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A government stop sign is seen near the Peace Tower in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick)
A government stop sign is seen near the Peace Tower in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick)

C.E.S. Franks

Omnibus bills subvert our legislative process Add to ...

Canadian budget implementation acts, such as the one passed by the Senate late Monday night, have morphed from short bills dealing with minor items mentioned in the budget speech to enormous omnibus bills that go way beyond what is mentioned in the budget. They now make profound changes to many unrelated aspects of administration and policy. Parliament cannot study them properly.

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Between 1995 and 2000, budget implementation acts averaged 12 pages in length. From 2001 to 2008, they averaged 139 pages. In 2009, the two acts added up to 580 pages - 32 per cent of Parliament's legislative output that year. The 2010 Budget Implementation Act, Bill C-9, contains 883 pages of varied and unrelated legislative provisions. It could form close to half the pages of Parliament's legislative output for 2010. These omnibus budget implementation bills subvert and evade the normal principles of parliamentary review of legislation.

In far too short a period, the House and Senate finance committees examining C-9 had to inform themselves and vote on changes and innovations to taxation and other financial measures. They had to consider amendments to the laws governing pensions and the Federal-Provincial Arrangements Act. They had to examine a Canada-Poland agreement on social security, a proposal to eliminate Canada Post's monopoly over mail to be delivered outside Canada, provisions to permit credit unions to act as banks, and legislation permitting to sell off much of AECL. Other provisions of C-9 permit fundamental changes to the environmental review process.

This is only a few of the topics in C-9. Many of these sections have little if any relationship to the budget - they should have been presented to Parliament as stand-alone bills and examined by the appropriate specialist committees.

Parliamentary committees usually invite affected interest groups and informed members of the public to express their views on the legislation under consideration. This consultation is especially important when legislation proposes major changes or involves complex technical matters. Many of the provisions in C-9, such as dealing with pension plans and taxation, are in response to court rulings and, by their nature, must be detailed and involve complex technical legal matters. They will affect the pocketbooks and pensions of many Canadians.

The rush to get C-9 through Parliament has limited the review and discussion of these detailed but important legislative provisions. Although both the Senate and House committees that examined the bill found concerns about the drafting of C-9, the government has shown no interest in amendments. Poorly drafted legislation will mean more confusion and more court cases.

C-9 is so lengthy and complex that many of its implications probably will have escaped the attention of Parliament, interest groups and the public altogether. The Budget Implementation Bill of 2007 (a mere 134 pages long) had a brief section that, according to the government, was intended "to modernize Crown borrowing authorities." Not until after it became law did senators realize that by "modernization," the government meant virtual elimination of the traditional requirement that the government have Parliament's formal consent before borrowing money. Flaws and hidden implications must still lurk in the 883 pages of C-9.

Successive governments' enthusiasm for mammoth budget implementation bills comes from fundamental changes to Parliament over the past 50 years. The House meets fewer days a year, dropping from an average of 163 days during the 1968-73 period to 110 from 1999 to 2009. The last year the House sat the full 135 days proposed in its calendar was 1995. During Lester Pearson's tenure (1963-68, two minority Parliaments), 86 per cent of government legislation achieved royal assent. The comparable figure for Jean Chrétien's 1993-2003 majorities was 69 per cent. Stephen Harper's success rate from 2006 to 2009 was 45 per cent. In the Pearson era, an average of 52 bills a year achieved royal assent. This number declined to 38 in Mr. Chrétien's era, and 27 a year under Mr. Harper.

The Canadian legislative process has become cumbersome, slow and unproductive. But mammoth omnibus bills pretending to be implementing the budget only exacerbate the problem. These bills might please the government, but they do not help resolve the problems in the legislative process any more than they convince Canadians that they are being well governed. Bill C-9 is as much a symptom of underlying problems in our Parliament as it is a problem itself.

C.E.S. Franks is professor emeritus of political studies at Queen's University and author of The Parliament of Canada .

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