A federal budget is indeed an economic action plan - as the Harper government continually describes its own budget - and it is bound to be closely linked to most of the country's policies. But it is not conducive to parliamentary deliberation, scrutiny and debate for a budget bill, such as this year's Bill C-9, to contain a very large number of changes to legislation that are not either taxing or spending measures.
Consequently, Senator Lowell Murray is right to question the very wide scope of the bill, a matter that the Liberals in the House of Commons have refrained from raising. The position of Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, and his colleagues in the Commons has a certain logic. The country does not want another election, and the Official Opposition has chosen not to defeat the budget, which in itself is clearly a confidence measure.
That logic, however, points to the mistake in the enormousness of the budget bill as it now stands. The implicit ultimatum that amendments would trigger an election underlines the inappropriateness of including many routine revisions to federal statutes and some substantial policy changes.
For example, it is a perfectly good idea to amend a law that establishes a committee of the leading regulators of the financial system to say that its members should have not shares in credit unions, but this is not a matter for a budget bill.
The changes to rules on environmental assessments, on the other hand, appear to be quite considerable. To be sure, such assessments can delay infrastructure projects, which are at the core of current economic policy. But these changes should be considered in the normal parliamentary way.
If Canada had a congressional system, with all the creativity, excitement and chaos that can be seen in the U.S., financial legislation would always be full of substantive changes, as they are there. But that is not Canada's form of government.
It would be startling if the Senate were to amend, let alone defeat, the budget bill. The Harper government should seriously consider averting that, by splitting off some significant non-budgetary portions of Bill C-9.
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