In the end, both sides got the job done.
Now that the Speaker has limited the opposition attempt at a filibuster, the Tories’ omnibus bill should clear Parliament this week or next. The Harper government’s agenda remains intact.
But the NDP, Liberals and Greens succeeded in raising the alarm. Anyone following Canadian politics must surely know the plethora of changes to a host of acts contained in the bill.
If omnibus bills are increasingly a fact of life in federal and provincial parliaments, so too is effective opposition to them. The system is far from perfect, but the system adapts.
“It’s regrettable” that the Conservatives are pushing through such a large bill, said Jean-François Godbout, a parliamentary scholar at the University of Montreal. But “if they’re not doing anything illegal, we can’t really blame them for getting their agenda across.”
Consider the alternative. If the opposition had succeeded in their attempt to force the Conservatives to break their budget bill into four or five parts, debate on much of it would not have begun until the fall. Final votes would typically not have occurred until spring, 2013, at the earliest.
The bills would probably have been better for such consideration. Flaws would have been caught and fixed. But the government’s agenda would have been delayed by a year or more, with future priorities pushed back to 2014.
By forcing this bill through now, the Conservatives have given themselves a clean slate for the fall sitting. Whatever Stephen Harper has planned – changes to equalization? to public-sector union contracts? – there will now be plenty of time to implement it.
Governments like omnibus bills because they can shove a raft of controversial measures into one package and force them through early in a mandate and repair any political damage before the next election.
Champions of the democratic process despair over such bills, because they subvert Parliament’s duty to examine the government’s agenda and hold it to account.
But we had an election on exactly this issue last year. The Liberals and NDP campaigned on the Tories’ shoddy treatment of Parliament. The Conservatives campaigned on protecting the economy.
A large plurality of voters chose the Conservatives. That system isn’t perfect, either. But it’s what we’ve got. The omnibus is the result, for good and for ill.