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The Globe and Mail

Harper's omnibus budget bill has too much baggage

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses his caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 2, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government's 452-page omnibus budget bill contains too much for adequate consideration by Parliament, because it is really more than budget-implementation legislation. Only some portions of it are about public finance, that is, about such matters as income tax, sales tax and federal-provincial fiscal arrangements.

This is part of a trend that is older than the present government. When Paul Martin was prime minister in 2005, his budget bill was 120 pages long, a record at the time. The opposition leader, Stephen Harper, quite properly asked, "How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote on a block of such legislation?" How indeed?

One may fear that the Canadian Parliament could grow accustomed to massive, incoherent, tacked-together bills of a kind quite common in the U.S. Congress. For example, the formal name of the act of Congress popularly known as the financial bailout of 2008 is – tragicomically – the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007.

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Peter Van Loan, the government's House Leader, has at least agreed to send the environmental-policy sections of the budget bill (170 pages' worth) to a special subcommittee, but that still leaves far too much for a single bill: hundred of pages about parks, animal health, railway and nuclear safety, and on and on.

It is just possible that Mr. Harper and Jim Flaherty, the Minister of Finance, are beginning to wean themselves off this habit. This government previously delivered three budget bills that were even longer: 528, 644 and 880 pages. But 452 pages on miscellaneous topics are still far too much for Parliament to deal with at one time.

Ned Franks of Queen's University, an admirable scholar of the Canadian Parliament, has said that, in the previous Parliament, 38 per cent of the government legislation that was passed was contained in budget-implementation bills. A government may choose to describe much of its program in its budget documents, but to put it all in one bill is a heavily unbalanced approach. The Conservatives should return to an even pace of legislation, so that MPs can genuinely deliberate.

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