Improving Democracy in British Columbia: Debating Changes to Reform Private Members’ Time

Feb 23, 2023 | 42-4, Blog, Governance, Legislature, Motions, Video | 1 comment

As I have said repeatedly the BC Legislative Assembly does not function as democratically as it could.

The entire agenda is controlled by the party with a majority of Members and that power has been used to shut out private members’ from having the legislation they propose, debated and voted on.

Significant reforms are needed to improve the function of our democratic institution. This is a project the BC Green Caucus has been working on for months, specifically reforming Private Members’ Bills.

The BC NDP House Leader, Hon. Ravi Kahlon, moved a motion to create a committee to review this important work. I am thrilled that the process is finally underway!


Thank you for the opportunity to speak to Motion 18, the motion about private members bills’, use of private members’ time in the House.

I guess I’d just like to start by saying that I am grateful for this opportunity to have this discussion. It’s been, I think, an important part of the work in our caucus over the last number of months, as has been mentioned.

[2:05 p.m.]
There has been quite a bit of work that has been done on private members’ bills and the use of private members’ time. Definitely since the 2020 election, work started to ramp up.

I think it’s important to frame this in the context of the Third Party caucus’s perspective in that we believe in the good functioning of our democratic institution and our democracy. It wouldn’t be a surprise to any British Columbians that we are strong advocates of democratic reform when it comes to proportional representation. We were saddened that the opportunity passed us by to reform how the members are elected to this House and how this House can better reflect the will of the people.

However, while we might have been disappointed, we recognize that British Columbians, through the process that was provided, spoke. So we remain committed to good, democratic reform to ensure good, democratic function of this Legislative Assembly.

Recognizing that the conversation around proportional representation has been had recently, we looked to some of the other ways that we can reform the operations of this institution. It became very clear — the imbalance. The way members are elected in here imbalances the power from the actual percentage of votes that people get in this House.

We looked to some of the tools that are available or that should be available to the members of this Legislative Assembly, simply recognizing that no matter what party you’re from, whether you’re from the governing party, the official opposition, the Third Party or even if you are an independent member, you should have access to the tools of an elected representative.

Indeed, when people go to the polls on election day, they have no idea how those…. I mean, we have polling. We can, I guess, get an understanding, generally, of what might happen on election day. But certainly when people go and cast their ballot for the person that they would like to represent them, I think they have an expectation that that member is going to be able to come into this Legislative Assembly and have access to the tools, to propose ideas, have them debated and then have them voted on. Currently, that’s not what’s happening in British Columbia, so we began to take a look at some of those things.

I just want to, I think, pause and note the work from our legislative manager, Laura Ferreira — the work that she’s done in preparing us and having the conversation with the official opposition House Leaders, the government House Leaders that we’ve been talking to. I and my colleague from Cowichan Valley have had incredible support in organizing and doing a jurisdictional scan and organizing the information so that we can be here today and have any number — amounts — of pieces of paper in front of us to select from as this speech unfolds.

There has been, over the last number of sessions, couple of sessions, a concern that I’ve raised with respect to the management of this assembly, to the flow of how the debate unfolds and occurs.

As the House Leader for the official opposition mentioned, we stood together to ask the government to better manage this Legislative Assembly to ensure that the actions of this place are not undermining the strength of our democracy, because our democracy is more than just asking voters to go to the polls once every four years or once every number of years the governing party, the party with the majority of the votes — the majority of the seats, I should say….

That’s part of the problem. It’s not necessarily the majority of the votes, but anyways, we’ll get back to that in some other debate at another time. We should make sure that we are protecting how the institution, our democratic institution, functions.

[2:10 p.m.]
The question was asked: if the House Leaders of the opposition parties are raising these concerns, is this inside baseball? What does it even matter anyways? Does it matter whether or not the House is being managed well or not being managed well? I would say that it absolutely does matter. It totally matters.

The reality of our democracy is that the protocols and the processes that have evolved over generations in this House have evolved in order to ensure that bills get the proper kind of debate and scrutiny, that they are legal and that the public knows and understands what laws their elected representatives are passing. The way that this House has operated ensures that the budget, the way this House is spending the public’s money, is also getting a sufficient amount of debate.

I would challenge the very question that because it seems too difficult to explain to British Columbians how the mismanagement of the Legislative Assembly is affecting the business of this House…. That very question is actually quite scary to me. It is demonstrating how disconnected the public have become from the very institutions that we celebrate. And as we stood and responded to a ministerial statement earlier today about the impacts that an autocratic regime can have, we need to not just be standing up irregularly and protecting our democracy. We need to be doing it on a daily basis. Indeed, the people of British Columbia rely on their elected officials to stand up and protect democracy every single day.

In no way am I suggesting that we are in any way close to a regime that has started an illegal war. What I am suggesting is that we need to nurture our democracy daily in here. We need to call out when advantage is being taken in an inequitable and unfair manner. So I would say that the reason why we are so supportive of reforming private members’ time is so that the majority of members of this Legislative Assembly — the members who are not members of the cabinet, of the executive — have access to the tools that their constituents, whether you’re on any side of the House, expect their elected representative to have.

