Economic Action Plan 2013 Act No. 2

On Monday, December 2nd, 2013 in Parliament, Statements

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker—

 

The Deputy Speaker: The member for Parkdale—High Park has the floor, not the leader of the Green Party. Therefore, I will recognize the member for Parkdale—High Park.

 

Peggy Nash: Mr. Speaker, maybe the Green Party will answer that question at some point.

Let me just provide another example of what the government is doing. It created the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board in order to take the politics out of financing employment insurance. That was at a time when Liberal and Conservative governments had plundered $57 billion from the premiums paid by working people and employers across this country into the EI fund. The government created an independent fund to get away from those politics. It put the fund at zero, so there was no money. It was immediately in deficit, and ultimately, the premiums had to be raised. Now it wants to get rid of this board, this outside agency it created, and go back to being able to play politics with EI funding. It is shameful. It is a disgrace. It opens up the premiums paid into this fund, which ought to be going to unemployed workers and ought to be the best adjustment program Canada has during a time of insecurity and high unemployment. Instead, it uses them to play political points by having bigger surpluses or lower deficits than it would otherwise have. It is shameful. That is another measure included in this bill.

 

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I was not sure if my hon. colleague had given the member for Parkdale—High Park a promotion or demotion by making her leader of the Green Party.

However, on this particular debate, the Green Party and the NDP are on the same page. We completely lament the fact that this is an omnibus bill once again, with multiple sections that were very much deserving of a full parliamentary review and full and proper hearings in committee.

I want to begin my analysis of Bill C-4 in presenting the various amendments I have made for deletions with two fairly brief points to the substance of the abuse of Parliament that omnibus budget bills represent.

We have heard it said by Conservative members in their talking points that this is nothing new. In every debate we have on budget omnibus bills, we are told this is normal. However, although I have only been a member of Parliament since 2011, I have been around a long time, and I know that we have never had budget omnibus bills of the staggering length of these bills until the current administration. It is only under the current Prime Minister that we have seen an omnibus budget bill top 200 pages.

Between 1994 and 2005, there were occasions of omnibus budget bills, and they were averaging 73 pages. The first big whopper of an omnibus budget bill occurred under the current Prime Minister in 2009. The 2010 budget omnibus bill was almost 900 pages.

Then, by 2012, the Conservatives started a new process. Ironically, my very first question in the House once I was elected was on the 2011 budget. I asked the Minister of Finance if he was planning the abuse of process constituted by an omnibus budget bill. He said he was not. Well, 2011 was indeed the last year in which we did not see omnibus budget bills. By 2012, the Conservative administration had started this new practice of putting forward two omnibus budget bills. It now refers to it as a tradition, almost like having Easter in the spring and Christmas in December. It is a tradition, apparently, that we are now going to see a 300- to 400-page spring omnibus budget bill, followed by 200-, 300-, or 400-page fall omnibus budget bill. The government has done this now for 2012 and 2013.

What this does is make a mockery of Parliament. I cannot put it more strongly than that. The idea that we would have disparate, unconnected bills, many of them never mentioned in the budget, that do substantial damage—this one in particular to labour relations, previous ones to environmental concerns—is an offence to Parliament. There is no excuse for it.

Second, I know there has been a lot of public interest in the fate of members of Parliament like myself and my party. I quite clearly represent a party with fewer than 12 MPs; I represent a party with one MP. However, I am a party in the House. So are my colleagues in the Bloc Québécois, and so are four independent members of Parliament. We were treated differently, since there were multiple motions carried through multiple committees to require that substantive amendments be submitted at committee, where we are not members and do not have equal and full rights of participation.

I will set that aside for now. That is why all of my amendments presented today are deletions. I did have substantive amendments I would have liked to present at report stage. I had 26 substantive amendments that I did present to the finance committee, and they went through a very quick ritual slaughter. I would have liked for the people of Canada to know about those amendments. I would have liked to have brought them forward at report stage.

Before I move to the specific parts of the bill that Canadians need to know about, I want to make an overarching comment.

As the only member of Parliament for the Green Party, one of the great advantages of having to watch everything while also doing due diligence on behalf of my constituents is that I am able to see everything in a comprehensive overview, not just in silos. There are themes here. There are disparate bills, but the manoeuvres are the same. The manoeuvres go in the direction of increasing ministerial discretion, reducing objective criteria, removing boards and agencies that have independent expertise, and putting bills forward instead to systems of political whim.

That certainly was the case in budget omnibus Bill C-38 and Bill C-45. They reduced criteria, letting the minister of environment or the minister of natural resources make decisions without guidance.

In this particular omnibus budget bill, we see it happening quite a lot again. I will mention just a few of the areas.

Under the Canada Labour Code changes, which my friend from the official opposition already referred to, the changes go in the direction of removing health and safety officers and leaving decisions about health and safety up to the minister.

The same kinds of changes have happened in immigration. In Bill C-4, we see substantial changes in part 3, division 16, to the expression of interest system, basically for immigrants who are coming by way of economic advantage. The decision-making would now increasingly be by ministerial discretion.

Another area where we see ministerial discretion replacing an objective system is in division 14, in which we would repeal the Mackenzie Gas Project Impacts Act and replace it with a very similar Mackenzie gas project impacts funds act. In this change the one big difference between the two acts would be to replace an objective corporation, a regional organization that would make decisions about where the funds go, entirely with ministerial discretion.

