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Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen shows off an NDP website seeking public comments on the Conservative budget at an Ottawa news conference on May 15, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen shows off an NDP website seeking public comments on the Conservative budget at an Ottawa news conference on May 15, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

NDP reaches out to public as Tories plow ahead with budget bill Add to ...

New Democrats will hold public hearings across Canada about the Conservative government’s omnibus budget bill and will also launch a website and social-media campaign to alert Canadians to the scope of the legislation.

Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen was joined by finance critic Peggy Nash and deputy finance critic Guy Caron at a news conference Tuesday to announce that public hearings would start this week. Testimony is expected to come from expert witnesses and the public at large.

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The 425-page bill would alter roughly 70 different laws – from environmental assessment, to the oversight of the Auditor-General, to the treatment of refugees, to Old Age Security.

Because of the size and wide range of topics, the NDP and other opposition parties say it should be split into several pieces and studied at a number of different Commons committees. Instead, only the finance committee will get a look at it, though Conservatives have agreed to allow a special sub-committee to take a look at the environmental portions of the legislation.

The first of the NDP hearings has been scheduled for noon on Wednesday and they are expected to continue both this week and next, when MPs return to their home ridings for a break. The Ottawa session will be followed by ones in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Regina and Vancouver.

New Democrats say the Conservatives are trying to mask initiatives that the public would find unpalatable by burying them in the budget legislation.

“You know this government well. If there were opportunities for their own self-congratulation, each of these [changes]would be announced independently with the appropriate balloons and champagne dropping,” Mr. Cullen said. “That is not the case here.”

The NDP news conference took place as the House was debating a government move to limit debate on its complex copyright legislation. Since the Conservatives won a majority government a year ago, the opposition has complained bitterly that their opportunities to scrutinize and offer comment about government bills has repeatedly been cut off.

“Parliament belongs to Canadians,” Mr. Cullen said. “We intend to give it back to them.”

The Conservatives say the budget bill has already had more debate in the House of Commons than any similar bill in the past 20 years. But the NDP counters that most budget bills are about 30 pages long.

“This is not a standard budget implementation bill and we don’t want this to become the new standard,” Ms. Nash said. “This bill is simply too big and too diverse to be examined by the finance committee. There are many sections of this bill that weren’t announced in the budget and do not come under the purview of the finance committee.”

New Democrats say they will not limit the witnesses at the hearings to those who have problems with the bill.

The Liberals, meanwhile, also plan to talk about the budget bill in ridings across Canada during next week’s break. “One of the objectives there is to make sure that Canadians understand what the real implications are,” Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said.

"The Conservatives have shown with previous bills that they can be swayed by negative public opinion,” he added.

But their main line of attack seems to be in the Senate.

Jim Munson, a Liberal senator, told reporters he and his colleagues will be bringing sections of the bill before six Senate committees over the next few weeks to allow “real Canadians” to step forward and offer their opinion.

“This bill is devastating to a long list of Canadians,” Mr. Munson said.

“As senators, we [Liberals]realize that we are in a minority in the Senate,” he said, “but we do have a lot of people with expertise who can deal with these issues and we hope to hear good strong testimony so that, also in the Senate, we can propose amendments to this bill.”

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