Federal budget 2012: Standing up against abuse of power

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Thu Jun 14 2012.

Parliament has rarely looked sillier than it did on Thursday. Over some 24 hours, Conservative MPs went to work voting down hundreds of proposed amendments to Bill C-38, the behemoth omnibus budget implementation act, before voting on the bill itself. Parliamentarians whiled away the hours in various states of dress and wakefulness, eating chocolate, reading novels, playing on their iPads. Many spoke of cramming and caffeinating like undergraduates pulling an all-nighter. It would have been funny if only the shape of our country hadn’t been at stake.

The spectacle of the marathon vote was planned as an opposition protest against the sweeping scope of the 425-page budget bill. Included in this unwieldy document is proposed legislation that touches on core parts of our environmental law, our vital social safety net programs, including old-age securityand employment insurance, our refugee system, our research and information infrastructure, and much more. It is in many ways a country-redefining piece of legislation, an aggressive attempt on the part of the government to push through its agenda without full public debate.

The opposition has rightly argued that given the scope and ambition of the proposed legislation, the bill should have been broken up and its component parts duly debated. But last week House Speaker Andrew Scheer quashed a valiant effort by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and ruled there is no policy limiting the length of omnibus bills – and therefore no grounds on which to force the government to break it up.

That left the opposition two relatively unattractive options: allow the Conservative majority to pass their legislation, as designed, quietly and without debate; or attempt to expose the mockery the government has made of Parliament, by caricaturing it. Wisely, they chose the latter.

At least Thursday’s performance, as clownish and ineffectual as it may have seemed, showed some fight. When the Michael Ignatieff-led Liberals brought down the Conservative government in March 2011, they did so based on the belief that Canadians would reject a government that had been found in contempt of Parliament. Six weeks later, the Conservatives were handed their first majority and the Liberals their worst defeat in a century.

Perhaps this was in part because Canadians, who had watched the Conservatives’ bullying tactics and the opposition’s cowering complicity, agreed with the government that Parliament was contemptible. In any case, if the opposition wants to argue that Canadians should fight against the Conservatives’ undemocratic methods, they must be willing to do so themselves.

Commentators of all political stripes, including some prominent conservatives, have spoken out against Bill C-38. This is not an issue that divides left from right, but defenders of Canadian democracy from everyone else. Unfortunately, if Ignatieff’s losing gambit was any indication, “everyone else” includes too many. The opposition should be commended for doing what little it could to make the government pay – and Canadians pay attention.

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