The Trudeau government gave itself a giant hug on Monday when it announced it was tabling pay equity legislation and creating a new federal department for women and gender equality.
It praised the new Pay Equity Act as a “historic step to advance gender equality and help eliminate the gender wage gap." And it proclaimed that the new ministry will help the country “advance gender equality and grow the middle class through policy.”
That’s all debatable, of course, just like anything is. The goals are noble, not to mention overdue, but will these laws achieve them? Some people might not agree that giving federal departments three years to develop a plan to pay women and men the same hourly rate for the same work, as the proposed legislation provides, is proactive enough. Does it really need to take that long?
Or they might quibble with the Liberal notion that another layer of bureaucracy, in the form of a new ministry, will be anything more than pre-election window-dressing.
The thing is, though, if any such debate occurs, it is unlikely to take place in Parliament. That’s because the government has buried the Pay Equity Act, as well as the act creating the new ministry, inside an 854-page omnibus budget implementation bill.
That in turn means the proposed law, deemed so important by the Liberal government, will be examined in a cursory fashion by a single committee with no expertise in the issues it addresses.
It must, in fact, seem odd to Canadian women that a piece of legislation touted as a major advancement in the fight for equality would be included inside a fish wrapper of legislative amendments, housekeeping matters and tariff schedules for dried leguminous vegetables and spacecraft launch vehicles.
We have long criticized omnibus budget bills. It’s an obsession that goes back to the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, which dropped an 880-pager on Parliament in 2010 and a 458-pager in 2014. Both were tabled in order to slip ideologically motivated amendments into gargantuan bills that were designed to overwhelm the single committee that examines budget legislation.
Many had hoped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would put an end to the practice after he railed against it during the 2015 election campaign. “Stephen Harper used omnibus bills to prevent Parliament from properly reviewing and debating his proposals,” he charged in his platform document. “We will change the House of Commons Standing Orders to bring an end to this undemocratic practice.”
Alas, once in power, his government resorted to omnibus bills with equal glee, most notably when it put the act creating the Canada Infrastructure Bank inside a budget implementation bill in the spring of 2017. That legislation deserved more scrutiny than the budget committee could provide.
The government subsequently did indeed change the Standing Orders to allow the Speaker to break up bill "where there is not a common element connecting the various provisions or where unrelated matters are linked.”
The rule was not supposed to apply to budget implementation bills but, in the fall of 2017, Speaker Geoff Regan used it to take the unprecedented step of forcing separate votes on four measures in an omnibus bill that weren’t announced in the budget speech.
That hasn’t slowed down the Liberals, however. They believe that anything promised in a budget speech can be stuffed into an implementation bill, no matter how consequential and in need of close scrutiny, and in spite of having been so critical of the practice during the Harper years.
This year, they have tabled two omnibus budget bills – part one in March and part two on Monday – that total an incredible 1,410 pages. The first bill included the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, which created the federal carbon-tax regime coming into effect in the new year. And now they have done it again with the Pay Equity Act.
Sticking major legislative initiatives inside budget bills is a way of guaranteeing minimal debate on the issue in question. Which is why, when Mr. Trudeau called omnibus legislation “undemocratic,” we thought he meant it in a bad way.
It turns out he sees a certain utility in circumventing democracy. Mr. Harper did it for those reasons, and it is why Mr. Trudeau is now his equal in the dark art of omnibus bills.