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Private member's bills: backbench success story or government strategy?

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The Peace Tower is pictured through the Centennial Flame on October 23, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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The Peace Tower is pictured through the Centennial Flame on October 23, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Epilepsy, human trafficking, wine, autism, prize fighting — those are just a few of the topics covered by private member's bills and senate public bills passed into law by the current Parliament.

Twenty-four pieces of legislation sponsored by backbench MPs or senators have been passed since the last election — one of the most prolific periods for such bills ever. Four of them came from opposition parliamentarians.

Conservative MPs say the success of their legislative projects challenges the notion that individual parliamentarians can't effect change.

But the opposition says the system is being used by the Conservative leadership to push through legislation that's not subject to the same checks and balances as more closely scrutinized government bills.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government technically passed more private member's bills — 31 during one Parliament alone.

But most of those bills were name changes to individual ridings, a technical change that is now done in a single piece of government legislation. The last majority Liberal Parliament saw only eight private members bills pass.

Conservative B.C. MP Dan Albas put forward a private member's bill on personal wine imports, and saw it pass in 2012.

He wanted to amend a bit of prohibition-era law that banned Canadians from taking wine over provincial borders — a big issue in the Okanagan Valley where he lives.

After Albas's bill passed, the government decided to pick up on the idea in the last budget and expand the change to include beer and spirits.

"People really do appreciate when you take local concerns, bring them up to that level, and in this case, we were very successful," said Albas.

"It shows that your member is listening and that the system works. You can bring ideas to Ottawa, and you can see them through."

NDP MP Randall Garrison has found success twice in getting a bill through the Commons to criminalize discrimination against transgender Canadians, managing to secure the support of 18 Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers.

But a year later, the legislation remains stuck in limbo in the Senate. Garrison now fears there is a behind-the-scenes plan to make sure his bill never becomes law.

Garrison, who sits on the Commons public safety committee, said he's seen Conservative private member's bills on law and order that should have been introduced by the government.

When legislation is proposed by a minister, it gets vetted by departmental lawyers and policy experts before landing in the Commons, unlike private member's legislation.

A recently passed private member's bill restricting offenders from coming within two kilometres of a victim's home came out of the justice committee with seven amendments.

"We've ended up amending the Criminal Code and the Corrections (and Conditional Release) Act in piecemeal fashion, without the minister of justice being involved in the constitutional questions, because that doesn't happen for private member's bills," Garrison said.

"I think we're in for some confusing court time as a result of the government using the private member's bills this way."

Ontario Conservative MP Gord Brown, who has seen two of his private initiatives become law, argues that the government couldn't possibly draft legislation on issues that come up in 308 ridings.

Brown gave voice to a push inside his riding to change the name of the St. Lawrence Islands National Park of Canada to the more precise Thousand Islands National Park of Canada — something that had been supported by constituents since the 1970s.

"No government ever did it. Something like that had to be driven locally. It is an example of something that is driven by a riding and brought forward by a member of Parliament," said Brown.

Even with the Conservative majority, there's no guarantee of success. Private member's bills are not generally whipped by party leaderships. Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott's bid to have judges make equal parenting a priority when deciding custody cases was defeated by a vote of 174-80.

Conservative MP Michael Chong's Reform Act, aimed at rebalancing the power of the party leaders versus parliamentarians, will be a test of the private member's bill system and whether free votes are genuinely unrestricted.

The bill would give MPs the power to initiate the ouster of their leader, among other measures.

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