Omnibus rides again
All that is old is new again, and old again, and new again. Sigh. It’s hard to have any faith in our political system at all. “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 such concerns? ... 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.”
That was Stephen Harper on March 15, 1994, in opposition, talking about the use of omnibus bills.
Omnibus bills are whole collections of legislation, often packed together in budget enabling legislation that can run into the hundreds of pages. Opponents of the bills point out, quite rightly, that having so many things packed into a single bill means parliamentarians have no time to review individual elements of the legislation.
Despite Harper’s revulsion for omnibus legislation in 1994, that type of bill became a hallmark of the Harper years, with budget bills reaching
400 pages of dense revisions to a broad range of legislation.
The process reached the point that omnibus bills became a rallying cry for Justin Trudeau and the Liberals during the 2015 election.
Here’s part of the Liberal platform from that election: “We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny. Stephen Harper has… used omnibus bills to prevent Parliament from properly reviewing and debating his proposals. We will change the House of Commons Standing Orders to bring an end to this undemocratic practice.” Oh, if it were only so simple.
It’s 2017, the Liberals are in power, and their budget implementation bill this year is more than 300 pages long.
The Liberals claim it’s not omnibus legislation, with Trudeau telling the House of Commons on April 12, “We made a commitment to put only budget items that are part of Canada’s economic plan in the budget implementation bill. That is exactly what we are doing. We will not make inappropriate use of omnibus bills like the former government did.”
The Liberal bill amends the rules for the Parliamentary Budget Officer; sets up an infrastructure bank; increases pay for some justices; changes rules for the Canadian Deposit Insurance Corporation; makes changes to veterans legislation; amends the Canadian Labour Code; enacts a service fees act and an “Invest in Canada” act. In all, it creates or 13 piece of legislation. It looks, walks and talks like omnibus legislation, regardless of Liberal protestations.
Conservative House Leader Candace Bergen called the move hypocritical — it’s a wonder, with the Tory’s record for omnibus abuse, that she could even get the words out with a straight face. But she’s right.
And we’re wronged.