Critiquing Bill C-44, an omnibus budget bill that limits parliamentary debate

On Monday, June 5th, 2017 in Debate, Parliament

Elizabeth May

I now have the honour of debating the omnibus budget bill, Bill C-44, at report stage. I find this so ironic, because I truly believed that the era of the omnibus budget bill would end when the new Liberal government took power. In fact, the new government promised that it would not use this strategy to cram several measures into one bill.

I want to start in this debate by setting out some of the background around the category of omnibus budget bills, because much has been said and only some of it, in my view, actually captures the problem that we have.

It needs to be said that omnibus budget bills were not offensive in the period of time before 2006. If we go back, we find that between 1994 and 2005, the average budget bill was 73.6 pages long. However, it is ironic—I am using the word “irony” a lot today and I apologize for that, but it does seem to be the appropriate word—that back in 1994, the then Reform Party MP and backbencher Stephen Harper objected vigorously to the 1994 omnibus budget bill put forward by former prime minister, the Right Hon. Jean Chrétien. The Reform MP, as he was then, said:

Mr. Speaker, I would argue that the subject matter of the bill is so diverse that a single vote on the content would put members in conflict with their own principles.

…there is a lack of relevancy of these issues. The omnibus bills we have before us attempt to amend several different existing laws.

…in the interest of democracy I ask: How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns?

Now, that was referring to the omnibus budget bill of 1994. I would love to ask members here if they could guess how many pages it was, but I am not sure it would be proper form to ask members to shout out answers. However, I doubt that on a pop quiz members here assembled would guess that it was 24 pages long. Yes, Stephen Harper was complaining in 1994 about an omnibus budget bill of 24 pages.

The longest omnibus budget bill we had in the history of Canada, until Mr. Harper became prime minister, was when the Right Hon. Paul Martin was prime minister in the spring of 2005. He put forward the longest omnibus budget bill in Canadian history to that point. It was 120 pages long. I remember Stephen Harper complaining about it, because one of the measures the government was going to take in that omnibus budget bill was to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to ensure that greenhouse gases could be regulated under CEPA.

The Liberals defended it as a budget measure by saying that so much of the budget was their plan to reduce greenhouse gases that therefore this measure to amend CEPA was all right. In fact, in response to the vigorous criticism from opposition parties, the government of the day backed down and took that section out of the budget bill of 2005.

We began to see the use of omnibus budget bills a significant way in 2009 and 2010. The 2009 omnibus bill topped 580 pages, and the 2010 omnibus bill topped 883 pages, leading professor of political science and professor emeritus at Queen’s University Ned Franks to write that the use of omnibus budget bills “subvert and evade the normal principles of parliamentary review of legislation.”

The use of them in a minority Parliament made sense, because how else could a governing party that had the minority of the vote force Parliament to accept measures that it would clearly, if given the opportunity, defeat? Since budgetary measures are confidence measures, and parties for one reason or another did not want to have an election quite yet, there was always a sort of propping up of the Conservatives in minority, and big changes were made to the Navigable Waters Protection Act and to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. They were pushed through because it was a minority Parliament, and putting them in a budget bill was a very clever device.

The fact that Stephen Harper continued to use them in majority had a lot to do with the fact that when the Conservatives had the majority, they moved things through very rapidly and precluded proper study at committee. We had the double-barrelled omnibus budget bills Bill C-38 and Bill C-45 in 2012 that basically dismantled Canadian environmental law, from the Fisheries Act to the Navigable Waters Protection Act to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to the National Energy Board Act itself.

What makes omnibus budget bills offensive? It is not solely because there are many bills or many measures all in one bill. The point of an omnibus bill, which is not offensive in and of itself, is that every measure relates to the same purpose or to an overriding theme. There is much that has been written and decreed by Speakers, going back to former Speaker Lucien Lamoureux, who was the first to rule on this in the 1960s. He said that they were moving in a direction where a government could say here is our bill, and it is all the legislative work of an entire session, but it is omnibus.

We have to be careful about omnibus bills. This one has too many measures that should not be in it, although it is a far cry from the abuse we saw in the 41st Parliament.

These are the measures that should not have been included in an omnibus budget bill, because they are not receiving proper study. One is a change to the Board of Internal Economy. It is very welcome that the Board of Internal Economy meetings would be made public, but back to the position of members of Parliament and parties with fewer than 12 MPs, we would not be given any more access to the Board of Internal Economy than the public would get. In other words, the larger parties could still decide that this should not be open to the public and close the meeting of the Board of Internal Economy, and those of us who are members of Parliament would not get any new access to the Board of Internal Economy, any more than the public would get. I find that unacceptable.

