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Finance critic Peggy Nash, shown in Toronto on March 23, 2012, hopes a series of NDP hearings on the Conservative government's budget legislation encourages Canadians to 'come out and find out what’s in this bill.' (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Finance critic Peggy Nash, shown in Toronto on March 23, 2012, hopes a series of NDP hearings on the Conservative government's budget legislation encourages Canadians to 'come out and find out what’s in this bill.'

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Debut NDP budget hearing resembles anti-Tory echo chamber Add to ...

The first in a series of public meetings organized by the Official Opposition to alert the public to the wide-ranging contents of an omnibus budget bill attracted mostly New Democrats and a few other likeminded Canadians.

There was no dissenting opinion voiced during the hour-and-a-half meeting on Parliament Hill on Wednesday where NDP politicians and representatives of sympathetic organizations railed against what they say is a subversion of democracy.

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The witnesses called by the NDP included law professor Erroll Mendes, who has been a frequent critic of the Conservative government, a union representative, the former head of an agency that was killed in the budget, a human-rights activist, and two spokesmen for pro-democracy groups.

Charlie Angus, a Northern Ontario MP, said “it’s about taking the fight to the common people.”

But almost all of those who lined up at the mics to ask questions were NDP politicians. The party says it invited all 308 members of the House of Commons to attend, but only New Democrats showed up.

The Conservative government has packed the 425-page bill with clauses that will change roughly 70 different laws. Among other things, it would dramatically overhaul environmental assessments, make it more difficult to refuse work while collecting Employment Insurance, increase the age of eligibility for Old Age Security, alter the administration of parks, revise immigration rules, and change the laws concerning assisted human reproduction.

New Democrats and other opposition MPs in the House of Commons say the bill should be broken into more manageable parts but the government has rebuffed the request.

Prof. Mendes read a quote from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his opposition days when the Liberal government had introduced a similar bill. At the time, Mr. Harper declared such legislation to be “a contradiction to the conventions and practices of the House,” Prof. Mendes said, eliciting a round of applause.

But under Mr. Harper, he added, the parliamentary system of government established by the Fathers of Confederation is becoming a presidential system without any checks of balances.

Other speakers calls the bill an “unprecedented” effort to silence debate, and a “cover for a sweeping agenda” to remake Canadian society as the Conservatives wish. One NDP MP said he believes the legislation could mark the “death of democracy.”

But in the end they were speaking to the converted.

It remains to be seen whether members of the public will turn out to similar hearings the New Democrats have planned for Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Regina and Vancouver.

Peggy Nash, the Opposition finance critic, pointed out the Wednesday meeting was held in the middle of the day on Parliament Hill. “But we are going to take these kinds of meetings across the country,” she said. “We are going to engage Canadians in communities and encourage them to come out and find out what’s in this bill.”

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said he and his Conservative colleagues are focused on the economy and that is reflected in the budget bill.

"The NDP should stop obstructing this job creating bill and holding up a critical economic plan that will continue creating jobs for Canadian families," Mr. Van Loan said in an e-mail after reports of the NDP meeting surfaced.

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