Harper’s new omnibus budget bill a stealth blow to civil servants
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – The Harper government has again resorted to sneaking in ideology-driven policy via a 321-page “omnibus” budget bill with a slew of unrelated measures.
Oct 23 2013. Editor
People have fought and died in Canada for the hard-won right to unionize and strike. More than four million workers, a quarter of the labour force, now belong to a union. And organized labour has been a powerful force for good, campaigning for living wages, safer workplaces and benefits such as child care, flexible work time and sick leave. Non-unionized workers benefit, too, as such standards become commonplace.
Yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper now proposes to radically alter the balance of power between Ottawa and public sector workers in what amounts to a stealth blow to the civil service.
The Conservatives want the federal government to have the “exclusive right” to decide who is “essential” and cannot strike. Currently some 40,000 of the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s 187,000 members are essential. The change would undermine bargaining rights, potentially double the number of essential workers and sap their ability to use job action to press demands.
By rights, such a sweeping nonbudget change should be brought before Parliament as a separate bill. Canada’s lawmakers ought to have the chance to carefully study and debate the merits of handing the government such power, and the Tories should have to make a compelling case for its necessity.
But no. The Harper government has once again resorted to sneaking ideology-driven policy in through the back door by cramming the change into Bill C-4, a 321-page “omnibus” budget bill introduced Tuesday that contains a slew of unrelated measures.
Apart from union rights, the bill affects Supreme Court appointments, employment insurance, workplace safety, veterans affairs, conflict-of-interest, solicitor-client privileges, immigration policy and more. There is no way MPs can give this bulky tome the study it deserves. It’s just the latest Conservative affront to Parliament.
As for the Supreme Court, Harper has included a provision in the bill to deal with the embarrassing case of Marc Nadon. He is the Federal Court of Appeal judge Harper recently appointed to the high court, but who now faces a legal challenge. The Supreme Court Act guarantees Quebec three seats on the court, to be appointed from Quebec’s superior court, appeal court or from the pool of practising Quebec lawyers. It doesn’t mention the federal appeal court. So it’s unclear whether Nadon qualifies. He has stepped aside until the issue is settled.
Harper has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the matter. But before it can, the prime minister is using the omnibus bill to amend the Supreme Court Act by declaring that anyone with at least 10 years on the Quebec bar at any time in their career is eligible to sit on the high court. That would include Nadon.
The Conservative government is tinkering with Canada’s highest court, and risking a possible constitutional challenge by doing so, without allowing serious scrutiny. The Commons finance committee isn’t qualified to pronounce on this.
These changes constitute an outrageous abuse of the Conservative majority, and of the budget bill process.
This isn’t the first time. Earlier this year, the Harper government tabled a 111-page omnibus bill. Last year it tabled bills running to 425 and 443 pages. These measures affected the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, Old Age Security, charities, environmental hearings on pipelines, border security, employment insurance, fisheries and much, much more.
Once upon a time Harper, as a Reform MP, argued that a Liberal omnibus bill should be broken up so that its measures could get closer scrutiny. The bill was 20 pages long. But that was then. Things are different now.
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