The Speaker of the House of Commons has grouped more than 800 amendments proposed by the opposition to an omnibus government budget bill, significantly reducing the maximum number of required votes and averting a marathon that could have delayed the legislation's passage.
Andrew Scheer relied on a previous ruling that was designed to avoid amendments that are repetitive, frivolous or vexatious or those that are aimed merely at prolonging debate when a bill is in its final stages.
"I have made every effort to respect both the wishes of the House and my responsibility to organize the consideration of report stage motions in a fair and balanced manner," Mr. Scheer told the House.
The NDP and Liberals have introduced hundreds of amendments to delete clauses of the 425-page Bill C-38 and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has introduced more than 300 substantive amendments that would change the wording of clauses – something she is permitted to do because she is not allowed to sit on House committees.
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 has 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.
Mr. Scheer also dismissed a motion by Ms. May to have the legislation discarded because it was submitted in imperfect form. Mr. Scheer said House rules do not prohibit an omnibus bill of this nature and suggested that a Commons committee embark on a study if MPs are concerned about its scope.
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.
"The government has created such a Frankenstein of a bill that Parliament will now be voting around the clock," Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen said.
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."
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae called on Parliament to review its rules to prevent the government from putting forth such a massive omnibus bill in the future.
"We are going to have to change the way that Parliament does business," Mr. Rae said. "If we can't succeed in doing that under this government, we are going to have to succeed in doing it under a government in the future."
Ms. May was disappointed by the Speaker's ruling against her motion, saying it opens the door to other abuses of power. "He's creating a bad precedent," she said.
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.
But Ms. May maintains Bill C-38 is the "most egregious" piece of legislation ever tabled in Canada and the government has grouped all of the disparate measures together in one bill for no other reason than to avoid scrutiny. It is an "attack by stealth" on 70 different laws and many sections have no connection to the budget, she said earlier Monday.
"It's not as though for efficiency's sake, [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper wants all laws compressed into one omnibus bill all the time," Ms. May told reporters. "The ones he doesn't want you to notice are compressed in an omnibus bill."