On March 16, 1994, the Liberal government of the day tabled Bill C-17, an act to amend certain statutes to implement certain provisions of the budget. Nine days later, a new Reform party MP, elected just five months before, rose on a point of order to complain. The bill, he said, was “of an omnibus nature,” containing measures that dealt with disparate issues: public sector compensation, transportation subsidies, the CBC, employment insurance and payroll taxes. “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?” the young Stephen Harper wondered aloud. “We can agree with some of the measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse?”
Though the rookie MP’s words were not enough to derail that year’s budget bill, his words live on, cited more than 18 years later to taunt a Prime Minister whose government is now accused of abusing Parliament with a budget implementation act that dwarfs the bill that so troubled the rookie MP. But Bill C-38 doesn’t merely invite inconvenient comparisons. It sets the stage for a great—and potentially defining—battle between the new majority government and the newly realigned official Opposition.
“On this one issue I actually agree with Stephen Harper,” NDP House leader Nathan Cullen told reporters at a news conference this month. “It is inappropriate to put so many sweeping changes to so many different areas in the budget bill. The Conservatives are trying to hide from the oversight and the accountability that Canadians deserve.” The budget implementation act currently before the House of Commons—quite literally, at least in theory, the legislation necessary to implement the government’s budget—measures more than 400 pages and proposes to amend dozens of acts of Parliament. Among other things, it deals with environmental regulations, resource development, employment insurance, Old Age Security and immigration policy.
Only three times between 1994 and 2005, when the Liberals were in power, did a budget implementation act exceed 100 pages at the time of royal assent. On seven occasions, the bill that passed Parliament was less than 70 pages. But since the Conservatives were elected, Parliament has faced several novel-length bills: nearly 400 pages in 2007, more than 500 pages in 2009 and more than 600 pages in 2011. In 2010, they tabled and passed a bill of approximately 900 pages.
Shortly after its tabling, the New Democrats proposed that C-38 be split into several separate bills, but a day of negotiation between the government and the official Opposition failed to produce a deal. In lieu of compromise, there is now conflict. The opposition parties cannot prevent the bill from passing Parliament, but they can make its passage somewhat complicated. A mini-filibuster managed to manipulate the parliamentary schedule enough to add a few hours to the budget debate. The Liberals have suggested that the bill, containing more than 700 clauses, could be fought clause by clause when it returns to the House for third reading. Green MP Elizabeth May says she may have “potentially hundreds of amendments” to propose.
Perhaps hoping to replicate the sort of backlash that compelled the Conservatives to back away from their so-called “lawful access” legislation earlier this year, the New Democrats will also be moving the fight beyond the procedural. On Parliament Hill and across the country they will be convening hearings and town halls to investigate and discuss C-38’s ramifications. Social media will be used in hopes of rallying public attention and opposition.
The Conservatives’ pitch now, as it was during their last re-election campaign, is premised on the economy. In an interview with Maclean’s this month, Government House leader Peter Van Loan invoked the troubles of Europe and the United States and the need to “make a choice about the future” to explain the extent of C-38. “If Canada’s to set itself apart with a path where we can ensure prosperity so we can pay for health care at the levels we want to in the future, so we can deal with the changing demographics of a population that’s aging and still be able to support them, we need to be able to [harness opportunities], both on the workforce side and on the resource development side,” he explained. Cullen counters that if the government believed in each of its initiatives, it would have the courage to table them as individual pieces of legislation.
Even before the budget bill was tabled on April 26, promised cuts were generating criticism. Faced with potential layoffs, public sector unions warn of potential disaster: cuts at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would put consumers at greater risk, reductions within the Canada Border Services Agency would lead to more child pornography, weapons, illegal drugs, terrorists and sexual predators entering the country. Four days after C-38 was presented, the Liberals tabled a motion in the House that declared that the Harper government and specifically three ministers who served in Mike Harris’s Ontario government—Jim Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement—had “failed to learn the painful lessons from Walkerton, which proved that cuts to essential government services protecting the health and safety of Canadians are reckless and can cause Canadians to lose their lives.”
The Conservatives have assured that none of the promised budget cuts will reduce the safety or security of Canadians, but they are being pressed to explain exactly how they will achieve the promised savings. In April, the parliamentary budget officer wrote to 83 departments seeking details, but three weeks later he reported that only eight had responded.
C-38 is thus challenged on a number of fronts: in terms of procedure, transparency and policy. And the rhetoric is stark, the budget bill said to have profound consequences for the economy, the environment, public services and democracy. “The best thing for government is a budget that goes through unnoticed and unreported. And the worst thing is when a budget lingers,” says Brad Lavigne, a former adviser to Jack Layton, the late NDP leader. “Every day the NDP can keep the budget and what they’re trying to ram through, the policy changes in the budget bill, every day that they can keep that in the news, in front of Canadians, is a good day for the Opposition and a bad day for the government.” The public’s interest in parliamentary principles is demonstrably limited—after the Conservatives were found in contempt of Parliament last year, the electorate punished them with a majority—but issues like environmental regulation and employment insurance might play to the NDP’s goals of courting the 60 per cent of Canadians who aren’t inclined to vote for the Conservatives.
“If Thomas Mulcair and the team are fighting for those issues, then those people will look to the NDP to be the non-Conservative alternative,” Lavigne says.
The budget bill is offically called the “Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act” and on those terms the Conservatives are likely willing to continue debating. The most controversial aspects of the bill, those related to environmental assessment and resource development, might provide an opening for the NDP, but it might also set up an economic debate of the sort the Conservatives are willing to have. “I think the key debate is actually one that’s going to continue from now until the election, which is, what are we going to do about our energy resources here in Canada?” says Jason Lietaer, a Conservative strategist. “Are we going to use them and try to use them to be prosperous? Or are we going to take a different approach?”
In other words, whatever the particulars of how the budget bill was written, the next few weeks of public and parliamentary discussion might only mark the start of a three-year debate.