Omnibus budget: Bill C-45 is an affront to democracy

Posted on October 21, 2012 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorials
October 19, 2012.

In the two days leading up to the overnight, circus-like protest vote on last spring’s federal omnibus budget bill, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty received more than 3,200 pages of related correspondence from Canadians. There was not one supportive statement in the stack, the Star learned this week from an access to information request.

Instead, thousands voiced their concern about the transformational 425-page budget proposal, which chipped away at our social safety net programs, environmental protections, research infrastructure and much more, amending or abolishing 74 pieces of legislation in a single bill.

Evidently, however, the protest fell on deaf ears. This week the government tabled Bill C-45, its second omnibus budget implementation bill. This one tipped the scales at 443 pages, roughly the length of Crime and Punishment.

In principle, the new bill should include only elaborations of plans outlined in the last one. Flaherty says Bill C-45 contains “no surprises” and any MP who claimed the bill was an attempt by the government to sneak through its agenda without full debate was simply too lazy to read the budget.

Not so.

As Joanna Smith reported in the Star on Friday, Bill C-45 seeks to loosen protections contained in the Navigable Waters Protection Act, weaken the Canada Labour Code, and alter the Indian Act in ways nowhere hinted at in the budget. Moreover, contrary to the purpose of budgets, the bill contains several non-fiscal items that won’t be, but ought to be, evaluated by the relevant parliamentary committees. It takes all kinds of legislation to fill 443 pages, much of it not normally part of a budget.

Those who wrote to Flaherty last spring recognize that these massive bills constitute an attack on our democracy. “This omnibus bill is made simply to confuse the average Canadian . . . This is not democracy,” bemoaned one letter-writer. But perhaps none have captured the inherent flaws of government-by-omnibus as incisively as a young Stephen Harper.

In 1994, Harper, then a Reform MP, asked that the Liberal government’s 21-page omnibus budget bill be thrown out on a point of order. The bill, he said, was “so diverse that a single vote on the content would put members in conflict with their own principles.” He went on to suggest that the House committee charged with evaluating budget bills would lack sufficient time and expertise to properly assess all of the measures contained therein. He ended by urging the Speaker to carefully consider “this issue of democracy.”

Harper had it exactly right at the time. But that bill was less than one-twentieth the size of the current one, and contained only budgetary matters. Asking the House Finance Committee to appraise this bill in the time provided is like asking them to evaluate the literary merit of Crime and Punishment. This is asking the impossible.

On Friday, however, there was a first ray of hope that there is a limit to the power of the omnibus tool. Beset by criticism from opposition parties and pundits of every political stripe, the government compromised, agreeing to hive off proposed changes to MPs’ pensions from the rest of the bill. It’s a good first step. But what we’re left with — a document of more than 400 pages, which still includes many non-budgetary matters — is still highly problematic.

The government has promised that Bill C-45, if passed, will ensure significant savings over the coming years. But as Harper clearly knows, the scope of the bill means it will take months or years before Canadians understand the cost of those savings, beyond the steep democratic one.

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