Q39. What is a bill?

A bill is a proposed law; government bills matter most

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A39. There are three main items on which the House of Assembly votes: bills, resolutions and budgets.

A “bill” is a proposed law that is introduced in the House of Assembly by an MLA.

Each bill is given a number, in addition to its proper title. The bills are numbered in the order in which they receive first reading. The numbering re-starts at Bill 1 with every new session.

Once a bill passes through all five stages of the law-making process, it is called a law, a statute or an Act (those words all mean the same thing). When it becomes a law, a bill gets a different number—for example, Bill 148 became SNS 2015, c 34 (which stands for Statutes of Nova Scotia 2015, chapter 34). Most people don’t know that, so they keep referring to it by the bill number. That’s confusing and incorrect, but what are you going to do?

Each bill is introduced by an MLA, and that MLA’s name appears on the front of the bill. The MLA is called the “sponsor” of the bill. If the MLA is a minister, the minister is called “the sponsoring minister” of the bill.

A bill’s sponsor decides what the bill is supposed to accomplish, but does not actually write the bill. To ensure precision and consistency, all bills are written by the Office of the Legislative Counsel, who are lawyers employed by the House of Assembly.

There are several different kinds of bills, but by far the most important are “government bills”. These are bills sponsored by a minister. A bill sponsored by a minister is supported by the government and is practically guaranteed to pass before the end of the spring sitting or fall sitting in which it is introduced.

A bill sponsored by an MLA who is not a minister is called a “private member’s bill”.

If a private member’s bill is introduced by a government backbencher, that usually means the government wants their MLA to get credit for sponsoring the bill. The bill will very likely pass. If the government has no intention of passing the bill, it will not usually let the backbencher introduce it, because that would show the backbencher does not have much influence.

If a private member’s bill is introduced by an opposition MLA, it has little chance of being passed. That’s because the government decides which bills will be voted upon, and it does not want the opposition to get credit for good ideas. Sometimes the government will even take the idea from an opposition bill, re-write it as a government bill, and then pass it. Yes, politics can be that petty. Occasionally the government will allow an opposition bill to pass, but not on anything major, and usually in exchange for something else, such as shortening debate on another bill.

Opposition MLAs introduce many bills, even though there is no realistic chance they will be passed. They do it to state their party’s policy, to contrast their party’s policy with the government’s position, and to attract voters who support whatever it is that the bill is supposed to accomplish.

An opposition bill cannot require any spending. This is an important principle of responsible government. Only the government may propose a measure that requires the spending of public funds.

One final detail: there is another kind of bill called a “private and local bill”. It is a bill that deals only with a specific organization or specific property. There are so few of these that it’s not worth diving into the details here. A private and local bill still has to follow a five-stage law-making process, but instead of going to the Law Amendments Committee, it goes to the Private and Local Bills Committee. Like the Law Amendments Committee, the Private and Local Bills Committee can hear from any citizen who believes they may be affected by the bill, whether positively or negatively.

Author: Graham Steele

A former MLA in Nova Scotia, currently Professor of Business Law in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University

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