Tuesday night was a disappointing evening in Ottawa. With only three hours advance notice the Liberal Government invited Parliamentarians for a technical presentation on the upcoming 2017 Budget Implementation Act, also known as the BIA. Once I arrived for the presentation it became very clear the reasons why. In spite of promising Canadians that the Liberal Government would not use omnibus legislation, the new Liberal BIA is a textbook example of an omnibus bill.
For those of you unfamiliar with an omnibus bill, essentially it is legislation that seeks to amend, repeal or enact several Acts, and is often characterized by the fact that it has a multiple number of separate initiatives that may be only loosely connected to the actual intent of the original bill, in this case the budget.
As an example, in this Liberal BIA it is proposed to weaken the independence of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (known in Ottawa as the PBO), a measure not related to the spending of funds outlined in the budget but rather a measure by the Liberals to weaken scrutiny of the spending. A disappointing but not surprising result given that the Liberals have been embarrassed by the PBO’s previous reports that famously exposed Liberal efforts to manipulate and hide the fact that they inherited a balanced budget from the previous Conservative Government or the recent PBO report revealing the Liberal`s slow and disjointed infrastructure spending.
Critics oppose omnibus bills arguing that with so much widely varied content an omnibus bill cannot receive the required parliamentary scrutiny for the many varied clauses. Another criticism is that some measures within an omnibus bill may be widely supported but other measures may be strongly opposed. As an example in this case weakening of the independence of the PBO would never stand as a single bill however it can more easily slip through in an omnibus bill where it will receive less scrutiny.
While the criticism against omnibus bills is certainly valid and should not be overlooked, I believe there is also another perspective that is deserving of consideration. A Government in challenging economic times has an obligation to enact as many measures as it believes is reasonably required to continue to build a stronger and more prosperous Canada. Within any Legislative or Parliamentary precinct there is ultimately a limited amount of time available that can also be subject to opposition delay tactics.
Government`s propose many of these measures because it believes they are beneficial to the citizens it collectively represents. In my view it is not unreasonable to use an omnibus bill for the purposes of enacting broad based legislation in areas supporting the economy, public safety, the environment or trade as a few examples.
In this case I am not faulting the Liberal Government for using an omnibus budget bill such as this. Where I do take issue with the Liberals is that they committed to Canadians they would not use omnibus bills; in fact they promised they would outright change the House rules to technically eliminate them. It was the Liberal`s choice to promise this during the election and their choice to table such a bill- regardless of whether or not our rules allow for them or not.
As with the promise to enact electoral reform or to return to a balanced budget by 2019, Canadians are witnessing a disturbing pattern of broken promises that were made to Canadians by this Liberal Government with little to no regard for keeping those promises. For a Government that promised “better was always possible”, I would submit a pattern of broken promises only serves to undermine our democratic process and increase cynicism among voters, and on that note I believe yes, this Liberal Government can do better.
My question this week – Do you support the limited use of omnibus bills or should they be prohibited as the Liberals promised? I can be reached at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or call toll free 1-800-665-8711.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.