My friend and colleague from the NDP, the member for Western Arctic, had this to say about it, because he has a lot of expertise in this area. He said:

There was an independent body set up by the Conservative government through an act of Parliament to manage this money and ensure that it was managed in a correct and careful fashion, following the procedures that had been set up and the planning that had taken place in these communities over a period of two years, from 2006 to 2008.

Then I have another excerpt from his quote:

What we have now is a move to a system that would have a Conservative minister handing out cheques for particular projects as he or she deems appropriate.

 

Before diving into the specifics of Bill C-4, I wanted to raise into higher profile a consistent ideological theme: moving more and more decision-making in our system of government, which is a parliamentary democracy, away from Parliament, and at the same time moving decision-making of ministers into more and more discretion with less and less guidance.

Those of us who have practised law at any time know that administrative law provides a certain amount of accountability whereby a minister has to follow certain prescribed considerations or in fact delegates authority to expert boards. Less and less will we see this. More and more will we see ministerial discretion. As well, we know that ministers do not really exercise discretion, not in this administration. They do what they are told by the people at PMO, who I think one Conservative described brilliantly as a series of Stepford wives who insist on certain decisions being made a certain way.

To raise my concerns in brief, this bill would do serious damage to the health and safety provisions of the Canada Labour Code. It would change the definition of danger and the ability to refuse dangerous work. It would remove the health and safety officers.

As well, a different section of this bill would change the Public Service Labour Relations Act, again for more ministerial discretion about which aspects of public service work would be considered to be essential and therefore not open to the usual recourse that trade unions have in negotiations.

We see changes to the Immigration Act to increase ministerial discretion. I would like to cite concerns from the Canadian Bar Association on the immigration law section. They wrote to the committee:

The CBA Section has concerns about the limited consultation on this important change to Canadian immigration law and policy. Bill C-4 would substantially change the way in which economic immigrants are selected to come to Canada. The Bill would remove these changes from Parliamentary scrutiny and approval and give what appears to be unilateral authority to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to change selection rules and procedures.

Another section of the bill that has gotten very limited public attention is the section that appears in part 3, division 7, which is in aid of getting rid of our deficit by selling off assets. This is the sale of 20,000 hectares described as the Dominion Coal Blocks land.

My amendments at committee, had they been approved, would have provided some conservation protection. These lands are among the most ecologically significant in Canada. They are the blocks in the Flathead Valley and Elk Valley. They are an integral part of what is called the Crown of the Continent, right near the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which is an international peace park on both sides of the border.

The Flathead has been protected by the strange reality of its ownership by the federal government over these years, but it is now to be sold for coal mining. We need to ensure that careful concern is applied to the conveyance of these lands and to ensure that we do not contaminate adjacent park areas. This is a concern already expressed by the United Nations.

 

Kevin Lamoureux: Mr. Speaker, I have to again try to emphasize, as the member has done, the importance of the immigration and other legislation that has been incorporated in this bill. I have argued in the past and will continue to argue in the future that this is the wrong way to bring in legislation. By doing it this way, we are not allowing for proper procedures on substantial pieces of legislation.

For example, when the leader for the Green Party makes reference to immigration changes, that should have been stand-alone legislation that would have had a second reading at a committee of its own. The committee on immigration would have dealt with it. We would have had stakeholders and witnesses come to committee to provide comment on it, and then it would ultimately come back there. There would have been a more wholesome debate on the whole issue of that specific change.

I wonder if the member could highlight for people who might be watching what has been lost as a result of not having that separate stand-alone legislation for the immigration component and for other pieces.

 

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, it is going to be very hard to know what was lost. We do know that in previous omnibus budget bills, even drafting errors were not corrected. We have seen this rush to pass legislation in a hurry, and if the disparate parts do not get reviewed by committees that have developed expertise in this area, they come back to the government’s attention, even within six months, as mistakes.

At the simplest level, haste makes waste, and they end up coming back with amendments to fix things. This bill includes amendments to fix mistakes the government made last time in the employment insurance system for fisheries, fisheries families, and their income.

What is important to drive home is that at a more fundamental level we see a systematic, transformative change in Canadian legislation, away from well-considered and well-developed legislation operating under criteria and controls to a system that could very easily become completely manipulated through the Prime Minister’s Office, a system in which ministers have nothing to do but follow through with their directions while the people who actually understand the system are precluded from the decision-making.

 

Peggy Nash: Mr. Speaker, one of the over 70 changes through this legislation would be to public sector collective bargaining rights. Unlike in the private sector, the government wants to give itself the unfettered right to deem certain workers as essential workers in the federal public sector. This could have the impact of their deeming the majority of workers in a bargaining unit to be essential workers, thereby essentially denying them normal collective bargaining rights and the normal right to strike. Coca-Cola cannot do that with its bargaining, but it is what the minister is proposing to do.

Does the member have any comments about the impact this would have on public sector collective bargaining?

 

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, this legislation, as with other pieces of legislation we have seen in this Parliament, would strike directly at the heart of collective bargaining. I will admit a bias, because part of my past work history included working for a union side labour firm and working for labour unions and in collective bargaining.

The principles of collective bargaining are important. If the tools that a labour union and an employer have at their disposal are roughly equal, the employer has the right to lock out and the trade union has the right to strike. If that aspect of collective bargaining is removed, essentially it becomes a system of the employer dictating terms. The employees have no recourse.

In healthy democracies and healthy economies and in places where civil society is healthy and there is less of a gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, the strengths of the trade union movement are one of the clearest indicators of a healthy society and a robust middle class. Striking at the heart of collective bargaining for federal employees, as this bill does, is not in Canada’s interest.

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