Legislation to create a $35-billion Canada Infrastructure Bank is scheduled to receive just one day of dedicated committee scrutiny as the federal government rushes to complete all hearings on the budget bill before the end of next week.
The Liberal majority is planning to divide the study of Ottawa's more than 300-page budget bill among several committees.
Finance committee chairman Wayne Easter, a Liberal MP, has written to the chairs of five other committees asking them to study various sections of the bill, C-44.
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The division of work will include a special one-day study next Tuesday – likely limited to one or two hours – focused on the proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank. The hearing will be conducted by the Commons committee on transportation, infrastructure and communities. The finance committee members will also ask questions about the bank as part of their review of the entire bill.
The wide-ranging budget legislation has attracted criticism from opposition parties, who argue its size and breadth goes against Liberal promises to end the practice of using omnibus legislation to pass major policy items.
The bill includes a new law called the Canada Infrastructure Bank Act that would create a $35-billion entity aimed at reviewing and organizing major projects in which public money would play a minority role in partnership with major private institutions, such as pension funds.
Conservative MP Dianne Watts, a former mayor of Surrey, B.C., said it is "laughable" that the Liberals are setting aside about two hours to study an issue as complex as the infrastructure bank.
"It needs more than a day," she said. Ms. Watts said a proper study would include a review of potential conflicts of interest, the impact of the bank on existing infrastructure programs and how taxpayers would be affected when a project fails. Ms. Watts is also concerned about the legislation's limited transparency provisions for the bank in terms of reporting to Parliament and access-to-information exemptions.
"You're shovelling $35-billion into this bank. It really needs to be studied," she said. "For two hours, they're going to study this. I mean, it's laughable."
The finance committee began its review of Bill C-44 on Monday and is expected to hold hearings on most weekdays this week and next. Mr. Easter, the committee chair, has written to other committees asking them to hold separate studies on sections of the bill. Those sections relate to veterans, immigration, Employment Insurance, the infrastructure bank and Shared Services Canada. The separate review of the bank has been confirmed by the chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee, Liberal MP Judy Sgro. However, the other committee studies are not yet confirmed.
The finance committee will also review the bill's changes to the powers of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, which have attracted controversy.
The finance committee will hear Wednesday from current Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette and former PBO Kevin Page. Both men have warned that the changes in the bill will undermine the spending watchdog's independence.
The decision to have several committees involved in the review of a large budget bill was common under the previous Conservative government. The Liberals were highly critical of large pieces of government legislation while in opposition.
Mr. Easter said the measures in the budget bill are all financial in nature and relate to the budget.
"I do think the government's come a long way in terms of moving away from omnibus bills, but there's still a distance to go," Mr. Easter said.
The finance-committee chairman said the goal is for all hearings on the bill to be wrapped up before the end of next week. The committee expects to hear from about 50 witnesses this week and next. The committee would then consider any potential amendments.
Both Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair led off Question Period Tuesday with a focus on the infrastructure bank and questions of conflict of interest as the government worked closely with institutional investors to shape and promote the plan.
"Will Canadians face user fees or tolls so that rich, private corporations can get their cut?" Mr. Mulcair asked.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that Canadians already pay user fees for some types of infrastructure.
"Canadians need a broad range of infrastructure investments across the country," he said. "In public transit, where they buy tickets; in delivering power lines, for which we pay fees; and infrastructure like roads and bridges that are toll free."