A marathon of around-the-clock voting that opposition MPs had planned to thwart quick passage of the omnibus budget bill – legislation they say is being rushed through Parliament without adequate scrutiny – has been reduced to an extended sprint by Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer.
Mr. Scheer ruled on Monday that the 871 amendments proposed by the New Democrats, the Liberals and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will be pared down and that those left standing will be grouped with others that are similar in nature.
That cut the number of votes needed to deal with the amendments to a maximum of 159 and the time required to get the bill through the Commons from days to perhaps as much as 24 hours.
Opposition leaders of all stripes said they hoped the threat of the lengthy voting session would force the government to give in to demands to slice Bill C-38 into several, more manageable, bits.
At the very least, they expected the logjam in the Commons to focus the attention of more Canadians on a bill that they say subverts democracy by including provisions that have no place in budget legislation.
Those measures include, among other things, an overhaul of federal environmental assessment, changes to the way fish habitats are protected, changes to employment insurance eligibility, and an increase in the age at which Canadians can collect Old Age Security.
But the opposition accepted Mr. Scheer's decision as relatively fair given the lack of rules governing omnibus bills in Parliament. Still, they did not back down in their attacks on 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 has introduced a point of privilege saying the government was deliberately withholding information about how many jobs would be lost and what services would be cut as a result of the bill – a move that could also obstruct its passage through Parliament.
Opposition MPs say the Conservative government's massive budget bill includes provisions that have no place in budget legislation. They want some sections extracted and subjected to in-depth scrutiny including those that would:
– Overhaul environmental legislation. One clause within Bill C-38 is actually an act unto itself called the Canada Environmental Assessment Act. The bill would dramatically reduce the number of federal environmental assessments, leaving the job mostly in the hands of the provinces and focusing federal oversight on cases involving migratory birds, fish and other aquatic species. Assessments would have to be completed within two years. Cabinet would be given ultimate decision-making powers.
– Change the federal Fisheries Act to repeal language that prohibits the destruction of fish habitats unless the habitat that would be damaged is part of a commercial, recreational or aboriginal fishery. This would leave unprotected any fish habitat that does not directly benefit human beings, including many of the streams that cross the route of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
– Reform Old Age Security. The government intends to raise the age of eligibility for the program to 67 from 65 gradually over a six-year period, starting in 2023, saying this is necessary to sustain the long-term viability of the program. As a percentage of GDP, the cost of the OAS program – before the change – is projected to rise from 2.43 per cent of GDP in 2012 to a peak of 3.16 per cent of GDP in 2030 before falling back to 2.35 per cent of GDP in 2060.
– Restrict employment insurance benefits. The bill would repeal the section of the Employment Insurance Act that allows recipients to turn down an available job because it is not their usual occupation, pays less, or involves conditions that would not be expected of a good employer. Canada's four Atlantic premiers say they want assurances that seasonal workers won't get caught up in the new rules.
Among other things, the bill will also:
– Repeal the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act, which compels contractors bidding on federal contracts to pay fair wages and overtime;
– Eliminate the office of the Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which monitors CSIS's compliance with its policies;
– Allow U.S. federal law enforcement agents participating in cross-border operations to arrest Canadians on Canadian soil;
– Close down Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, an agency that was established to oversee assisted human reproduction, but has never been provided with the regulations to do its job.
– Amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to eliminate a backlog of 280,000 applications under the federal skilled-worker program.
– Increase sanctions on charities that devote more than 10 per cent of their resources to political advocacy, and provide $8-million for special audits by the Canada Revenue Agency to ensure charities are adhering to the 10-per-cent limit.
By the numbers
498: Pages in the budget document tabled on March 29
425: Pages in C-38, the budget implementation bill entitled the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, introduced on April 26
69: Acts that Bill C-38 would modify or affect
44.5: Hours of hearings by the finance committee that studied the bill, in addition to a sub-committee that spent 22 hours looking at its impact on natural resources and the environment
104: Witnesses who appeared before the finance committee
110: Speeches made in the House by MPs over seven days of debate
753: Clauses in Bill C-38
871: Amendments the opposition proposed to the bill
159: Amendments that the Speaker accepted and will be put to a vote
22.7: Hours of voting required to go through the accepted amendments, based on an average of seven votes per hour
70: Estimated number of hours of voting that would have been necessary had the Speaker accepted all of the proposed amendments
0: Amendments to C-38 that were made at committee