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Mr. Harris, seen in 1995, outraged opposition parties that year with Bill 26, an omnibus bill he slipped onto the order paper. (MOE DOIRON/The Canadian Press)
Mr. Harris, seen in 1995, outraged opposition parties that year with Bill 26, an omnibus bill he slipped onto the order paper. (MOE DOIRON/The Canadian Press)

opinion

Will voters notice Trudeau’s use of ‘ominous bills'? Add to ...

When Stephen Harper, finally in possession of a majority government, began ramming omnibus bills through Parliament, he had been prime minister for more than five years. But Justin Trudeau is resorting to the tactic after less than two years in office. Which is why we can predict what is likely to come: Obstruction and delay by angry opposition MPs will prompt the government to impose closure. This is how we govern ourselves.

The true father of the omnibus bill was Pierre Trudeau. As justice minister, he introduced legislation in 1967 that, among other things, partially legalized abortion, legalized homosexual acts between two consenting adults (“there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”), imposed new limits on gun ownership, authorized the police use of breathalyzers and permitted government-supervised lotteries. (Now that’s an omnibus bill!) Opposition was so intense that these measures didn’t become law until 1969, by which time Mr. Trudeau was prime minister.

Another Trudeau omnibus bill, this one on energy, incensed Joe Clark’s opposition Conservatives to the point that they forced the shutdown of Parliament for three weeks in 1982 by refusing to answer the summons to vote (“the bell-ringing affair”). The Liberals ultimately agreed to break the bill into several parts.

But the most celebrated omnibus-bill controversy may have been Bill 26, which the new Ontario Conservative government of Mike Harris slipped onto the order paper in November, 1995, while opposition politicians were distracted by an economic statement released that day.

Billed as housekeeping legislation that set rules for cleaning up expired mines and the like, Bill 26 (the speaker of the day kept referring to it, malapropistically, as the “ominous bill”) in fact established a commission to close hospitals, gave the government new powers to amalgamate municipalities and much else.

So outraged were the opposition parties once they figured this out that when one Liberal MPP, Alvin Curling, refused the speaker’s order to leave the legislature, other MPPs physically protected him from the sergeant-at-arms. The standoff lasted 18 hours, at which point the government conceded defeat and sent the bill to two committees that held extensive public hearings. But Bill 26 eventually passed, and the Tories began using omnibus bills backed by closure whenever timelines got tight.

Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, and Katie Telford, his chief of staff, were young staffers at Queen’s Park in the Harris years. Mr. Butts eventually became Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty’s principal secretary. Mr. McGuinty’s governments liked cramming all sorts of things into the annual budget-implementation bill. Mr. Butts watched Stephen Harper’s majority government routinely employ omnibus bills and closure. Now, it’s the Liberals’ turn.

In opposition, Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate the practice of employing “inappropriate omnibus bills to reduce scrutiny of legislative measures.” In government, he thinks differently. The Prime Minister told the House on Wednesday that “any budget bill includes a broad range of provisions” that will “touch on a broad range of issues.” To which NDP MP Nathan Cullen laughingly retorted: “I didn’t think I’d see him quoting Stephen Harper.”

The bill contains, among other things, clauses that could limit the independence of the Parliamentary Budget Officer – exactly the sort of dark-of-night measure that governments love to stuff into omnibus bills in hopes of limiting debate. There is also a new law that creates the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which deserves separate scrutiny. The bill increases the number of judges on the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta. It changes the rules for immigration applicants, toughens the Canada Labour Code rules concerning “employer reprisals.” And on and on.

There are only, at most, seven sitting weeks before the House rises for its summer break, by which time the government wants the bill to become law. The Senate must also approve the legislation. Will the opposition use delaying tactics in an effort to force the government to break up the bill into several parts? If they do, will Liberal House Leader Bardish Chagger impose time allocation, commonly known as closure? History suggests this is what lies ahead.

This Liberal government has already reneged on its promise to abolish the first-past-the-post practice of electing MPs. Now it is resorting to “ominous bills.” One wonders whether voters will notice.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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