Unfinished Business: A Snapshot of Recent Government Bill Practice.

AuthorFeldman, Charlie

While the majority of parliamentary time is spent on government business, little scholarship appears to exist on the subject of government bills that do not receive Royal Assent. Government bills fail to complete the legislative process in both majority and minority parliaments. Further, some government bills are put on notice but never introduced. This work examines statistics from recent parliamentary sessions to document the varying rates at which government legislation is not passed in both the Senate and House of Commons, both in majority and minority parliaments.


Government bills (1) do not always complete the legislative process in both majority or minority parliaments. While much has been said about socalled "omnibus" bills (2) or critiquing individual pieces of legislation (simply check Twitter on any sitting day), little appears written about government bills that do not become law. (3)

Government bills are worthy of study because they require tremendous resources to develop and are unique indicators of a government's desired agenda. Looking at government bills that do not complete the legislative process provides a window into the government's legislative planning decisions and the prioritization by the government of its various legislative initiatives.

In broad strokes, legislative planning requires identifying the matters from the government's agenda that require legislation, determining whether measures are to be advanced as stand-alone bills or combined with other initiatives (such as being included in budget implementation legislation), and deciding whether to introduce bills in the Senate or House of Commons --as well as when the bills should be introduced. Once bills are before Parliament, further legislative planning decisions are reflected in the order in which bills are brought forward for debate, and whether any procedural tools--such as time allocation--are used to advance a particular bill.

A government bill--like any other piece of legislation --might not always be introduced with the intention of seeing it passed in that particular session. (4) However, the introduction of a government bill signals that resources have been spent--and cabinet decisions made--to develop the legislation and put it before Parliament. (5)

This article looks at government bills from the 35th Parliament to the present. During that time, the parliamentary journey of a government bill that did not receive royal assent typically ended because of prorogation or dissolution. However, government bills might be defeated at a particular stage of debate (6) or because the Senate or House decides not to proceed further with the bill. (7)

Bills that do not receive royal assent include bills that were introduced, as well as those that were only put on notice but never introduced. (8) This article discusses both of these contexts in turn.

Government Bills Introduced in Parliament

In the most recent parliamentary session--the 43rd Parliament, 2nd Session (September 23, 2020-August 15, 2021)--40 government bills were introduced (9). Statistically, government bills in this session were just as likely to receive royal assent as they were not to complete the legislative process. While having a 50 per cent passing rate might not make for an ideal academic record, it is par for the course for government bills in recent minority parliaments.

The graph below displays the percentage of government bills that did not receive royal assent in recent parliamentary sessions. (10) Non-solid bars indicate periods of minority government. The specific data is provided in the Appendix.

Averaging the below-depicted parliamentary sessions together, (11) around 38 per cent of government bills will not pass in any given parliamentary session. More specifically, the average non-pass rate is 31 per cent in majority parliaments and 49 per cent in minority parliaments. (12) Government bills did not pass in a given session between 17 per cent (42-1) and 56 per cent (40-3) of the time. In parliaments with more than one session, the percentage of government bills that do not pass tends to be greater in the second session than in the first.

A bill that does not pass in one session might be reintroduced in a later session or combined with other items and reintroduced. This work examines whether a government bill received royal assent in a given session rather whether the policies contained therein were eventually enacted. It should be...

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