IN THE NEWS ~ We ‘don’t have a clue’ what’s in omnibus bills, say MPs

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The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

NDP MP Peter Stoffer has a private member's bill to prevent omnibus legislation.

 

By RACHEL AIELLO Hill Times

Published: Monday, 03/02/2015 12:00 am EST

 

The Conservative-dominated Parliament has passed at least 10 massive omnibus bills that have amended hundreds of Canadian laws since Prime Minister Stephen Harper won government in 2011. But opposition MPs say most of the bills have flown out the door without proper scrutiny, which violates the fundamental rule of Parliament, and they want this legislative procedure to end.

Since 2011, the Harper government’s 10 omnibus bills have amended hundreds of acts, most of which have passed into law.

In an interview with The Hill Times, NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.) said in his time in the House of Commons he has seen bills containing billions in spending receive little or no scrutiny, and some passed that nobody reads in their entirety. To say that Parliamentarians are being accountable to taxpayers “is a myth,� he said.

“We’re here under false pretenses. We’re just filling up space because we’re not doing our job. And it bothers me—it doesn’t matter who the government is—it bothers me when you bring in a 458-page piece of legislation that nobody reads, contains billions of dollars of spending and we’re not holding anyone to account, or at least overseeing it. That is simply wrong,� he said.

On Feb. 19, Mr. Stoffer, a veteran NDP MP, introduced a private member’s bill that seeks to restrict the use of omnibus bills that try to amend multiple laws at one time if the changes aren’t related. For example, Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, proposes changes to many acts that deal with combatting terrorism, so it would still be permitted.

Mr. Stoffer’s one-paragraph bill, coined “Stop the Bus,� would prohibit the government from using the budget implementation bills to amend multiple acts outside of the financial measures. The latest budget bill, C-43, tabled last fall, brought in changes to over 20 non-budget-related acts, including the Patent Act, the Criminal Code and the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act.

Mr. Stoffer’s bill wouldn’t apply to federal budgets if all of the implementation bill’s provisions “have a purpose that is primarily financial in nature.� It would amend the Parliament of Canada Act and apply to both the House and Senate.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C) agrees. She says she’s seen firsthand how parts of large bills can “fall through the stools.� During the committee study of the government’s first 2014 budget implementation bill, C-31, Ms. May put forward amendments on the portion of the bill dealing with changes to the Hazardous Products Act. She was told by Finance Committee members that they hadn’t had any testimony on that section and didn’t know anything about the changes, so her amendments were rejected.

She also pointed to an earlier budget implementation bill, C-38, which included amendments to eliminate the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy that weren’t studied by anyone. At the time, the Finance Committee had thought that portion of the bill had been carved off and given to the Environment Committee, but it wasn’t until the former chair of the committee, Liberal MP David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.), came forward looking to appear as a witness that the slip-up was discovered.

“They do not even have cursory examinations of every section,� said Ms. May. “They don’t have a clue… It’s anti-democratic and it means that measures are taken that people don’t even know about.�

House Finance Committee chair James Rajotte (Edmonton-Leduc, Alta.) said he thinks the work his committee does is thorough and he’s always confident in his understanding of what he’s voting on. He argues that the budget bills the Conservatives introduce are still aligned with the intended meaning of omnibus legislation: “everything the government does is fiscally related because it is dependent on the government allocating resources to it,� he told The Hill Times.

Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said this justification was “simply not true.�

“Omnibus bills actually are in contempt of Parliament because they force Members of Parliament to vote on many unrelated matters at once. That violates the fundamental rule of Parliament having to give well-considered approval to any government proposal before the government can act,� he said.

Liberal democratic reform critic Scott Simms (Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld.) echoed Ms. May and Mr. Stoffer’s sentiment. He said he, too, feels like he can’t do his job of holding the government to account by comprehensively studying all the measures he votes on.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.) called the practice “designed to basically kidnap Parliament and subject it to Conservative partisan interests.�

However, Conservative MP Joyce Bateman (Winnipeg South Centre, Man.) said MPs can do the work required to comprehensively study a large bill, “if they care.�

“I just think it’s our responsibility to read what we’re voting on and approving. This is not a job that you punch-out,� she said. “You are working a lot of hours and doing a lot of reading.�

The use of omnibus legislation has “gone beyond its original use,� according to Keith Beardsley, a former deputy chief of staff for issues management to Prime Minister Harper (Calgary Southwest, Atla.) and now president of Cenco Public Affairs. He said the long-term impact is that it takes away MPs’ ability to influence public policy, and centralizes the power in each party leader’s office, particularly the PMO.

