Omnibus bills fundamentally undemocratic

Editorial: Omnibus bills fundamentally undemocratic

The Gazette September 22, 2012

MONTREAL — Being flagrantly exposed as a hypocrite seems not to bother Stephen Harper.

Back in 1994, long before he became prime minister, he rose in the House of Commons as a rookie opposition member of Parliament to denounce with righteous indignation the budget-implementation bill proposed by the Liberal government of the day.

Among other things, as noted by Harper at the time, the bill sought to put curbs on public-sector salaries and Canada Assistance Plan payments, amend the Public Utilities Income Tax Transfer Act, extend transportation subsidies, authorize borrowing for the CBC and effect changes to unemployment insurance and payroll-tax provisions.

The bill, he said, is “of an omnibus nature” and he urged the speaker to rule it out of order. He derided it as “what we might call the kitchen sink approach” and suggested it violated the spirit of democracy. He went on to argue that it is “so perse that a single vote on the content would put members (of Parliament) in conflict with their own principles.”

The bill he complained of as being unacceptably hefty ran to 24 pages. Flipping ahead 18 years, Harper in his current prime ministerial mode seems to have radically altered his notion of omnibus legislation. The first budget-implementation bill of his majority government last spring was a whale of an omnibus bill, which at more than 400 pages and 700 clauses made the 1994 Liberal bill look like a minnow in comparison.

Word is now that the government is poised for a repeat performance, this time with an even more bloated omnibus bill to be put before Parliament this fall.

The omnibus legislation tabled last spring contained a vastly more diverse range of measures than the 1994 bill. Among other things, it included a complete overhaul of the national environmental review process for industrial projects, scrapped the Kyoto Protocol implementation legislation, set new rules for employment-insurance users, amended the age of eligibility for Old Age Security, abolished the Security Intelligence Review Committee, and subjected charities to more stringent oversight of their political activities.

Opposition parties reacted furiously, making essentially the same arguments that Harper made back when he was on their side of the House — by lumping too many disparate measures into a single bill, the government was depriving parliament of the opportunity to give each the scrutiny it merits. And in doing so, it was imposing a conflict of principles on MPs by packaging measures they might like with measures they might not.

In this new omnibus bill being considered by the Harper government for this fall, a notable measure slated for inclusion is a reform of the lucrative MP’s pension plan that would boost the contributions members make to 50 per cent (with taxpayers picking up the other 50 per cent) from the current 14 per cent (with taxpayers now paying 86 per cent). The measure would also raise the age, from 55 to 65, at which MPs would be eligible to begin receiving payments.

This should be a showcase piece of legislation that should set a precedent and example for urgently needed public-sector pension reform at all levels of government. Spokespersons from all parties have indicated they are favourable to such measures, and easy passage of the bill would be likely.

Yet, it seems the Conservatives are determined to stuff it into a bill with other measures that opposition members might find difficult to reconcile with their principles. These are reported to include provisions to give police greater powers, changes that stand to raise legitimate civil-liberties concerns, and have an impact on Charter rights, international treaties and due-process considerations.

Harper pointed out back in 1994 that parliamentarians might agree with some measures in an omnibus bill, but oppose others, and expressing their views and the views of their constituents becomes difficult when so much is rolled into one single piece of legislation, and you have to vote for or against the whole of it.

Omnibus bills are fundamentally undemocratic. Harper seemed to be able to recognize this in his rookie season in Ottawa. His government now has an evidently different view, and it amounts to systematic disdain of Parliament and flagrant abuse of democratic process.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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