Conservative Member of Parliament Brad Trost created a bit of a stir this week when he publicly criticized a decision of his own government. What made his comments so newsworthy was the rarity of the occasion as it is most unusual for Conservative MPs to speak publicly against any government decision. It is much more normal for them to take their assigned talk points and repeat them verbatim. Essentially, PMO prefers the term "silence is golden." People interpret this in different ways, some see this as party discipline, and others will argue that they are letting PMO push them around.
Conservative MPs certainly needed to exercise discipline during the minority government years when the government never knew when the next nonconfidence motion would come and the party was on a constant wartime footing. No one wanted to risk embarrassing the government and their party and have that incident become part of an election campaign. Toeing the party line was a combination of self-discipline and PMO imposed discipline and it worked.
Now that the Conservatives have won the war, at least for four more years, some expected that there would be a relaxing of this tight discipline and that MPs would have a bit more freedom, especially if they didn't criticize major party initiatives or election platform items. They were wrong; PMO still makes all the decisions and still tells them what to say and when to say it. This extends from ministers to MPs. Whether it be answers for Question Period, how to vote in a committee meetings, what they are allowed to say to a reporter, the list goes on and on. This excessive control even extends to private members business, including the introduction of Private Members Bills or PMBs.
Traditionally, Private Member's Business and Private Member's Bills or PMBs have been one area largely exempt from a party's control. MPs could pursue topics of interest and if they felt legislation could improve an existed law or perhaps new legislation was needed, they could take the initiative and introduce their own bill. While this would sometimes embarrass their party (especially if it was in power), no one was too worried and you dealt with these issues if and when they ever came up to a vote. Even the vote on a PMB was largely left to the MPs themselves and when a leader's office got involved and began issuing orders as to how the MPs should vote, it would generate considerable news coverage as it was relatively rare for that to happen.
On occasion, PMBs would prove so popular that the government of the day would approach the MP and ask them to withdraw their bill so that they government could reintroduce it as part of it's legislation, thus guaranteeing passage. An example of that was an anti-stalking PMB introduced by NDP Member of Parliament Dawn Black. The Mulroney government would pass it into law in 1993.
Private Members' bills are defined as:
" ... a legislative initiative sponsored by a private Member. Based on private Members' own ideas and drafted with the aid of legislative counsel, such bills are brought forward by the sponsoring Member." (Parliament of Canada website)
Few realize just how extensive PMO control of Private Members' business has become under this prime minister and it rivals that of their much-maligned control over messaging and communications.
The present PMO has set up an internal system for their MPs that essentially stifles most opportunities for their members and vets every item or bill that they propose, the aim being to prevent any embarrassing moments for the government. The sad part is that Conservative MPs go along with all these extra steps and have relinquished much of their say over Private Members' Business, including PMBs. If you are a Conservative MP and you want to bring forward a PMB, here are the steps your proposed PMB must follow in order to be approved by PMO.
1. A member decides legislation is needed.
2. The MP then approaches the legislative affairs branch of the House of Commons for assistance in drafting a bill.
3. The minister's office that the PMB will fall under must then be contacted. Staff there will vet the bill and essentially must sign off. They will often work quite closely with the MP even suggesting wording.
4. At the same time the PMB will be looked at by PMO to make sure that it doesn't do anything to embarrass the government. At this point, both PMO and/or the minister's office will be leaning heavily on the MP to drop their bill if it is one that they don't like.
5. Assuming the MP gets the green light or insists on proceeding over the objections of PMO, the PMB will then be placed on the Order Paper.
6. Once this happens, the department the bill falls under will be asked to review the bill and its impact.
7. Armed with this information as well as their own position, ministerial staff will then meet with the House Leader's Office for "Bill Review" to see if it is acceptable to all concerned.
8. The PMB will then be sent to one of the appropriate caucus advisory committees set up by the prime minister. This committee consists of both MPs and senators and sign off is needed.
9. From there the PMB will advance to one of the cabinet committees with responsibility for the area the bill involves.
10. If it passes the cabinet committee it will finally go to Priorities and Planning.
11. Even if it passes all of these stages, if something happens and PMO gets the wind up, they can still order it defeated when it comes to a vote.
That is a lot of time and effort to make sure that one of your own doesn't bring in a PMB that someone in the government doesn't like. The Prime Minister's Office continues to get away with controlling Private Members' Business because Conservative MPs have not yet developed the backbone to tell them where they can put their interference. But as we have seen with Trost, you can't gag MPs forever.