Otherwise what we’re asking is for our constituents to simply guess the result of an election. We’re simply saying that the only members in this institution that should have any power at all are the members that are fortunate enough to have a majority of the seats, and in our current system, that doesn’t even necessarily mean that you are required to have the majority of the votes.

This has been an initiative that has been worked up for quite some time. It’s an initiative that the current Opposition House Leader and I brought to the former Government House Leader. The conversation was accepted, and there were commitments that we were going to be advancing the conversation and that a proposal was going to be brought. The government had a change in the House leadership on the government side, and up until this week, we were told that, while the government was interested in this conversation, carving out time to have this debate was going to be challenging.

We are now having this debate, and I recognize the frustration. It has been a frustrating process. Are we having the debate? Are we not having the debate? Is this a serious debate? Is it not a serious debate? But I’m happy that we are here, and I’m happy that we’re going to hear members of the governing party stand up and support transformation in this regard.

I also, I think, want to highlight something that my colleague said, the House Leader of the official opposition, with respect to the committee that is being formed to have this. In the options paper that has been drafted for us, it is noted that in order for any of this to happen, the standing orders are going to have to be amended in the House. The standing orders are the rules that govern the operation of this place.

[2:15 p.m.]

So it is curious to me that we would be creating a special committee to take a look at this issue when we have a committee on parliamentary reform already existing. It’s called the Select Standing Committee on Parliamentary Reform, and it also deals with the standing orders — meaning that there is an opportunity to have the committee that’s going to have to make the recommendation, to do the work to make the changes, also be the committee that is doing the parliamentary-reform side of this discussion.

In other words, I’m not sure why we need to create an extra committee. We already have a committee. The committee sat last session to deal with a private bill. This may be confusing for the public — it’s different than private members’ bills — but nonetheless, that committee sits. It has members to it, it has a Chair already, and it’s available to us. So I just asked the question: why is it that we feel the need to create a special committee to do work that a select standing committee is already prepared to do?

I think it further highlights some of the challenges that we’ve been articulating around the management of the various aspects of this Legislative Assembly. There has been a considerable amount of technical work that has been done on this. We’ve got a jurisdictional scan. In the jurisdictional scan, a colleague from Powell River–Sunshine Coast earlier today went through, in some detail, how all the rest of the democratically elected assemblies across the country deal with the private members’ business that happens. It’s basically private members’ bills, private members’ motions and private members’ statements.

A couple of hours each week, Monday mornings, are dedicated to this business. Unfortunately, when it comes to the way that private members’ business is currently handled, even though there seems to be a debate on the private members’ motions that come forward on Monday morning, there’s never a way to vote on them.

As a member of this House, the thing that I recognize is that it really is beneficial to government to not have to vote on some of the motions that are put. Really, it comes down to, I think, over decades, the desire for the governing party to fully control the legislative agenda, to fully control what’s voted on and what’s not voted on.

It’s to the point where I think that there was a proposal that was made, back in 2013 or 2014 sometime, around the requirement of footwear for women in restaurants. My former colleague proposed a private member’s bill for it. Instead of debating and voting on the private member’s bill, a new bill was brought in by government to make the change. This was before we, as private members, had access to the legislative drafters. That’s a nuance that I think is important.

For a moment, to just veer off course a little bit here, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in 2017 the Attorney General at the time, now the Premier of the province, granted private members access to the legislative drafters. This was, I think, the first step, in a very slow and plodding track that we’re on, to maybe eventually being able to debate private members’ bills.

One of the concerns that happened in the past was that the private members’ bills or amendments were not drafted and were not scrutinized by the legal drafters, so they were not going to pass the very basic test, necessarily, of them being legal, in the sense of: “Does this cause any problems for other legislation elsewhere, other references, maybe, to what’s being changed?” With the access of private members to legislative drafters, that problem was solved.

[2:20 p.m.]
The private members’ bills that we’ve crafted and that are currently on the order paper — I have three of them. I have a private member’s bill to protect bear dens, I have a private member’s bill to deal with solitary confinement, and I have a private member’s bill, right now, to address concerns that have been raised by the public and by the Information and Privacy Commissioner around fees for FOI.

I suspect that there are lesser problems with the solitary confinement and the bear dens. I am assuming that the government doesn’t agree with me on the FOI legislation that I proposed. However, I think the reality of those three bills, whether we agree on the content or not, is what happens in this place, a lot. Agreement and disagreement on the content. Government can be certain though, because our own legislative drafting team wrote the content, that at the very least, it’s not going to be in conflict from a legal perspective.

Currently, there is, as was mentioned previously, a pathway to debate private members’ bills, but it requires the agreement of the Government House Leader to call it. There does lack a freedom for a member to be able to propose a bill that may not necessarily be a bill that the government would pass and have it debated and have it voted on — have the government be forced to take a position on something.

