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Conservatives push through omnibus budget bill in Senate Add to ...

Independent and Liberal Senators have failed in their effort to hive off sections of an omnibus budget bill that they say have little to do with budgetary matters.

Senator Lowell Murray, a Progressive Conservative, introduced a motion on Tuesday that would have seen Bill C-9 divided into five smaller bills. The Liberals, who supported the move, had hoped to have enough of their members in their seats to ensure that it was passed.

In the end, however, they were outnumbered by the Conservatives, who have a younger and more disciplined caucus that includes many senators appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the expressed purpose of ensuring that government bills are not lost in the Upper Chamber.

Mr. Murray's motion was defeated by a vote of 42 to 51 and Bill C-9 will continue to be debated in its original form by the Senate Finance committee.

Mr. Murray told his Senate colleagues that the bill, which numbers 880 pages, made a mockery of Parliament's control of the legislative process.

"There is no principle to Bill C-9," he said. "It is a grab bag of measures."

It includes a number of controversial sections that were not supported by the opposition parties in the House of Commons including measures to alter environmental oversight, to sell off Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., and to break Canada Post's monopoly on overseas mail.

The legislation was passed in the Commons with the help of the Liberals who ensured that enough of their members were absent at the time of the vote. A defeat of the bill would have indicated a loss of confidence in the government and most likely would have caused an election that none of the parties wanted.

But the Senate is not a confidence chamber and senators could have divided the bill without taking down the Conservative government.

Mr. Murray reminded the Senate that, in 1994, Mr. Harper had complained about a Liberal government omnibus bill saying "the subject matter of the bill is so diverse that a single vote on the content would put members in conflict with their own principles."

The bill that Mr. Harper complained about was just 21 pages long, Mr. Murray said. He continued that C-9 should be divided into what he called five plausible bundles - "five mini-omnibus bills to be debated, examined, studied and scrutinized as they should be."

Conservative senators have a majority in the committees. But the committees are obliged to do what they are told to do by the Senate as a whole.

Until November, the Liberals and the independents combined will have a majority of one in the Upper Chamber. But they still could not muster the numbers to take on the Conservatives.

In defending the government's decision to cram a number of disparate measures into the bill, Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein said last week that he did not deny that the legislation was comprehensive.

"However," Mr. Gerstein told the Senate, "contrary to the cries of some honorable senators, the omnibus nature of budget legislation is hardly an invention of the current government."

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