In what will very likely be his last attempt to change the federal law of the land from his seat on the Commons backbenches, retiring Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott has put forward a private members' motion to scrap an all-party subcommittee that stymied caucus colleague Mark Warawa's efforts last spring to force a House vote on his motion to condemn sex-selective abortion.

Under his proposal, private members' business could be deemed non-votable — presumably, but not explicitly, by the Speaker — only if it deals with questions that are "substantially the same" to those already voted on by the House, or are "substantially the same" as a bill or motion already on the Order Paper "as items of government business."

Currently, such decisions are made by the subcommittee on private members' business, which can declare items non-votable not only if the above criteria are met, but also when its members conclude that a bill or motion deals with matters outside federal jurisdiction or "clearly violate" the Constitution or Charter of Rights.

(It's worth noting that all four criteria, including the two that would be grounds for declaring a motion non-votable under Vellacott's proposal, were cited by the subcommittee during deliberations on Warawa's motion.)

In a press release, Vellacott claims his motion will "fix a current vulnerability .. that has led to a system where a small group of MPs are able to control, often from behind closed doors, what issues are and are not allowed to be voted on in the House of Commons."

“Private Members’ Business is one of the few mechanisms a backbench MP has to speak out on issues of the day that are of deep concern to them and thousands of Canadians,” he continues.

“Yet a handful of MPs who, for whatever reasons, don’t want an issue to come to a vote, actually have the power to prevent their colleagues in the House from voting on that issue — even if a majority of Canadians want that issue to be voted on! That kind of a muzzling is a blight on democracy!”

Last December, Vellacott submitted two abortion-related motions to the Order Paper, as well as a private members' bill that would change divorce laws to focus on shared parenting.

According to his office, he hasn't yet made up his mind which item of business he intends to bring forward when his name is officially added to the private members' priority list later this week.

Decisions, decisions

Under House rules, priority list-bound MPs with more than one item on the Order Paper will have until Friday afternoon to do so, and Vellacott isn't the only one with a tough choice ahead of him. 

By the time that deadline rolls around, his fellow Conservative MP Scott Reid will have put forward no fewer than three items since the House reopened for business on Monday:

  • A motion to move to a preferential ballot for future House Speaker elections.
  • Another that would tweak the rules surrounding royal assent.
  • And a soon-to-be-tabled bill that would formalize the process by which governors general are appointed and removed.

At press time, he's not quite ready to specify which one he intends to bring with him when he gets bumped up to the priority list later this week.

"Heavens, no," he replied via Twitter direct message. "This way, I have three more days to be indecisive about which one to go with."

The probationary list of private members' business set to be added to the precedence list will be available next Monday.

But as Vellacott states in his defence of his motion, the subcommittee could still declare certain items to be non-votable, at which point the sponsor would have to choose whether to proceed with it anyway, substituting a less contentious bill or motion (as Warawa ultimately chose to do) or appealing the ruling to the House.