A rough guide to Bill C-38

Why all the fuss about ‘an Act to implement certain provisions of the budget’?

With C-38 set to soon return to the House for a final showdown, we thought it might be necessary to explain the story so far. Herein, a rough guide to the controversial budget bill.

What is C-38?

Bill C-38 is officially “an Act to implement certain provisions of the budget.” After the government presents its annual budget, it must pass legislation that carries out the promised changes or initiatives. In theory, C-38 is that legislation.

So what’s the problem?

C-38 numbers more than 400 pages and amends dozens of pieces of legislation. Among other things, it changes environmental regulations, amends the Fisheries Act, allows for new rules to be imposed on Employment Insurance, repeals the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act and eliminates the CSIS inspector general. Over the last 20 years—see here—the budget implementation act has gone from a relatively short piece of legislation to a regularly massive bill that attempts to do dozens of things all at once. Between 1994 and 2005, budget implementation acts averaged 73.6 pages. Since the Conservatives came to power, the acts have averaged 308.9 pages. Bills in which many different changes are packaged together are generally referred to as omnibus bills.

Are omnibus bills inherently bad?

Not necessarily. A bill could package together a series of directly related changes to a number of directly related acts. You could argue that the government’s omnibus crime bill was such a piece of legislation. You can make a fair argument that such bills are both democratic and reasonable.

So what’s wrong with an omnibus bill like C-38?

Let’s let Stephen Harper (circa 1994) explain. “First, there is a lack of relevancy of these issues. The omnibus bills we have before us attempt to amend several different existing laws. Second, 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? 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? Dividing the bill into several components would allow members to represent views of their constituents on each of the different components in the bill.” In addition to complaints about the specific changes in C-38, the opposition parties argue that the bill is undemocratic: that by packaging so many different things together, proper scrutiny, study and debate is not possible—see here and here, for instance.

What does the government have to say for itself?

Here is an interview with Government House leader Peter Van Loan. Generally speaking, the Conservatives argue that all of the measures in the budget bill go toward positioning the country for future prosperity and economic growth. They also argue that the bill will be subject to more House debate than any budget bill in recent memory, but this is a problematic metric.

Speaking of debate, how’s that gone?

For your viewing pleasure and general edification, here are some opposition speeches and here are some government speeches. (And here is a rough guide to the first few days of committee study.)

Was there any attempt made at compromise here?

The New Democrats proposed splitting the bill up so that certain sections could be studied by the relevant committees. The NDP and the Conservatives spent a day discussing this possibility, but ultimately a deal was not reached. The NDP has also proposed more than 50 amendments through the finance committee hearings.

Have any Conservatives raised concerns?

Well, there was this one guy. Last month, Conservative MP David Wilks was videotaped voicing concerns about C-38 and the general state of democracy in Ottawa. But then the Prime Minister’s Office called and Mr. Wilks released a statement pledging his full support for the budget bill.

What about people who are not beholden to one political party or another? What do they think?

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities would like to see the amendments to the Fisheries Act separated from the budget bill. And the president of the Canadian Medical Association has some thoughts about what C-38 means for health care in this country. There was also an online protest that saw dozens of websites go dark this past Monday.

So what now? 

The finance committee will soon return the bill to the House of Commons for third reading. This will be the opposition’s last stand. As an independent MP—at least so far as Parliament is concerned—who was not part of the committee study of the bill, Elizabeth  May will be able to propose substantive amendments. She has suggested she will have about 200 to table. The New Democrats and Liberals, having participated in the committee stage, will not be able to propose substantive amendments at that point, but they will be able to move motions asking that individual clauses of the bill be deleted (and the bill contains more than 700 clauses). In addition to perhaps changing the bill, these amendments and motions will require votes, potentially hundreds of votes. And the House will have to get through those votes before moving on to any other business. In other words, the House could be tied up for hours. By way of example, consider what the Reform party did in 1999. Opposed to a bill to implement the Nisa’ga Treaty, Preston Manning’s side tabled 471 amendments that required nearly 43 consecutive hours of voting. In that case the Liberal government held firm and refused to change the legislation, but such tactics theoretically have two goals: to force the government to backdown and/or to bring attention to the legislation that is being opposed.

Speaking of Elizabeth May, what’s she up to?

On Monday, Ms. May rose on a point of order and asked the Speaker to rule that C-38 was, by the rules and standards of the House, not a proper omnibus bill. You can read her rationale in full, but ultimately she thinks the Speaker could do one of three things: allow the bill to proceed, reject the bill entirely or reject the bill and, rather than toss it out, suggest that the House find some kind of compromise (for instance, splitting the bill into proper separate bills). The Speaker will likely wait to hear from the government and the opposition parties before making a ruling. He’ll presumably have to rule before C-38 comes to a vote (or votes) at third reading.

Anything else?

Well, I suppose we could go through the bill clause-by-clause, but if you click here you’ll find a full archive of our budget implementation act coverage so far.

But what if I have other questions?

Post them in the comments beneath this story and I’ll do my best to answer.

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