Parliament slowly returns to its regularly scheduled programming

And now, another omnibus budget bill

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

“Good day everyone, I’m Nathan Cullen, I’m the finance critic for the New Democratic Party,” he said. “First of all, we would like to acknowledge that the funeral for Nathan Cirillo is taking place right now and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family and the entire community in Hamilton.”

We are by no means back to normal. It’s not yet been a week. And Parliament Hill might be forever somehow different.

But perhaps there was a kind of solace here.

“Today we are gathered to talk about Bill C-43,” Cullen said with his next breath, the most recent omnibus bill from the Conservative government. Four hundred and sixty pages, 401 articles, dozens of laws changed with the single stroke of a pen.”

Is it bad to feel good about the bad of another omnibus bill? Is it wrong to greet even this kind of familiar?

That 478 pages were tabled last week, via C-43, makes this an autumn like nearly any other of recent vintage. There were 322 pages in the fall of 2013, 430 in 2012 and 658 in 2011. And now we get to hear the familiar refrains.

“Four-hundred-and-sixty pages,” Cullen lamented (page counts may vary) “401 articles, dozens of laws changed in almost nothing to do with the budget itself.”

A familiar refrain tinged with the feelings of the last six days.

“The Conservatives had an opportunity to work with other parties, to renew the faith in our democracy,” Cullen continued, “and to treat Parliament with respect and, given the incidences and the words that have been spoken in this place over the last number of days, one would have hoped for better from the government rather than this—because this is an abusive piece of legislation that does so little to help our economy or our country.”

The timing was coincidental and conflation is problematic; we might draw thick black lines to clarify what last week can and cannot be referenced in relation to.

Regardless of the events, feelings and words of the moment, the omnibus bill would be a deep philosophical conundrum for the legislator and the legislature. Even regardless of the wisdom or righteousness of the actual clauses contained therein, the omnibus bill should be a worthy matter for debate.

“First, there is a lack of relevancy of these issues. The omnibus bills we have before us attempt to amend several different existing laws,” a young MP lamented some 20 years ago. “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 could allow that a certain kind of omnibus bill is vaguely within the bounds of defensible practice; one of Pierre Trudeau’s signature achievements was an omnibus bill that made dozens of changes to criminal law. Even that might’ve been a bit much, but it at least had some kind of unifying theme to its contents.

Though we might hope that a budget bill would adhere to some generally acceptable definition of a budget—oh sorry, we don’t really call it a “budget” anymore, it’s an “economic action plan,” possibly because comic book characters are very big right now—but we could surely never enforce a standard that kept each bill to a single measure. Some amount of complication might be necessary and some grouping of initiatives might even be advisable. The question thus becomes: How much is too much?

This much was grasped by Speaker Lucien Lamoureux more than 30 years ago.

“However, where do we stop? Where is the point of no return?” he wondered. “The honourable member for Winnipeg North Centre, and I believe the honourable member for Edmonton West, said that we might reach a point where we would have only one bill, a bill at the start of the session for the improvement of the quality of the life in Canada, which would include every single proposed piece of legislation for the session. That would be an omnibus bill with a capital O and a capital B. But would it be acceptable legislation? There must be a point where we can go beyond what is acceptable from a strictly parliamentary standpoint.”

We have apparently not yet hit that point. At least, not officially. At least, not so far as a majority of the members of the House of Commons have seen fit to do something to create some point beyond which a government cannot go.

So Lamoureux’s questions still stand. If 450 pages is okay, why not 900 pages? (Actually, we already had one of those, in 2010.) If 900 pages is fine, why not 1,000 or 2,000 or 5,000 or 50,000? Why not a single bill each spring containing everything the government wanted to do that year?

Conceivably, this annual bill could be, as with recent budget bills, divided up and sent to separate committees for study. Perhaps the House could have a particularly long debate of the bill. Would that somehow end up being sufficient?

The government could certainly make some claim to being efficient. And it could come up with a particularly unimpeachable name for the bill—something like the “Purest Expression Of Human Fairness and Strength Act” or simply the “Great Act.”

Or possibly that would be silly.

A series of vaguely specific bills offers at least two benefits that such an omnibus bill would not.

First, it allows for the focus of public attention and feeling. Second, it offers each MP a chance to vote separately on each of the dozens of government bills that will come before the House in a year.

The latter is tempting to discount: If bills generally pass or fail along party lines, it is not obviously necessary that we even need to bother with votes. But the omnibus bill makes a mockery of the situation, applying a single vote to dozens of measures and weighting that vote as a matter of confidence. It does not even allow for the possibility that members might support one or two or even half of the measures, but still wish to oppose the major parts of the government’s agenda.

New Democrats might support changes to the national DNA data bank (Division 17 of Part 4), but they can’t officially vote in favour of those changes without voting in favour of every other part of this fall’s bill. A vote against this budget bill is a vote against allowing the Northwest Territories to reschedule its election if that election conflicts with a federal election (Division 13 of Part 4). Agreeing with the government’s changes to the temporary foreign worker program means also agreeing with the government’s changes to social assistance requirements for refugees, the government’s plan to establish an Arctic research centre, and the government’s respective changes to aerodrome and port regulation. (If each and every part of the bill is so good, it has been noted, it should be able to stand on its own.)

Perhaps the New Democrats or Liberals might vote differently on such things. Perhaps breaking up omnibus bills would reveal, ever so slightly, a greater diversity of opinion. (And while we’re at it, we might imagine votes not always strictly breaking down party lines and committee members given sufficient freedom from their party whips to allow for independent analysis and amendment of bills, but let’s not dream too big.)

“We don’t yet claim to understand all the aspects to it,” Cullen conceded this morning of C-43. “I doubt the finance minister understands it, because most of this has got nothing to do with the budget. This is the kitchen sink. This is the trojan horse.​”

This is a trojan horse, with a kitchen sink inside, within which has been left both a kit and a caboodle.

Perhaps that’s one way we could test an omnibus budget bill: Immediately after tabling the bill, the finance minister could be made to take a pop quiz on its contents. Everything he can sufficiently explain stays in. Anything he can’t gets taken out. We could have Kevin Page administer the test and separate panels of policy experts judge the minister’s responses. There’s probably a CBC show here somewhere.

That would at least be entertaining. We could make it a new fall tradition.

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