Unbundle me

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There was much talk about bundled legislation in Ottawa this past week, particularly about the Conservatives and their latest piece of omnibus budget implementation legislation.

After last spring’s first round of omnibus law-stuffing, you could call this new bill The Kitchen Sink Act — Part 2. The way the spring’s legislation worked was to take a variety of pieces of legislation — changes in law that could be considered by a variety of parliamentary committees — and, instead of making individual laws for each, put them all in a budget bill that would get only a cursory review by parliamentarians.

Well, the gamesmanship hasn’t ended.

Apparently, there is to be a new piece of fall budget law, one that will include everything from spring leftovers to changes in parliamentary pensions.

The opposition parties, being suspicious folks, have worried out loud that the federal Conservatives plan to class any opposition to the Kitchen Sink Act as being partisan actions by self-

serving politicians trying to protect their own pensions.

As tactics go, it sounds amateurish and ham-handed, but the fact is, if you’re halfway disposed against the Liberals or NDP anyway, it just might work. You can imagine the online comment grumblings already: “Those Adscam Liberals, always looking out for their own wallets.”

So here’s an idea for those poor, sad minority parties facing the Harper majority: go ahead and speak out against the omnibus bill, and in particular, speak out against the particular parts of the legislation that appear the most damaging.

But when it comes to legislation that you don’t have a problem with — say, with modifications to pension for members of Parliament — demonstrate your support for the legislation by bringing in private members’ resolutions promoting the changes and using the exact same legislative language that the Conservatives have used.

It’s hard to pass private members’ resolutions into law, but the fact is, these resolutions — being the mirror image of laws the Conservatives themselves would be proposing — can’t help but garner instant majority support in the House of Commons.

It would certainly also make it clear where members of the opposition parties stood.

It also might go some small way to stop the practice of bundled omnibus bills — and that would certainly be a good thing.

Bills are bundled together for one of two reasons: either to prevent full scrutiny by parliamentarians, or to stuff unpalatable legislation through the House in ways that make it hard to block.

Distaste for omnibus bills, after all, is not hard to find.

One parliamentarian described them as antidemocratic, saying, “How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote on a block of such legislation?”

Oh yes — that parliamentarian? Opposition leader (at the time) Stephen Harper.

Organizations: Conservatives, House of Commons

Geographic location: Ottawa

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  • Taylor
    September 22, 2012 - 20:10

    Budget bills have always been omnibus bills, increasingly so in the last several decades. That is because the size and reach of government has ballooned out of control. Government is expected to do nearly everything for us. That means the government's budget is an enormous and incredibly complex plan touching on a multitude of different laws. If budget bills were broken into separate bills for each item, parliament would never be able to pass all the items in a budget before the end of the fiscal year, and then it would have to start over. However, budgets already receive a lot of scrutiny. First the budget motion is debated for a week and voted on, after MPs have had a chance to read in plain language all the measured contained in the budget. Then the legislation necessary to implement those measures is drafted in the form of two separate budget implementation acts - one in the spring and one in the fall. This is normal. Each bill typically receives weeks of debate in the Commons, then gets referred to committee for a couple of weeks of study, usually with sub-cmmittees created to study different parts of the bill, then the Commons debates the bill again, as well as any amendments the opposition wants to put forward, and then there is a final vote. Then the whole process is repeated from the start in the Senate. By this time, Senators are well aware of which sections of the bill are most contentious or complex, and have had months to study the bill. After the budget implementation acts are passed, the spending proposed in the budget still cannot take place until it is approved by parliament in a series of appropriation acts. Each appropriation act authorizes spending that is detailed in one of four volumes of government estimates. And each appropriation act must follow the same process of debate, commitee study, amendments, more debate and a final vote in each of the Commons and the Senate. All together, the approval of government spending probably takes up about a third of the time of parliament throughout the year. Only those who do not know the process, or who wish to score political points by exploiting public ignorance of the process, claim that government spending is not sufficiently scrutinized by parliament.