OTTAWA – The Conservatives have introduced their latest omnibus budget bill — a grab bag of legislative changes that the government no doubt wants to see become law before the House of Commons rises next month.
Once upon a time, such bills did little beyond enact measures contained in the federal budget. These days, they often reach well beyond that document — and Thursday’s was no different, touching on everything from revoking the passports of suspected terrorists to retirement-plan contributions of MPs to the now-defunct long-gun registry.
The document also includes more than two dozen pages of changes addressing security on Parliament Hill through the creation of the “Parliamentary Protective Service,” led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Critics say rolling numerous proposals like these into a single budget bill limits the amount of time parliamentarians have to study and debate the legislative changes, compared to if they were introduced individually.
The Conservative government has faced criticism in the past for stuffing its budget bills with extras unrelated to budgetary finances.
Still, compared to previous efforts, Thursday’s bill appeared streamlined for quick passage — it weighed in at just 167 pages, compared with last year’s hefty 359-page document.
Budget implementation bills are crafted to make good on a number of budgetary measures.
The latest bill does include changes outlined in last month’s fiscal plan — balanced-budget legislation, higher contribution limits for tax-free savings accounts and some of the government’s election-critical family-friendly benefit measures.
Peter Van Loan, the Conservative House leader, defended the latest omnibus legislation Thursday as a reflection of the government’s fiscal blueprint.
“There were all things that were in the budget and all things that are important for Canadians and Canadian families, especially all the tax-cut issues,” Van Loan said.
He added that, despite the short time frame, the bill will be passed by the summer break.
The House of Commons is scheduled to sit no later than June 23 before rising prior to the summer break, after which it’s unlikely to resume before a scheduled federal election Oct. 19.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver presented a fiscal plan last month that predicted the government will run a $1.4-billion surplus in 2015-16.
The legislation also tees up the emerging confrontation between the government and public-service unions over controversial changes to sick-leave provisions, which were included in the April 21 federal budget.
In the budget, the government booked $900 million in savings in the current fiscal year from proposed changes to accumulated sick time.
Asked about its inclusion in Thursday’s implementation bill, Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the government has held close to 200 meetings with the unions.
“We’ve got another few dozen that are scheduled, so I continue to bargain,” Clement said.
“As befits the budget’s pronouncement that we are booking some of the savings related to sick-leave changes, the legislation does provide the Treasury Board the option of moving unilaterally … My preference is to continue to bargain, and that’s what I will continue to do.”
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada took issue with the bill, saying it threatens to rob workers of their constitutionally-protected right to “free and fair collective bargaining.”
Debi Daviau, the group’s president, accused the government of seeking “to override the law.”
The Conservatives have a well-earned reputation for jamming massive omnibus budget bills with controversial changes affecting huge swaths of legislation. They’ve routinely introduced budget legislation totalling well over 400 pages.
In 1994 a 21-page Liberal omnibus bill prompted a young opposition MP named Stephen Harper to decry the “lack of relevancy” of the disparate issues.
“This bill will ultimately go to only one committee of the House, a committee that will inevitably lack the breadth of expertise required for consideration of a bill of this scope,” Harper said at the time.
— With files from Bruce Cheadle
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