Exploring the Role of 'Legislators' in Canada: Do Members of Parliament Influence Policy?

Lay Summary 

In Canada, the decline of parliament and the dominance of the executive have received much scholarly attention. Meanwhile, the legislative and policy roles of Members of Parliament have generally been viewed as negligible. This study suggests that these roles may be much more significant than previously believed, in part due to internal rule changes governing Private Members' Business over the past 25 years. Evidence is provided suggesting not only that MPs are generally more successful at getting legislation passed in recent years, but also that they appear to be able to influence government policy 'indirectly' through their participation in Private Members' Business.

Despite the highly limited opportunities for Canadian MPs to play a significant policy role, the Canadian system has always provided limited space, through various arenas, for individual MPs to have both a voice as a representative, and as a policy advocate. These include Private Members' Business (PMB), which includes bills and motions, the presentation of written questions, member statements (House of Commons Standing Order 31), parliamentary committees and caucus.

This study investigates the effect of rule changes, made since 1985, on PMB and identifies a number of other variables, which may also affect the success of Private Members Bills and motions. These include minority/majority government; the leadership of the Prime Minister; and the party in power.

It is not possible to determine effectively which of each of these factors affect the nature of its impact. There are too many variables and not enough cases. Nevertheless, there is certainly a reasonable amount of evidence that suggests the legislative actions of individual MPs do matter regarding policy outputs.

From an institutional perspective, this study is important because it suggests that the time and space offered to MPs to influence policy-making in a particular legislative venue may increase their influence in other venues as well. In turn, if PMB receives more time on parliament’s agenda, and if more items receive votes, then each MP's potential influence as a 'legislator' is likely to increase.

While further study of these matters would shed important light on this issue, the short-term implications for the current role of PMB from this study suggest that parliament has made additional space for MPs to play meaningful roles as legislators and to have an increase in their degree of influence both through direct and indirect means.

Published in: Journal of Legislative Studies, v. 16, no. 1, March 2010, pp. 32-56

Political Science
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Members of Parliament
Industry Sectors 
Scientific Research and Development Services
Public Administration
Start date 
1 Jan 2010