Andrew MacDougall, a former director of communications to Stephen Harper, is a communications consultant based in London.
“We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny.”
Those words – taken from the 2015 Liberal platform – are admirably direct. It’s what makes them an effective petard onto which to hoist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government is having a torrid time explaining away 2017’s legislative trickery.
The latest sleight of hand? Tabling a 300-plus page omnibus budget bill in the House of Commons, a practice Liberals used to rage against when the door-stoppers were being dropped by Stephen Harper.
The Liberals hated the practice so much – because, they said, it prevented items from receiving proper, individual scrutiny – they promised to do away with it entirely: “We will … bring an end to this undemocratic practice.”
It’s the “…” bit of that last sentence the Liberals will now cling to as they seek to defend their “wide-ranging” budget legislation. Lost to my ellipsis are the words “change the House of Commons standing orders to.”
Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are, of course, trying to do this very thing, and are attracting a fair amount of opposition grief for it.
Government House Leader Bardish Chagger announced her “discussion” paper on parliamentary reform over a month ago, but with the NDP and Conservatives currently filibustering the procedure and House affairs committee where it is (not) being discussed, it’s unclear when, if any, reform will come.
The opposition contends that any changes to the House of Commons’ standing orders must be done with broad consensus, with Liberals arguing the electors gave them a mandate to proceed, without opposition support if necessary.
The Liberals are now learning, just as Stephen Harper’s majority government did, that a determined opposition can gum up Parliament. With only five sitting weeks before Parliament rises for the summer recess, there are 30 government bills before the House and Senate. Other than routine appropriation bills, no legislation has received Royal Assent in 2017.
The opposition’s moves, while within the rules, are undoubtedly frustrating for a government that wants to hit the barbecue circuit with a list of results longer than the current haiku. The temptation to strong-arm Parliament thus increases with every legislative obstacle.
Enter Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget omnibus; passing the government’s spending plan is the surest route to a summer script.
The problem? The NDP argues the bill also includes changes to the Judges Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs Act and the Food and Drugs Act, in addition to proposing an entirely new law called the Canada Infrastructure Bank Act.
But it’s the proposed changes to the Parliament of Canada Act – relating to the Parliamentary Budget Officer – that could prove the most contentious.
Thankfully, 2015-era Justin Trudeau had something to say on the matter.
“We will make the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) truly independent,” the Liberal platform reads, “accountable only – and directly – to Parliament, not the government of the day.”
How this plain language squares with the budget legislation, with its requirements to have the Speakers of the House of Commons and Senate review and approve an annual PBO work plan and receive PBO reports in advance, remains to be seen. Speaker Geoff Regan, a Liberal MP, might not caucus with his colleagues, but is he “truly independent” from the interests of the Liberal party?
The government’s defence for its varied budget bill is that “it’s all in the budget plan.” If that defence sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It was the previous government’s standard trope in response to budget bill overreach. Budget plans are limited only by the imagination of the pen holder.
This wasn’t what Canadians were promised. Just because the proposed parliamentary reforms are stuck in committee doesn’t mean they can’t be observed in practice. The Liberals need only will, not law, to abandon omnibus bills.
To quote the 2015 Liberal Speech From the Throne: “Canadians want their government to do different things, and to do things differently.”
Or, is that, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”?Report Typo/Error
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