The omnibus bill becomes business as usual for Conservatives

Posted on October 19, 2012 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – news/canada/politics
October 19, 2012.   Tim Harper, National Affairs Columnist

Son of Omnibus may have been assembled in the secret Conservative laboratory of dark arts hidden away in the depths of the capital-area woods.

But it entered the world on a day of bright sunshine in an Ottawa bicycle store aptly named Joe Mamma, a shop filled with the smell of fresh rubber and reporters craning for a look at a grinning finance minister peering over a podium, his visage framed by bicycle chains and helmets.

Jim Flaherty, first delivering a plug for a big bike sale by his host Saturday, followed the Conservative script for such things.

First, the legislation must have a shiny, happy name, in this case the Jobs and Growth Act.

Second, it must be dumped on politicians and journalists, nearly 450 pages, with no effort to help explain anything, so the government can enjoy watching the great scavenger hunt for substantive pieces of legislation.

Third, there must be a bright colourful object placed in the window, in this case an overhaul of MPs pensions, with the rest of it being dismissed as “no surprises” as the finance minister all but waved everyone away, telling them there was nothing here to see.

But this is truly the spawn of the first omnibus bill, the one that dominated the last Parliamentary session, the one demonized by the opposition as an affront to democracy, the one which angered Canadians from all parties, including Conservatives and led to an all-night marathon voting session before Flaherty and his government could get it through the Commons.

The NDP called that a “monster bill,’’ but this was one healthy baby introduced Thursday, weighing in at 443 pages, bigger than its father.

In the Conservative view, last spring’s drama never happened.

If voters didn’t like that, they failed to understand, apparently, this is the way this government does business.

Clearly the calculation is all that noise and light in the last session was generated by those who would never vote Conservative anyway.

Stephen Harper didn’t invent prorogation and omnibus legislation, but he has made two arcane polysyllabic political terms part of our everyday lexicon, improving our vocabulary but diminishing our democracy.

His shut-it-down and take-it-or-leave-it approach to procedure and legislation has gone viral, with the Ontario legislature now sitting dark, prorogued by Dalton McGuinty.

This is the second chapter of a very cynical story by the Harper government, NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said, but it’s not clear whether the opposition response will be different in chapter two.

The last omnibus budget bill began the process of gutting environmental regulations and this one takes the process another step further.

Today’s child amends more than 60 pieces of legislation or acts, some of them tweaks, some of them substantive, but clearly of vastly different worlds, making it impossible to be vetted by a single House of Commons committee.

It amends the Canada Shipping Act and the Fisheries Act and changes the definition of an aboriginal fishery.

It streamlines the building of a bridge across the Detroit River by eliminating any environmental restrictions.

It amends the Indian Act to change voting rules for land designation,

It changes benefits and salaries for federally-appointed judges.

It amends the Customs Act to make it easier for the government to collect information on passengers.

It provides for a temporary refund on Employment Insurance premiums for small business owners.

It eliminates the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission.

It limits the scope of the Navigable Waters Act, eliminating impediments to pipelines and weakening Canadians’ right to navigate waters without being impeded by pipelines, power lines or forestry equipment, something Green Party leader Elizabeth May deemed “tragic.’’

Whether these changes are good or bad isn’t the point. The point is that they cannot be properly scrutinized by the people sent to this place to hold a government to account.

New Democrats, with their opposition partners, went as far as they could in opposition last spring, given the reality of a majority government.

The Conservatives have clearly determined that a lost night’s sleep in the Commons is an easy price to pay for passing legislation their way, and the opposition may have to look for another way to engage Canadians this time around.

Flaherty spent the day repeating that everything in the bill was in his budget document of last March.

That is a stretch of the truth.

But having got away with their initial omnibus bill last spring, why wouldn’t Conservatives feel they can get away with a little stretch of the truth?

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