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Names of bills carry meaning

Before we start going through the Liberals’ long-awaited plan to rewrite Canada’s electoral rulebook, let us take a moment to appreciate the restraint demonstrated by Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould in coming up with a suitably anodyne short title for her 352-page omnibus bill. 

To be fair, the very fact that she felt the need to style it as the Elections Modernization Act will undoubtedly raise the hackles of particularly persnickety parliamentary purists, who can be counted on to point out that there’s actually no requirement to go beyond the tried-and-true if distinctly non-informative “An Act to amend/enact/establish . . . ” format. 

But as legislative phrasings go, “modernization” does, at least, offer an accurate description of what the bill is meant to accomplish without sounding suspiciously like a focus-grouped applause line in a campaign stump speech, and that alone makes it a welcome break from the precedent set by then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s government. 

Who can forget her predecessor Pierre Poilievre presenting the House of Commons with the glibly self-touting Fair Elections Act — a short title that managed to imply that the existing electoral system was inherently unfair. (There was, as it turned out, also a downside for Poilievre, as it armed the bill’s critics with a ready-made counter-slogan: All they had to do was add an “Un.”) 

Over the near-decade they held power, the Conservatives turned the practice of giving certain bills short titles — which had, up until then, been primarily used to give MPs a quick way to refer to legislation in debate — into an art form: specifically, the art of pushing out a stridently partisan message from every available platform. 

Protection was a running theme throughout the Conservatives’ tenure, whether it was “protecting Canadians” from “unsafe drugs,” “online crime” or simply “by ending sentence discounts for multiple murders.” 

There were bills to protect “Canada’s immigration system” and “Canada’s seniors,” in general, as well as the double-barrelled Keeping Canadians Safe (Protecting Borders) Act, which never went beyond first reading, although Canadians can probably keep feeling relatively safe, as all it would have done was harmonize cross-border maritime law enforcement. 

That, in a nutshell, was the underlying problem with the Conservatives’ penchant for bumper sticker-ready bill names: The catchier the phrasing — and the more rousing a rallying cry it would make when accusing the opposition parties of failing to support it — the less useful they would be in explaining what the legislation would actually do. 

And, in some cases, it’s pretty clear that was entirely intentional. 

When then-public safety minister Vic Toews unveiled his proposal to give the RCMP, CSIS and other federal law enforcement agencies sweeping new powers to spy on internet users without a warrant, he attempted — with what would turn out to be misplaced optimism — to position it as the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act.

Who could oppose that? Just about anyone who read beyond the minister’s hoped-for headline, as it turned out: The bill sparked a massive public backlash, and it was ultimately left to die on the order paper. 

Two years and change into their first majority term, the Liberals seem to have resisted the temptation to turn the first page of a bill into a partisan billboard. Of the 76 government bills introduced to date, fewer than 20 include a short title, and of those, most are simply shortened versions of the full title. 

It may make for a far more bland legislative to-do list — and, of course, it means that in order to figure out what a bill does, you may may have to read it or at least scan the summary. 

It does, however, take a small step toward restoring a scintilla of dignity to the parliamentary process, even if you’ll only notice it if you check the fine print.

Kady O’Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.

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