An Advocacy Guide for Psychologists




adv-1.JPG (11076 bytes)
How Parliament Works

Understanding the Legislative Process1

To be an important part of the advocacy effort on behalf of psychology does not require an extensive knowledge of the parliamentary process. However, the following is provided as background information. It is a description of the federal system. The provincial legislatures are quite similar.

The Parliament of Canada consists of the Queen, represented by the Governor General, the appointed Senate, and the elected House of Commons.

The major focus of Parliament is the development, passage and execution of pieces of legislation. Lobbying is effective at any of these stages.

Laws begin as policy debates and take official form as bills to be debated and voted on by the politicians. Once law, Governments then execute the laws through government departments, regulations, colleges, mandated services (police), etc.

The House of Commons is the major law-making body. Bills from the House of Commons are numbered from C-1 to C-XXX. Any Member of Parliament (MP) can introduce a bill.

Politicians need information in order to make good decisions. They are influenced by information that comes from committees, constituents, experts, political staff, polls, the political party platforms and the bureaucracy. Psychologists fill many of these roles and each of us is a constituent.

Stages of a Bill

Most bills are first considered by the House of Commons and normally pass through the following steps:

Introduction. A written notice of introduction, by motion, puts a bill on the Parliamentary agenda.

First Reading. The bill is read for the first time without debate and printed. First reading of a bill introduces the content of a bill to the Members of Parliament.

Second Reading. This is the most important stage in the passage of a bill for Parliamentarians. For lobbyists, this is not the case as other stages provide more opportunity for meaningful input. The principle and the object of the bill are debated and either accepted or rejected. The clauses of the bill are not discussed in detail at this stage.

Committee Stage. Accepted bills are referred to a committee of Parliamentarians for review. The text is studied clause by clause. The committee may receive testimony from outside witnesses on technical matters and, generally, may make amendments to any part of a bill before ordering that the bill be reported to the House of Commons.

Report Stage. The House reviews bills by considering amendments. The report stage is primarily an opportunity for Members who did not sit on the committee to have their proposed amendments considered before approval by the House. Additional amendments to the bill may be moved, debated and voted on.

Third Reading. This is the last stage in the House of Commons. The bill is debated a final time and voted on. Only friendly amendments are considered. The bill may be referred back to committee for further amendment or reconsideration.

Message. After a bill is passed by the House of Commons, a message is sent to the Senate requesting that the bill be passed. Senate procedure is similar to that of the House of Commons but the Senate can only delay passage or suggest changes to the House. There is often an opportunity for input at this stage.

Royal Assent. The bill must be signed by the Governor General or a deputy to become law. The Royal Assent is given to a bill when it has been passed in exactly the same form by the two Houses.

Provincial legislatures operate similarly. Although there are differences such as the absence of a Senate, the process is generally the same.

Parliamentary Committees That Affect Psychological Research, Educations, and Practice

The Standing and Legislative Committees of interest to psychology include the Standing Committee on Health; the Standing Committee on Finance; the Standing Committee on Industry; the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights; the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade; and the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access. These Committees make recommendations to Parliament and to the Government (the party that is in power) about how to share funds amongst diverse programmes (health, education, social welfare, criminal justice, research, etc.).

To find out about provincial standing committees, call your provincial elected official.

Activities and Responsibilities of Parlementarians

Here is how one former MP and Minister of Justice and former member of the Federal Court of Appeal, the late Mark MacGuigan, as a freshman backbencher described his responsibilities (extracted from Politics in Canada: Culture, Institutions, Behaviour and Public Policy (3rd ed.) (1995) by Robert J. Jackson and Doreen Jackson, pp. 350-353):

"… at least three half-days each week in the House to ensure that a quorum was always maintained; attendance at major debates and divisions; attendance at Question Period "for both excitement and information"; membership in two standing committees and, later, the Chairship of the Special Committee on Statutory Instruments; caucus meetings for three hours each Wednesday morning and caucus committee meetings in lunch and dinner breaks; twice-weekly French classes, "being determined to become bilingual"; a one thousand mile round trip each weekend to constituency and home in Windsor; approximately 200 public functions and 200 visits to the homes of constituents in each year; and a large volume of constituency business (some 5500 cases a year) which arrived by mail and by telephone."

Former MP Sean O’Sullivan, the youngest Canadian ever elected to the House of Commons, discusses his activities as follows (extracted from Exercising Power, Government of Canada: The Backbencher - A Case Study (1966) by Donald A. Hurst, pp. 70-71):

"… my day can be a full one, starting in the morning with committee meetings that last for ninety minutes. Once a week my party members gather together as a caucus. The House meets at two o’clock in the afternoon, except on Friday when we meet at eleven o’clock. Then, there are more committee meetings in the afternoon and at night."

"My foremost responsibility as a Member of Parliament is to the people who elected me. Although I do have responsibilities to my party and to the maintenance of Parliament, my foremost responsibility is to be a spokesman for my constituents. They’re the people who sent me to Ottawa and I have to get back to my riding as often as I can to hear their problems and views, even if I don’t agree with them."

"I am also called on often to make speeches just because I am a Member of Parliament. This includes addresses at such places as school assemblies or church gatherings. People do want to see their Member of Parliament. They don’t want just to read about me or any other Member; they want to be able to talk with us."

"Most of all I welcome the chance to exchange views with young people because after all, the policies made by the government today will help to determine the type of country in which they will be living and raising their families."

Recent changes have permitted MPs to work more effectively. Standing Committees allow them to have more say in policy formulation. Some say MPs could take more advantage of the opportunities to introduce legislation and initiate criticism of the government. There is more and more pressure for MPs to act as intermediaries and their role is more rewarding than policy-making with its commitment to pursue a long-term goal.

It is important to remember that opposition critics and each party’s caucus play very important roles in Parliament. Keep them informed. Request that your MP supply his or her party with psychology’s position on issues. Remember, the caucus is an important decision making body and today’s opposition party might be tomorrow’s Government.

1 This section used as its main source Précis on Procedure (5th ed.) published by the Table Research Branch of the House of Commons in 1996. The document can be found on the Internet at: http://www.parl.gc.ca.

How to Communicate Effectively with Members of Parliament
Table of contents

© Canadian Psychological Association