Louis Massicotte, a Laval University political science professor with a focus on Canadian policy and democracy, said Mr. Stoffer’s bill, although it’s not likely to pass, will attract public attention to a practice that doesn’t serve the public interest and is “clearly objectionable on non-partisan grounds.�

“Under the current administration, the use of this practice, this technique, has been markedly higher,� he said in an interview. “Budget implementation bills have grown massive in size. They deal with almost every subject on earth. Certainly we are seeing a runaway attitude and there should be a stop to this.�

According to the House of Commons Procedure and Practice, using omnibus bills as a legislative tool dates back to 1888, when a private member’s bill sought to confirm two railway agreements at once. A House discussion from 1953 proposing that all changes to the Armed Forces would be put into one bill every year described the idea as a “convenience.�

Today, the government says its use of omnibus bills is intended to move numerous legislative changes quickly through the Commons. When asked for comment on what the government sees as the purpose of such large bills, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan (York-Simcoe, Ont.) said the government’s objective “is to deliver results for the economy and that means getting bills passed.�

The Conservatives have faced heightened criticism over the practice since winning their majority in 2011. Opposition parties allege the government’s intent is to evade discussion on some changes. They point to Bill C-4, the 2013 budget implementation bill that sought to change the Supreme Court Act as the government was seeking to appoint Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada, and 2012’s second budget bill, C-45, that included controversial changes to environmental assessments and natural resource project regulations. The Supreme Court struck down a provision in Bill C-4 that gave Cabinet powers limiting federal employees’ right to strike.

Mr. Rajotte said that he thinks Mr. Van Loan would be open to a discussion about dividing up some legislation if there were an agreement from the opposition that the House could run more like the British Parliament, where bills are studied and debated for a fraction of the time.

“There has to be certainty that we don’t have a trade agreement that we debate in the House of Commons for three years because one party doesn’t want to pass it,� he said.

As there is no indication the practice will stop any time soon, all three opposition parties have indicated they would consider repealing some of the measures that have been introduced under omnibus legislation if they were to form government.

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The Hill Times

Omnibus Bills in 41st Parliament

Although there is no definition of “omnibus� in the Standing orders, the Parliamentary glossary states a bill can be considered omnibus if it consists of “a number of related but separate parts that seeks to amend and/or repeal one or several existing acts and/or to enact one or several new acts.� By this measure, there have been eight omnibus budget implementation bills in this Parliament, as well as an omnibus crime bill and the current Anti-Terrorism Act.

  • C-3, the Supporting Vulnerable Seniors and Strengthening Canada’s Economy Act amended approximately 15 acts, including the Canada Shipping Act, 2001, the Auditor General Act, and the Canada Disability Savings Act.
  • C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act amended the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, the State Immunity Act, the Criminal Code, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and others.
  • C-13, the Keeping Canada’s Economy and Jobs Growing Act amended approximately 21 acts, including the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Softwood Lumber Products Export Charge Act, 2006, and the Conflict of Interest Act.
  • C-38, the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act amended 70 different laws, among them the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the First Nations Land Management Act, the Nuclear Safety and Controls Act, and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy Act.
  • C-45, the Jobs and Growth Act, 2012, amended approximately 65 acts, including the Canada Labour Code, the Access to Information Act, the Railway Safety Act, and the Special retirement arrangements act.
  • C-60, the Economic Action Plan 2013 Act, No. 1 amended approximately 34 acts, including the Canadian Race Relations Foundation Act, the National Holocaust Monument Act, the Citizenship Act, and the War Veterans Allowance Act.

2nd Session:

  • C-4, the Economic Action Plan 2013 Act No. 2 amended approximately 68 acts, including the Non-smokers Health Act, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board Act, and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
  • C-31, the Economic Action Plan 2014 Act, No. 1 amended approximately 63 acts, including the Hazardous Products Act, the Member of Parliament Retiring Allowances Act, the Museums Act, the Status of the Artist Act, and the Safe Food for Communities.
  • C-43, the Economic Action Plan 2014 Act, No. 2 amended approximately 55 acts, including the Patent Act, the Radiocommunication Act and the Canada-Chile Free trade Agreement and Implementation Act.
  • C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 amends the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, the Secure Air Travel Act, the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and makes related and consequential amendments to other Acts.

—Source: Compiled with the assistance of the NDP Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition (OLO)