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

Bill C-210, a private members' bill that would have lowered the voting age, was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday. But there's something to be said for the attempt.

Not all bills get to become laws, but some ideas are still worth debating

A skydiver glides beside the Peace tower during Canada Day events in Ottawa in 2022. Private members' bills may have their best effects when they're ambitious. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press/The Associated Press)

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There is something to be said for doomed efforts — like the ill-fated private member's 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 and all Conservatives voting against, the final tally was 246 to 77.

"Today was a huge, 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 may differ — it wasn't a waste of time.

NDP MP Taylor Bachrach takes part in a press conference with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in Ottawa on Oct. 30, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bachrach's bill at least made it further than previous versions of the same idea that go as far back as 2011. Those bills — most of which were tabled by NDP MP Don Davies — weren't even brought forward for debate. Bachrach's bill also managed to win the support of 20 Liberal backbenchers. 

Those 20 Liberals could provide an opening for voting-age reformers to push the idea further. But the discussion is likely far from over, regardless. For one thing, a similar bill is still kicking around in the Senate. For another, a legal challenge to the existing voting age is still being pursued through the courts.

If that legal challenge succeeds, the question of where to set the voting age gets sent back to Parliament. In that case, Bill C-210 might look prophetic — and a lot more MPs might decide that 16 is actually a good place to draw the line on voter eligibility.

The long odds on private members' bills

Relatively few of the private members' bills that are debated end up passing both the House and Senate and becoming law — and there are limits to how much any backbencher can even propose in the first place.

MPs are only able to bring forward one bill or motion for debate in any session of Parliament. Such bills or motions must apply within federal jurisdiction and must not commit the government to raising new revenue or spending new funds. (Of course, MPs also tend to consider what sort of initiatives their parties might like them to push.)

Given those considerations, an MP might be well advised to choose a small and relatively uncontroversial change that has an obvious chance of winning broad support across parties. Backbench MPs often toil in anonymity. Getting a bill passed is one way — a perfectly fine way — for a member to stand out and leave a mark.

But there's a good case to make for MPs using their privileges and platforms to more aggressively prod and test the limits of public policy — even if that means defeat.

For Parliament to be truly representative and relevant, it needs to be a place where new and unfamiliar ideas are tested periodically. When an idea is truly worthy of consideration, a defeated private member's bill can be part of that necessary discussion.

Over the past 15 years, private members' bills on marijuana decriminalization, mandating greenhouse gas emissions targets, sports betting, transgender rights and medical assistance in dying have all failed to pass either the House or Senate — but each anticipated eventual changes in law. Recent initiatives like C-210 or C-216, which would have implemented broad drug decriminalization, could conceivably follow a similar trajectory.

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 does change at some point in the foreseeable future, C-210 might end up being at least part of the reason why.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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