. Wilks, David (Conservative)
  • 25. Harris, Richard (Conservative)
  • 26. Duncan, Kirsty (Liberal)
  • 27. Benoit, Leon (Conservative)
  • 28. Rousseau, Jean (NDP)
  • 29. Boulerice, Alexandre (NDP)
  • 30. Côté, Raymond (NDP)
Complete results

Which MPs go first?

British Columbia Conservative Russ Hiebert's name was pulled first in last month's random draw.

The government's now-larger majority caucus is evident in the fact that three out of the top five MPs whose ideas are headed for the front of the line are Conservatives.

If you're looking for a politician particularly blessed with good fortune, Manitoba Conservative Joy Smith would be well-suited to buy your office pool's lottery tickets: this is the second time her name was picked early in the draw.

In the last Parliament, she held the third slot and it paid off: her private member's bill on human trafficking passed. This time, her name was pulled fourth.

The 2011 draw suggests the NDP's luck still holds following the May 2 election. The official opposition scored five of the top 10 spots, including the second spot, which went to Newfoundland and Labrador MP Ryan Cleary.

The Liberals' luck did not improve: their top name is Nova Scotia MP Geoff Regan at 13.

The top Bloc Québécois MP is Louis Plamandon at 32, while Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is well back at slot 110.

By the time the House considers private members' business for the first time in early October, the top names need to have decided how to use their slots.

Being drawn in the top 30 suggests there's a reasonable chance an MP's idea could see the light of day.

What bills and motions will advance?

Some of the winning MPs already have big plans for their chance to set the House's agenda. Others are playing their cards a little closer to the chest until Parliament returns this fall.

Hiebert's in the latter category. He's spending his summer mulling over two or three different options, including one that could be a pretty comprehensive bill, according to his office.

But first, he wants to spend more time consulting not only legal and legislative experts, but also his colleagues, to figure out which of his ideas has the most potential and the greatest chance of support from a majority of MPs.

Waiting a bit also gives MPs a chance to change their minds as new circumstances arise. It's also helpful to avoid repetition of the same topics and proposals among the early items on the agenda.

A private members' motion introduced by Hiebert in the last Parliament calling for income-splitting for families with children has become Conservative government policy, thanks in part, he believes, to his efforts to advance the issue.

Now he's looking for a new subject to tackle, perhaps from among his policy interests in finance, justice or access to information and privacy issues.

If a member wants to advance an issue calling on the government to spend money in a certain way, he or she must do so in the form of a (non-binding) motion unless a royal recommendation (endorsement) is received, allowing a finance bill to move forward.

Next up: fisheries management

Rookie MP Cleary is burdened by no such indecision. He already knows what he wants to use his time for: a call for an inquiry into the fall of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery, and why it failed to rise again after the moratorium was lifted.

Cleary campaigned on the issue in last spring's election, and he's determined to bring it forward at this, his earliest opportunity. He's already met with lawyers from the library of Parliament to figure out how to draft a bill or motion.

He may opt to have Parliament debate whether an inquiry is needed. Alternatively, he may draft a motion finding the federal government liable for damages to the province resulting from poor management of the province's fishery.

Either way, he's pretty sure it won't pass: the government has already said it is opposed to calling an inquiry.

But that's not the point. Cleary wants to use his time to draw attention to the issue, and embarrass the Conservatives, if possible.

"There's no recovery plan in place [for the fishery]," he said in a recent telephone interview. "As long as we have an oil industry, [fisheries] conservation will play second fiddle.

"It pisses me off every time I talk about it," Cleary added, suggesting Stephen Harper's government has shown "outright contempt" for his province.

Smith to target human trafficking again

Buoyed by the successful passage of her private members' bill in the last Parliament, Conservative Smith intends to continue her focus on human trafficking and introduce another new measure in this area.

Her last bill amended the criminal code to create a new offence for child trafficking with a five-year mandatory penalty. It was supported by every party except the Bloc Québécois and received royal assent a year ago.

It's relatively rare for a private members' bill to amend the criminal code: Smith's office believes it's happened only about 15 times in Canadian legislative history.

Like her colleague Cleary, NDP MP Olivia Chow, who's fifth in the order of precedence, knows what she's going to do with her bill and plans to spend her summer securing votes.

Chow will introduce a bill in September calling for a national public transit strategy, a cause for which she's long been an advocate, going back to her days as a municipal politician in Toronto.

She's got a petition in circulation to ramp up pressure for its passage. And she's already got the endorsement of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities and the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

Chow says her bill borrows heavily from a recent report by Canada's big city mayors, and would garner support from city halls across the country.

Some Conservatives are already on board. Former transport minister Lawrence Cannon started an initiative but then "didn't get it done," Chow notes.

MP Mike Chong called for a national public transit act in a 2010 speech. And Chow believes he's not the only sitting Conservative who could rally to her side.

She estimates she needs about 15 more government votes, plus those of all her fellow Opposition MPs, to pass her bill.

She's hoping to meet with Denis Lebel, the new transport minister, in the fall to close the deal.

Will she succeed?

"We shall see," she says optimistically. A long, hot summer of lobbying lies ahead.