We’ve seen, I think, two examples of that over the last few years, where after a long and drawn out negotiation, that finally, a private member’s bill was able to be debated and passed. We celebrated that as a unique occurrence. I don’t think that we should be too celebratory for such a unique occurrence, where one private member’s bill over decades is passed.

I think that that is actually an admission to the failure of this democratic institution to provide fair and equitable access to all the members who get elected here in exactly the same way, who sign on to a political party or run as an independent, who work very hard during the election and the writ period, are able to achieve enough votes to be the member that gets first-past-the-post and then take their oath to then sit in a seat here. Each and every one of us have achieved, at the very least, that.

I think that what we should be creating in this institution is accessibility to all of the tools to propose and debate ideas. Indeed, the former Premier talked often about how good ideas don’t only come from the governing side of the House. Indeed, I’m pretty certain that the former Premier thought that he had great ideas when he sat on this side of the House as well. That was probably what was informing the understanding that there are good ideas everywhere.

Indeed, when we sit together in committees, this is where…. The public don’t pay much attention to the committees, I suspect, but when they do, I think that they would be much more encouraged than if they just watched question period, as an example, because the work that happens in committees has always been, for me, the most productive, the most collaborative and the most positive work that happens in here. The partisan robes kind of get shed. You then get tasked with a common purpose, and you go to work to try to find an outcome that you can agree on.

As was mentioned earlier, several legislative assemblies across this country work on a consensus basis. They’re not burdened by the partisan gamesmanship — the sport of partisan politics that happens in this place. They’re much more focused on finding a space that they can all agree, looking for common ground and beginning to build strong relationships off of that common ground. That’s what happens when you have a consensus-based decision-making body. That’s the way our committees are supposed to work. In fact, that’s the way our committee’s work the best.

[2:25 p.m.]
That’s where I built some of the strongest relationships that I have in this House. This is where I found respect for people that I didn’t even know existed until we sat in those meetings and we had those discussions. That is where I’ve seen people go from being opposition to being collaborators. That happens in the Douglas Fir Room, that happens in the other tree-named rooms in this House; not the Cedar Room, but the Douglas Fir, the Maple, the Oak, the Birch, the Hemlock. Yeah. That doesn’t happen enough in this House, and I think it’s a shame that when you get into this big room with the bright lights, that collaborative, consensus-driven decision-making and relationship-building gets traded for the back-and-forth of partisan gamespersonship.

I have a lot of feelings, many of them have been stated very clearly, about the impact and the degradation of our democracy when this institution is not well managed: when bills don’t go through good debate process, when clauses are left with questions unanswered, when the public is unclear about what the intention of it is, even when the courts are unclear about what the intention was behind it and the questions are asked, if the legislation is ever scrutinized at that level. I’ve been vociferous about the challenges that I have with the mismanagement of this institution and the fear that I have if mismanagement of this institution is both trivialized and viewed as being unimportant.

However, today I’m going to momentarily set that aside. As the House Leader of the Third Party, I’m going to continue to demand that this institution be well managed, that the public be given the opportunity to understand what it is their elected representatives are actually debating, that the public be able to demand and get answers to questions that are valid, that we don’t leave gaps here for a vacuum of information where then the public can fill it in with whatever it is that they feel it means. That’s dangerous. I’m going to continue to be a critic of that. That’s the role that I play.

I’m going to continue to demand that large pieces of legislation that require more scrutiny be given more time in the public to have that scrutiny happen. I’m going to encourage the Government House Leader to table legislation for exposure, to be able to give the public time, to be able to give the rest of the MLAs time to go out into the public and hear from their constituents how they feel about changes in law.

Let’s set that aside. I’m going to celebrate the fact that there have been 18 months of good work done by the House leaders — a variety of House leaders now as it is, including my colleague from Cowichan Valley; my colleagues from Kamloops, both of them, North and South Thompson; the Solicitor General and now the Minister of Housing and the now Government House Leader — to have this debate. I’m encouraged that my colleagues from the governing party are going to stand up over and over and over again and support reform in all of the areas that I’ve talked about, that we’ve talked about.

That’s encouraging. What that’s doing is building momentum behind a more fair, a more equitable House that is open to all members, who get here the same way. I think that’s pretty cool.

[2:30 p.m.]
I think that I’ll return to being critical of House management as soon as I sit down, but for this moment I just want to raise my hands to the Government House Leader for giving us this opportunity to get this on the record, to get government members on the record and to continue to build momentum that indeed has been building in a very cross-partisan way. I think that the people of B.C. should see this as something to celebrate.

I think that the people of B.C. should see this as something to celebrate. The complaint that they had that the partisanship in this House overtakes all…. This has been good work done by people who set aside differences of opinion to look at how they can improve the functioning of this democracy to make it more effective, to make it more representative, to make it more fair and to make it more equitable. That should be celebrated. Now back to the regular business of the House.

1 Comment

  1. Kara Middleton

    Thank you for speaking up for the right of every MLA to have access to all the legislative tools – including the creation and the passing of bills. And thank you for explaining how private members’ bills and nonpartisan committees can help bring more equitable representation for all the public.


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