Hours after Speaker Andrew Scheer grouped more than 800 amendments proposed by the opposition and averted a marathon voting session that could have delayed passage of Conservative budget legislation, the NDP raised a point of privilege that could prevent the bill's progress. Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen said the government is deliberately withholding information about how many public servants will lose their jobs as a result of Bill C-38.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement maintains he cannot release those numbers because of rules around the notification of the public-sector unions. But Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, who has been asking for the information, argues that excuse does not hold water.
Mr. Cullen said that means the budget bill will violate the privilege of MPs because they will be required to vote blindly on legislation when the government has not released all of the facts. And, he added, it breaks the federal Accountability Act brought in by the Conservatives in 2006, which requires the Parliamentary Budget Officer to receive free and timely information.
"There is no cabinet confidentiality and these are not pieces of information that have been denied through access to information," Mr. Cullen told the House. "To say that this is critical to members of Parliament to understand before they vote on the budget is an understatement."
The Speaker indicated in advance of Mr. Cullen's point of privilege that he would not be making an immediate ruling. But the NDP says he will have to make a ruling before voting starts on amendments to the budget bill. That process is expected to start Wednesday evening but the government has given repeated indications timing could be changed.
Mr. Cullen told The Globe and Mail the question he is raising is very similar to a question that was put to former House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken in 2011, just before the fall of the Conservative minority government prompted an election that won Prime Minister Stephen Harper a majority.
In that case, Mr. Milliken ruled the government had withheld information from a Commons committee related to the cost of Conservative crime bills and the purchase of a fleet of F-35 fighter jets. The government was eventually found to be in contempt for flouting the will and rights of Parliament by refusing to provide sufficient details of its agenda to MPs.
New Democrats say they don't know what will happen if Mr. Scheer rules in their favour but, they say, it will certainly create "complications" for the government.
This new twist comes after the New Democrats, the Liberals and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May introduced more hundreds of amendments to the bill.
In total, Mr. Scheer said, there were 871 motions and amendments to amend the legislation, which changes more than 70 different laws – many of which the opposition says have nothing to do with budgetary matters. By grouping and ordering them, he reduced the number of votes required to a minimum of 67 and a maximum of 159.
Although there had been predictions the amendments would require days and days of voting, even if the maximum number of votes were required, they could be accomplished in less than a day.
The opposition parties accepted Mr. Scheer's ruling as relatively fair given the lack of rules governing omnibus bills in Parliament. Still, they did not back down in their attacks against the Harper government's handling of the budget-implementation legislation.
Mr. Cullen said the NDP will do everything in its power to prolong the voting ordeal in the Commons.
"If we send the signal to the Conservatives that they can get away with this kind of thing, they'll do it again," he said. "If you allow the bully to keep bullying, they'll be back again."
The Conservative bill would change a wide range of Canadians laws from the rules around Employment Insurance, to the oversight of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to the eligibility for Old Age Security. One third of it is devoted to the overhaul of environmental assessments. Another section would allow American enforcement agents to arrest Canadian citizens on Canadian soil.
The opposition parties had been hoping for major showdown over the legislation in order to draw attention to its many provisions and the fact that it is being pushed through Parliament with such speed. They repeatedly asked the government to divide the bill into chunks so it can be scrutinized in better detail and to extract the sections that have little, if anything to do with the budget of Canada.
The Conservatives refused to do so, arguing the legislation is essential for the prosperity of the Canadian economy.