New Liberal budget bill raises old concerns about omnibus legislation

​The Liberal government's first budget implementation bill, tabled Wednesday, measures 179 pages in length, a comparatively modest piece of legislation when set against some of the budget bills put before the House of Commons over the last 10 years. But nonetheless it is drawing criticism as an omnibus bill.

At 179 pages in length, the budget implementation bill still contains a multitude of measures

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, poses with Minister of Finance Bill Morneau as he arrives to table the budget on Parliament Hill March 22, 2016 in Ottawa. The drafted legislation is 179 pages. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

​The Liberal government's first budget implementation bill, tabled Wednesday, measures 179 pages in length, a comparatively modest piece of legislation when set against some of the budget bills put before the House of Commons over the last 10 years.

But a day later the lament was familiar.

"Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives disrespected Parliament through their use of omnibus bills and the Liberals rightly joined New Democrats to decry them, but yesterday, the Liberals tabled an omnibus budget bill of their own," NDP MP Niki Ashton said in the House on Thursday.

"Are the Liberals really using omnibus bills like the Conservatives did to avoid proper scrutiny from Parliament?"

The "omnibus" charge serves as a reminder that it is not the size of a budget bill that matters, but what the government puts in it.

'Absolutely not an omnibus bill'

"Mr. Speaker, our budget implementation act is absolutely not an omnibus bill," Finance Minister Bill Morneau responded in defence of Bill C-15. "Every measure in the budget implementation act is related to our budget, unlike previous omnibus bills from the members opposite."

Whatever Morneau's aversion to the word — understandable after the controversies of recent years — C-15 could fairly be described as an "omnibus" bill, insofar as it would implement a number of distinct initiatives, including tax changes, financial regulations and so forth. But it can also be claimed that everything within it relates somehow to the budget plan Morneau presented to Parliament in March.

So some fine distinctions might need to be made.

Parliament is regularly tasked with scrutinizing bills that introduce or change a number of measures. And there likely must be some concession to feasibility. It would likely not, for instance, be reasonable to expect that each and every tax change be tabled in a separate bill.

Legislation is also necessarily required to implement the measures announced in each year's federal budget. But budget plans are now novel-length tomes that cover an array of policy areas. Thus it is not saying much that a budget bill is limited to measures covered by the budget.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers the budget in the House of Commons last month. (Reuters)

What might deserve its own bill?

NDP finance critic Guy Caron says there should be a "common thread" to the measures in a bill and some recognition that complex or complicated initiatives should be dealt with separately. He notes the changes to veterans' benefits included in C-15 were previously tabled by the Liberals as part of a separate bill, C-12. He also thinks that a section of C-15 that deals with bank regulations should be its own piece of legislation.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter, chair of the finance committee, said in an interview last week he was still studying the bill, but that some consideration will be given to whether certain portions of the bill will be directed to other committees for study. He says the finance department has "gotten into the habit of putting a lot of things in a budget bill."

"My concern is if there's an area in a bill that really may require [giving MPs] the opportunity to debate that issue in the House, not as part of a budget bill, but as part of a separate bill," Easter says.

He says that he is still studying the bill, but that one such section might be C-15's provisions related to the commercialization of the Canadian Wheat Board. 

Liberal MP Wayne Easter, chair of the finance committee, says he's still studying the document. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The history of omnibus legislation

Controversy over complex legislation is hardly new — according to research by the Library of Parliament, "the omnibus nature of a legislative proposal prompted negative reaction for the first time in 1923."

Pierre Trudeau's signature achievement as justice minister was an omnibus bill that dealt with homosexuality and abortion among other things. Years later, his government's attempt to move a bill related to the national energy program prompted a two-week stand-off with the opposition that ended with the government side agreeing to split the bill. 

At extremes, omnibus bills can strain the ability of Parliament to provide proper scrutiny and make a mockery of the single vote an MP must cast. "How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns?" asked a young Reform MP named Stephen Harper in 1994, objecting to a government bill.

During its time in office, the Harper government tabled 10 budget bills longer than last week's Liberal bill, several of those numbering twice as many pages, the longest measuring more than 800 pages.

Consternation around such legislation peaked in 2012, when the Conservatives used a pair of 400-page budget bills to, among other things, change environmental regulation and amend the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Last year, the Conservatives used their final budget bill to reconfigure the security operations on Parliament Hill and retroactively permit the deletion of records related to the long-gun registry.

'An end to this undemocratic practice'

In their campaign platform last year, the Liberals promised they would "change the House of Commons Standing Orders to bring an end to this undemocratic practice," but no such amendment has yet been brought forward. 

The standing orders of Saskatchewan's legislature set out that an omnibus bill can only be introduced if the amendments "deal with an interrelated topic that can be regarded as implementing a single
broad policy" or "are of a similar nature."

Such a rule in the House wouldn't prevent a government from tabling a bill of great length or diverse measures, but it would give the Speaker grounds to split a bill that he or she deemed to be too broad or diffuse. In the absence of such a rule, Speakers have historically declined to intervene.

It is, of course, impossible to know whether a similar rule might have resulted in the splitting of C-15. But there might at least have been an easy way of settling this year's version of the omnibus question.