Inside Politics

Score one for Rathgeber: Speaker agrees to drop bill rewritten by government

C-461 (CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act)

November 5, 2012 - February 26, 2014

So this, it seems, is how it all ends for a private members' bill spurned by its own sponsor after being forcibly rewritten by a government-controlled House committee: Not with a bang, nor a whimper, but a historic -- and precedent-setting -- speaker's ruling.

Last night, former Conservative turned Independent MP Brent Rathgeber sat in the back row of the Commons and watched his erstwhile caucus colleagues methodically vote down each and every report stage amendments that he had proposed as part of an eleventh-hour attempt to restore his bid to increase government transparency to its original form.

When the last vote had been called, he rose in his place to inform the speaker that, as he could no longer support the bill that he had once been so proud to put forward in his name, he would not be moving the usual pro forma motion to officially concur in the version that had emerged from committee.

On the surface, it seemed to be a purely symbolic gesture, albeit the only one left that would give him some way to make sure his dismay over what had become of his bill was part of the official record. 

Like all legislation, once introduced, a private members' bill belongs to the House of Commons -- and, as such, requires unanimous consent to be withdrawn from consideration.

Although Rathgeber declined to test the will of the Chamber, the downright glee with which the Conservative caucus had blocked his report stage efforts to repair it would seem to put the odds of that consent being given somewhere between slim and none.

(It's worth noting that earlier that same day, the House actually did agree to quietly quash Conservative backbencher Devinder Shory's bill to strip citizenship from dual nationals who engage in "acts of war" against Canadian soldiers abroad -- with, to be clear, Shory's full support, as the relevant provisions have been folded into the government's latest proposal to revamp the Citizenship Act, rendering his bill redundant.)

In any case, as Rathgeber was sitting down to a standing ovation from his new colleagues on the opposition benches, however, something remarkable took place.

"The House now seems faced with what seems to be an unprecedented situation," House Speaker Andrew Scheer observed in response to Rathgeber's very public reluctance to see the bill move forward.

"[T]he sponsor of the bill, the honourable member for Edmonton--St. Albert, has indicated that he does not wish to move the motion to concur in the bill as amended at report stage."

After reminding the Chamber that, under the standing orders, "the Speaker may make all arrangements necessary to ensure the orderly conduct of private members' business," he ruled that the order for concurrence at report stage be discharged and the bill itself dropped from the order paper.

And with that -- and amid a standing ovation from the opposition benches -- it was over, and never has an MP likely been more relieved to see his own bill put to death.

Just as important, however, is the precedent set by Scheer's ruling.

By letting Rathgeber off on the procedural equivalent of a technicality, he may well have discouraged future (or, indeed, current) governments from mendaciously meddling in matters of purely private members' business -- at least, to such an extent that the sponsor himself disowns the result.

Which only seems fair, really.

After all, governments can both bring in their own bills, and -- at least, in a majority House -- vote down those with which they disagree. Why should they be permitted to hijack backbench initiatives?

Private members' business should remain the domain of private members, not a legislative short cut for governments. 

Scheer's decision should serve as a timely reminder to those who might think otherwise. 

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