Second are the sections relating to the parliamentary budget officer. I provided numerous amendments at committee. My amendments were defeated. There were government amendments to try to deal with what has become very controversial. The Liberals promised in the platform that the parliamentary budget officer would be made an officer of Parliament and given independence, although they promised no more omnibus budget bills either, which they described in the 2015 platform as “undemocratic practice”. Many of the sticky ropes put around the parliamentary budget office, particularly in the first draft of this bill at first reading, reduced the independence of the PBO. Some of those have been improved, but not enough. We still have work plans the PBO has to file. They can make changes as situations change, but it is certainly not the independent officer of Parliament we expected to see.

As my time is running out, I will now turn to the infrastructure bank. If ever there was a piece of legislation that should have been stand-alone to be properly studied, it is the Canadian infrastructure bank. Given the lack of detail and precision, it still might not be as dangerous as it appears to be in some aspects, but we do know that the Auditor General in Ontario found that using privatization schemes for projects, so-called P3 projects, actually boosts the cost. The Ontario Auditor General found an $8 billion increase for the 74 projects studied.

In my last 10 seconds, I will merely say that at third reading, Bill C-44 is moving through this place too quickly. It is not as damaging an omnibus budget bill as the ones we saw in the 41st Parliament, but I urge the Liberal government to be far more cautious and to set a better standard on budget bills.

 

Kevin Lamoureux – Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I am sympathetic to what the leader of the Green Party is saying. Having said that, in fairness, it is not as much the length as the content of the legislation itself.

One of the examples the member makes reference to is the infrastructure bank. We have had a great deal of debate about the infrastructure bank. One only needs to look at question period to get a sense of the type of debate we have been having and at discussions and so forth, both in committee and inside the House. I find it very difficult to believe that someone could argue that the infrastructure bank is not part of the budget.

That is what the budget implementation bill is all about: to implement measures that were presented in the budget, a good budget, I would suggest, so that Canadians will be able to derive the many benefits of this particular bill passing.

How would the member ultimately articulate that the infrastructure bank is not part of the 2017-18 budget?

 

Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, a budget, as understood by the concept that a Parliament controls the public purse, is about expenditures. Increasingly, budgets are big fat pamphlets that declare what a government intends to do. They are almost an expansion of election platforms or a thicker version of a Speech from the Throne.

A budgetary measure is one that relates to a tax, a tariff, a subsidy: Liberal budgetary measures. The more the budget is used as the big fat spring brochure and the less it is actually about the finances of the country, the more we go down the slippery slope where many things are thrown together and pushed too quickly through Parliament.

 

Garnett Genuis – Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Mr. Speaker, during the Standing Orders debate, I had an opportunity to read the Green Party’s discussion paper on changes to the Standing Orders. I certainly did not agree with all of it, but I thought it raised some interesting ideas.

One of the questions in this discussion is what is meant by an omnibus bill. It is a concept that is actually very different to define. From the government’s perspective, it seems to define a bill as omnibus if it was proposed by a different party, which is obviously an incoherent definition. However, the Green Party discussion paper says that an omnibus bill is one where members might want to vote for some parts but not others. Of course, that is pretty routine in this place, even on a bill that deals with a relatively small number of pages. I can think of the issue around supervised consumption sites, where our party strongly agreed with and wanted to expedite some parts of it but disagreed with others.

I wonder if the Green Party leader can develop this idea of what actually is an omnibus bill. How do we identify it and how do we not identify it, because it is not exactly a clear-cut thing?

 

Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, that is actually a very great question. Omnibus means a lot of things altogether. There was an omnibus bill, for instance, a long one that touched on many pieces of legislation, that enacted NAFTA. We could say that even though there were many different pieces of legislation, and we might have liked some but not other bits, the reality was, and this comes from Speakers’ rulings over the years, it had a unifying theme. It was to the same purpose.

Of course, that was not an omnibus budget bill. That was an omnibus bill changing our legislation to accommodate NAFTA. When we look at an omnibus budget bill, I think all the pieces in an omnibus budget bill, to be legitimate, must relate directly to the fiscal aspects of a budget and not to the various things that were announced on budget day to distinguish them.

On the question of the same theme, a unifying theme, one of the pieces I hope we can pursue, because it was in the government’s proposal for changing our rules, was to give the Speaker explicit powers to split apart omnibus bills when they are clearly different pieces of legislation that are not intrinsic to the spending of the government accounts.

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