“Everything is not black and white anymore. The budget is not the budget.” — Loyola Hearn, May 2005
Loyola Hearn was in a tight spot. The minority Liberal government of Paul Martin was practically a sitting duck.
The Gomery inquiry in Montreal had chronicled a despicable tale of corruption under Martin’s predecessor, Jean Chretien. Millions of dollars in federal sponsorship funds had been funnelled into Liberal party coffers in Quebec through ad agencies.
The Conservative and Bloc Québecois parties had vowed to bring Martin down. The prime minister, in turn, had fattened the pending budget bill with billions in extra spending in order to win the support of the NDP.
Hearn and fellow Newfoundland MP Norm Doyle were under pressure from their party to vote against the budget. If it could be defeated by a razor thin vote, the government would fall.
But ensconced in the federal budget bill were much coveted changes to the Atlantic Accord. And the Tory MPs were under equally intense pressure from then premier Danny Williams to back the legislation.
Hearn was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
“Now, if anything goes wrong, it’s our fault,” he told The Telegram at the time. “But people better look in the mirror before they point fingers.”
In the end, he and Doyle voted for the budget itself, but against
its implementation. Martin barely managed to escape defeat.
Omnibus bills — legislation which contains a number of unrelated measures — are not uncommon in Canada. But they can be exploited as a means to create a catch-22 for opposing parties. The 2005 budget was a classic example.
In the U.S., omnibus bills are par for the course. Representatives are offered little incentives in exchange for their support — a little grant money here, new infrastructure there. The resulting legislation can turn into an unwieldy patchwork of bribes and compromises.
In Canada, though, the omnibus bill has taken on a new character.
As Andrew Coyne noted in Tuesday’s National Post, last month’s federal budget was less of a budget and more of an implementation of sweeping changes to the fabric of the country.
“It amends some 60 different acts, repeals half a dozen, and adds three more, including a completely rewritten Canadian Environmental Assessment Act,” Coyne wrote.
“It ranges far beyond the traditional budget concerns of taxing and spending, making changes in policy across a number of fields from immigration … to telecommunications … to land codes on native reservations.”
With a majority government, the question of omnibus bills may, at first blush, seem academic. What does it matter if legislation is passed separately or bundled into one bill?
That’s where parliamentary committees come into play. Committee membership is, as Coyne says, “one of the last useful roles left to MPs.”
The House finance committee has no time or expertise to properly evaluate such a vast conglomeration of legislative measures.
And with little to no scrutiny available in the main chamber either, the result is more akin to government by decree rather than a transparent series of policy initiatives.
In the end, says Coyne, such bills render Parliament meaningless — “a ceremonial body, little more.”
And with a leader like Stephen Harper — apparently willing to justify any means to an end — that is a frightening prospect.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.