Liberals have passed half as many bills as Harper's government in same time period

The legislative agenda of the Liberal government continues to trail that of the Conservative government it replaced. But a Liberal spokesperson said that because of the importance of the bills passed, the government need to ensure they were well debated in Parliament.

'Because of the importance of the legislation, we ensured they were well debated in Parliament,' Liberals say

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government has passed just half the number of government bills Harper did in the same timeframe during his majority mandate. (Canadian Press)

The Liberal government has passed just half the number of bills as the Conservatives did in the same time period, with some key pieces of legislation — including the pot bill — not expected to become law until well into the new year.

According to an analysis by CBC News, the Harper government secured royal assent for 61 House and Senate government bills between June 2011 and June 2013, the first half of the Conservatives' majority mandate. By comparison, the Liberals have so far ushered in just 34 government bills in a similar two-year period.

Only five government bills — including two rather routine pieces of legislation — have passed both chambers of Parliament since September.

There will be a flurry of legislative activity over the next week before parliamentarians leave Ottawa for their ridings or regions, with the Senate poised to pass at least a couple more bills before it rises ahead of Christmas.

But those bills, while significant to the stakeholders who back them, do not address major Liberal campaign promises.

Indeed, the bill establishing the framework for legalized cannabis, Bill C-45, has been delivered to the Red Chamber, where further debate is expected. Some Conservative senators have said they're prepared to dig in their heels on some of the bill's provisions.

Bill C-46, a bill that significantly amends the country's impaired driving laws, is on a similar trajectory.

The government's major overhaul of transportation laws, Bill C-49 — which includes the framework for an airline "passenger bill of rights" and changes to the country's rail regulations — is now headed for committee and is not expected to pass before Christmas. During its study of the bill, the House of Commons transport committee heard from some 80 witnesses at five meetings, held over the course of month.

Instead, these bills are expected to pass before year's end:

  • A bill designed to boost diversity among corporate directors and members of senior management (Bill C-25).
  • A bill implementing a First Nations education agreement in Ontario (Bill C-61).

Legislative efficiency

"Looking at the number of bills passed is reasonable as a measure of a government's efficiency — it is not perfect, but it's still worth looking at," said Kelly Blidook, a professor of political science at Memorial University in Newfoundland and an expert on political and legislative behaviour.

But Blidook said it was important to note the Conservative government had already been in power for some five years — although in a minority government — and thus had a running start when it sat down to govern with a majority of MPs.

"The Harper government … had some legislation ready to go upon getting their majority in 2011," he said, adding that the Conservatives liberally used legislative measures — such as time allocation — to end debate and ensure a speedier passage. "This can result in more bills being passed, but this is not necessarily a good thing."

Moreover, some of those Conservative bills were relatively minor tweaks to the Criminal Code — strengthening witness protection, measures to prevent elder abuse, and changes to citizen's arrest law, among others. But they also passed omnibus budget bills that ran to more than 400 pages in length, meaning a mere numerical count of bills doesn't give the whole picture.

Senate to blame?

A Liberal government official, speaking on background, said Conservative senators in particular have been "holding things up" by using delay tactics with key pieces of legislation.

For example, Bill C-16, known as the trans rights bill, was before the Senate for more than eight months of debate.

But Conservative Senator David Tkachuk, a senior member of that caucus, has a different take. 

"The problem with this government is that it wants an independent Senate when necessary, but not necessarily an independent Senate when that doesn't suit its purposes," he said Tuesday, adding that, historically, bills have spent much longer in the House than in the Senate.

A spokesperson for Liberal House leader Bardish Chagger says the Liberals have passed less bills because they've allowed for more debate on substantive legislation. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

New Independent senators, who owe no loyalty to the Liberal Party, have also shown a penchant for amending bills, something that is well within the rules, but can slow a bill's passage. Meanwhile, Liberal senators who were turfed from the national caucus at the height of the expenses scandal, have shown no qualms about casting votes against legislation introduced by their former colleagues.

A spokesperson for House Leader Bardish Chagger said in a statement to CBC News that the Liberal government "is proud of the wide range of legislation that we have introduced and passed. Our bills have been substantive in nature and will improve the lives of Canadians." The spokesperson pointed to legislation boosting Canada Pension Plan (CPP) payouts, "middle class" tax cuts and a free trade deal with Europe as some of the government's accomplishments.

"Because of the importance of the legislation, we ensured they were well debated in Parliament."

While the Liberals have had a tougher time moving government bills through the legislative process, they have allowed a number of private members' bills from the opposition to pass, including a Conservative bill on an Alzheimer's strategy and further safeguards for medical assistance in dying (MAID).

Five consequential Senate Public Bills — the name given to bills introduced by senators who are not part of the government — have also received royal assent in the Liberal's first two years. These included the Magnitsky Act to allow sanctions against foreign governments that violate human rights, and a bill that protects journalistic sources, introduced by Claude Carginan, the former Conservative leader in the Senate.

Former Senate Liberal leader Jim Cowan also got his genetic discrimination bill over the line with the support of Liberal backbenchers, despite the opposition of the prime minister and his cabinet.


John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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