Chris Hall: The omnibus budget bill diversion

This is the second telephone book-size bill to implement Jim Flaherty's spring budget and it is almost certain to get opposition parties in a stew over parliamentary process, which may be exactly its point, Chris Hall writes.

Government would clearly rather a debate over process than substance

At 443 pages, the proposed legislation tabled Thursday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to implement the federal budget is longer than the actual budget itself.

That might not be such a concern except that this is the second, telephone book-size omnibus bill to give legislative breath to the Flaherty budget, an in-your-face move that is almost certain to get the opposition parties in a stew over process. Which may be exactly its point.

This new Bill C-45 is all but indistinguishable in size and thickness from the federal government's phone book.

And just like that directory, it is all small type, a compilation of individual initiatives from different departments and programs.

It's a tactic the opposition decries, arguing that requiring a single parliamentary committee to review all of it, guarantees that too many things will escape the kind of scrutiny they deserve.  

A quick glance at the subheads of this new bill indicates just how broad the scope of this omnibus bill is.  

As one would expect from a budget bill, the first three parts deal with proposed changes to tax policies and spending priorities.   In other words, the financial stuff.  

However, connecting many of the other measures to the budget involves far more effort, lumped as they are under the heading, ''Various measures.''  

Among these "various measures" are changes to pension contribution rates for public servants and parliamentarians, amendments to the Fisheries Act, the Indian Act, the Canada Labour Code and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.  

And, another surprise, it dissolves the Canadian Employment Insurance Financing Board — an agency the Conservatives themselves created to set EI rates and manage the surplus.

'Do your job'

The finance minister insists that each and every one of these reforms is contained in the March budget, and he chastised opposition MPs in the Commons for claiming otherwise.

You are well paid, do your job, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tells the opposition Thursday.

"There's nothing new. What's in the bill is in the budget. If you haven't read the budget I say to my friends on the other side, I don't know what you did all summer. You got paid. You have a good pension plan. Do your work. Do your job."  

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen says that's exactly what he and his colleagues want to do.  

"It's the second chapter in a very cynical story for this government,'' he says. And it may well lead to the same kind of cynical response.

In the spring, the opposition worked together to drag out the review and approval of the first budget implementation bill by introducing thousands of amendments, and forcing votes on each one.  

They objected to what they called sweeping changes in that bill, including amendments to 60 different existing laws.

Those included scrapping the backlog of skilled workers wanting to come to Canada, streamlining the environmental review of major energy projects, and making it harder to collect employment insurance.  

Cullen says Thursday's bill offers more of the same.  

"The main thrust and effort of this government is to ram through a large piece of legislation with many complex parts without much oversight by MPs or Canadians.''

Lost in process

On first blush, Cullen's arguments are the kind journalists hate. They're all about process. The real news of what the government is proposing beckons somewhere in the distance.  

Certainly, the government's plan to force public servants and MPs to contribute on a 50/50 basis to their pensions is, as Flaherty says, spelled out in the budget. On page 225.  

For other proposals the connection – let alone direct reference in the budget – simply isn't there.  

Take, for example, the changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Thursday's bill reduces its applicability to far fewer waterways in Canada: just 97 lakes and 62 rivers.  

The original budget says nothing about restricting federal controls over lakes and rivers. A key-word search of the document using the word ''navigation'' leads to only one section dealing with oil tanker safety.  

Likewise, a measure in Thursday's bill to require some foreign visitors to apply for electronic travel authorization is not spelled out in the March budget.  

Why does any of this matter?  

It's long been a convention of Parliament that the measures in a bill have some thread to connect them, a common theme such as changing the Criminal Code. Or changes to many acts to combat the threat of terrorism. Or to implement what has been specifically promised in a budget speech. 

Now, it may be that all of these measures in this new bill are necessary for the Conservatives to achieve their stated goal of promoting jobs, growth and prosperity in uncertain economic times.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement made that case in justifying the decision to reduce taxpayer contributions to public pensions.

"We have an obligation to balance budgets,'' he said Thursday, adding the changes to pensions will save $2.5 billion over the next five years.

But it's just as valid for the opposition to argue that Canadians have a right to hear alternatives to what the government is proposing. And for there to be some sort of public hearings into measures that will reduce federal protection of waterways, or whether greater electronic scrutiny of people coming to Canada is necessary.

Still, no one expects the government will suddenly agree to split the bill up (save perhaps for the bit about MP pensions). They'll take complaints about the process, over any changes to the substance of their plans.