Last Thursday, Pierre Poilievre introduced his private members’ bill (PMB), Bill C-278, An Act to prevent the imposition by the federal government of vaccination mandates for employment and travel. The legislation elicited strong media criticism; many pundits noted that while Poilievre’s social media accounts branded the Bill as a general prohibition on federal vaccine mandates, the text itself references only COVID-19-related mandates.
The Charest faction of the CPC characterized this play as calculatedly symbolic – and a transparent attempt to pander to a niche, anti-restrictions voting block in the leadership campaign. In reality, the legislation is quite focused; it would not prohibit the implementation of non-COVID-related vaccine mandates down the road.
Adding to the suggestion that this PMB is more symbolic than substantive, the slow-moving, stolid nature of PMBs means that this would be unlikely to be adopted before federal vaccine mandates have been lifted (a persistent rumour in Ottawa of late). In all, critics have denigrated Bill C-278 as a short-sighted, base-retrenching move that could alienate centrist voters on the national scale — a majority of whom have shown consistent support for vaccine mandates.
This maelstrom may well be true; it signals that Poilievre is not preparing an imminent tack toward mainstream voters (at least yet). However, much of the national preoccupation with the bill’s symbolic nature ignores the broader context of the role of private members’ bills in our legislative branch.
PMBs – More Symbolic Than Not
PMBs are a tricky business: They rarely become law, and they often take months, even years, to pass. So far, during the 44th Parliament, zero private members’ bills have received royal assent. In Canada, only the government, through Government Bills, has the authority to alter taxes and spending. This often leaves Members of Parliament with a difficult dilemma: they must introduce legislation that avoids the money question altogether while proposing reforms that are relevant to their constituencies and will attract inter-party support. This balancing act is demanding.
Often when members wish to tackle the major issues of our time, such as the implementation of a Universal Basic Income (case in point, Julie Dzerowicz’s Bill C-273), they are limited to requiring the government to develop a respective national strategy. Bill C-273, for example, would have required the Minister of Finance, Ms. Chrystia Freeland, to develop a national strategy to assess implementation models for a guaranteed basic income program. In essence, if the government isn’t progressing on efforts to redress a given social issue, the national strategy forces them to take the initial step, but the buck, literally and figuratively, stops there.
This is not to claim that PMBs are institutionally impotent. There are numerous examples, in this Parliament alone, of PMBs that have altered the course of the legislative agenda. Many could argue that MP Gord John’s PMB, C-276, while defeated at second reading, significantly advanced the movement to decriminalize substance abuse, and supplant its securitization with a health-based approach. Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux’s Bill C-220, which passed last spring, allowed workers covered under the Canada Labour Code to take up to 10 days off work following the death of an immediate family member and encouraged a national conversation on labour rights and mental health. Its long tail continued this Parliament with the passage of Bill C-3, which ushered in further bereavement leave entitlements.
That being said, for every agenda-setting PMB, there are counter-examples of private members’ bills that lean into their symbolic role — including those that propose the establishment of heritage days/months, or national days of awareness. Some in this subgroup include C-501 (An Act respecting a National Hunting, Trapping, and Fishing Day), which went on to receive royal assent in November 2014. While some may challenge the priority of this over more substantive types of private members’ bills, many MPs contend that national commemoration alone can foster norm change and transmute social mores, making it a worthy pursuit for parliamentarians.
In any case, the national conversation around Poilievre’s private members’ bill is puzzling. Its design is not the major problem: it’s the message. Symbols naturally permeate the law-making process of private members’ bills. This has been the case long before Bill C-278, and will continue long after. With private members’ bills, the buck often stops at the title.