Speaker splits up Liberal omnibus budget bill, thanks to new Liberal rule

Speaker Geoff Regan made a bit of history on Wednesday afternoon, ruling the Liberal government's budget bill was of such an omnibus nature that several of its parts should be voted on separately. It was also something of a watershed moment for the long-simmering concern about omnibus legislation.

Speaker Geoff Regan rules budget bill includes measures that weren't in budget

Speaker of the House Geoff Regan agreed with the opposition that the Liberal's budget bill contained measures that were not in the budget and split up the bill into five separate votes. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Speaker Geoff Regan made a bit of parliamentary history on Wednesday afternoon, ruling that the Liberal government's current budget bill was an example of omnibus legislation that should be split up for separate votes.

Regan's move was the first use of a new rule for omnibus legislation — a rule the Liberals introduced this spring after complaining about their predecessor's use of budget bills

It is also something of a watershed moment for the long-simmering concern about such complex legislation.

The new rule empowers the Speaker to allow for separate votes on a bill's measures "where there is not a common element connecting the various provisions or where unrelated matters are linked."

That rule specifically exempts the twice-annual bills that implement measures from the budget, but Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre and NDP MP Peter Julian complained that C-63 contained measures that were not included in the budget presentation. Regan agreed.

As a result, Regan said he was within his purview to put four parts of the bill to separate votes. Those four parts cover agricultural and fisheries co-operatives, the sales tax rebate for public service bodies and the discharge of debt and amendments to the Excise Act in relation to beer made from concentrate.

​A couple hours after Regan's ruling, MPs therefore took five votes at second reading on C-63: four on the non-budget portions and one on the budget elements.

All parts passed. But if any of those parts had been defeated, the clauses would have been removed from C-63.

How omnibus became infamous

Complaints about multi-faceted bills of vaguely related or completely unrelated measures go back decades. Critics say such bills are difficult to scrutinize and shouldn't be reduced to a single vote.

But the word "omnibus" was elevated to true infamy between 2009 and 2015 when the previous Conservative government put a series of biblically long bills before Parliament.

One of those bills, tabled in 2010, measured more than 800 pages. Another five budget bills ran more than 400 pages each.

Opposition MPs protested by throwing up procedural roadblocks, once tying up the House for more than 22 hours of votes that ran through the night and into the next day.

New Democrat and Liberal MPs appealed to the Speaker, but were reminded that the standing orders of the House — the codified rules that govern members' conduct and the chamber's business — contained no explicit limit on the use of omnibus legislation. As such, the Speaker had no basis to act.

The Liberals came to office with a commitment to do something about the issue. And, after an acrimonious process that itself resulted in opposition protest and filibuster, the Liberals put forward a new rule this spring as part of a small set of parliamentary reforms.

The Liberals have at least now succeeded in proving the effectiveness of that rule.

A new standard

"The bill is the next step in our plan to grow our economy by focusing on the middle class, and helping those working hard to join it," said Chloé Luciani-Girouard, press secretary for Bill Morneau. "We believe in and are committed to our plan in its entirety, and will of course ‎respect the Speaker's ruling as we move forward with implementing it."

As compared to its immediate predecessor, the Liberal government's budget bills have been relatively modest. The current bill, for instance, is 328 pages. The Conservatives passed eight budget bills of greater length.

But length is also a crude measure. It is not necessarily the size of one's budget bill, but how one uses it: whether it is a defensible set of related ideas or whether it is loaded up with measures that would be better off handled separately.

Regan's ruling on Wednesday will at least set a standard the Liberals will have to heed going forward.

Mind you, a government could account for that by mentioning even more items in its spring budget document, thus increasing the size of the already bloated booklets.

It also remains to be seen how the rule will be applied to non-budget bills.

In the interests of democracy

Nonetheless, Wednesday's votes might have felt like there were a long time coming.

One day in March 1994, for instance, a Reform MP named Stephen Harper stood and lamented that the budget bill before the House was an inappropriate omnibus bill.

"In the interest of democracy I ask: 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?" he wondered aloud.

"We can agree with some of the measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse? Dividing the bill into several components would allow members to represent views of their constituents on each of the different components in the bill."

The Speaker of the day dismissed Harper's complaint. But he was likely on to something. And, 23 years later, a Speaker was able to do something about it.