Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Budget bill fails on content and process; monster bill undermines Parliament



I gave the above speech today (Tuesday, April 8th) in the House of Commons on Bill C-31, the Budget Implementation Act.

Mr. Speaker, I stand in opposition to Bill C-31, the budget implementation act. My opposition comes on two fronts, content and process. The budget bill is not just about the budget; if it were, how simple and straightforward our opposition would be.
 
The bill is what is known as an omnibus bill. It contains everything but the kitchen sink. It is massive.
It is more than 350 pages. It contains almost 500 clauses. It amends dozens of bills and includes a slew of measures that were not even mentioned in the former finance minister's budget speech.
 
The bill touches on tax measures, veterans, railway safety, hazardous materials, temporary foreign workers, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, a new bridge for the St. Lawrence, new Canadians, and access to old age security and guaranteed income supplement. It goes on and on.
 
Oh yes, it also mentions the budget. The bill is all over the map. It is a monster bill that undermines Parliament because it denies members of Parliament like me with the ability to thoroughly study the bill and its implications. That is because it is so big, so far reaching and all-encompassing.
 
I cannot shake the feeling of déjà vu, as if I have stood in this very place before and made the very same point. That is because I have. I stood in this place in early December and called out the government for introducing an omnibus bill, the fourth omnibus budget implementation bill. That omnibus bill, back in December, amended 70 laws or regulations in a single bill. Ramming that much legislation into one bill is an easy way to get one past the electorate. It is also an easy way to make a mistake. It is irresponsible. It is bad governance. It is poor management. It is a slap in the face to democracy. We debate legislation in this chamber for a reason. It is to make legislation the best that it can be. We cannot do that with an omnibus bill. We cannot do that with the Conservative government.
 
Another point is that one day soon in the House, a Conservative member of Parliament will take to his or her feet and criticize Her Majesty's loyal opposition for voting against a particular piece of legislation. However, there is a good chance that legislation was rammed into an omnibus bill, which undoubtedly has some positives guaranteed.
 
For example, there is a measure within this bill that reverses the Conservative government's previous attempt to tax hospital parking, to tax the poor. That is gone. That is undeniably a good thing. However, the bill also includes horrible legislation that rips into the very fabric of Canada, and we will vote against it. Therefore, when a Conservative MP or minister accuses us of voting against a particular measure in a piece of legislation, there is a good chance that it was in an omnibus bill. There is no way that we can vote for those because they are horrible.
 
Let me quote columnist Andrew Coyne from the National Post. He had this to say, in 2012, about omnibus legislation, about transparency and accountability. The quote from two years ago is just as relevant today. He said:
 
Not only does this bill make a mockery of the confidence convention, shielding bills that would otherwise be defeatable within a money bill.... It makes it impossible to know what Parliament really intended by any of it. We've no idea whether MPs supported or opposed any particular bill in the bunch, only that they voted for the legislation that contained them. There is no common thread that runs between them, no overarching principle; they represent not a single act of policy, but a sort of compulsory buffet. But there is something quite alarming about Parliament being obliged to rubber-stamp the government's whole legislative agenda at one go.
 
Yes, it is quite alarming, but it is also old hat for the Conservative government. It is its go-to trick, its old reliable.
I will tackle some of the meat of this budget implementation act.
 
First, in terms of the economy, this is a do-nothing budget. It basically bides time until 2015, an election year, when the government purse will reopen and the Conservatives will attempt to buy the electorate with their own money. They will try to swing the election in their favour with the changes in the unfair election act and then use taxpayers' own money to sweeten the deal.
 
I am the official critic for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. It has been a very busy file, with more Conservative patronage than we can shake a stick at.
 
Where can one start to simplify the issues about patronage?
 
To simplify and to borrow a description from The Guardian about a story in the Halifax Chronicle Herald: “...hiring rules at ACOA have been twisted into pretzels to accommodate Conservative Party loyalists”.
 
Awful-tasting pretzels. Patronage at ACOA. And it has been blatant and it has been steady. Patronage at ACOA walks like a duck. It looks like a duck. It quacks like a duck. It even tastes like a duck. But the Conservatives, who use science more as a political art that science, say that the duck that has been feeding out of the Conservatives' hand right in front of us is a figment of our imagination. Maybe the duck is invisible to Conservatives, the same way that climate change is invisible to Conservatives, or the unemployed, or veterans.
 
While patronage has run rampant at ACOA, what would the budget implementation act do about it?
Let us see. Instead of increasing accountability and addressing patronage, the Conservatives are gutting it. The act would eliminate the need for the president of ACOA to table a report to Parliament every five years showing the impact of the agency's work on regional disparities. In other words, there will be no more report card. ACOA's board of directors would also be out the door. In theory, the board of directors could have blocked ACOA patronage. Only it did not do that.
 
I asked the federal Auditor General last year to investigate the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, a branch of ACOA, after it gave a $4.8-million grant to build a controversial marina. The Auditor General agreed to investigate.
 
What did the Conservatives do in advance of that report from the Auditor General? They folded the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation into ACOA. How convenient.
 
So, to tackle the blatant, out-of-control patronage, the current government actually gives more power to itself.
 
The budget should have been about making life more affordable and reducing household debt. The budget should have been about making credit rates reasonable. It should have been about capping ATM fees, cracking down on abusive practices of payday lenders, and providing services that Canadians rely upon.
 
Instead, the budget is about sidestepping democracy with yet another omnibus bill, the Conservatives' fifth attempt to evade parliamentary scrutiny.
 
I will end with a series of two questions posed by the current Prime Minister in 1995 when the Liberals pushed through an 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?

We can agree with some measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse?
 
That is a good question.
 
So what is the answer?
 
The answer is that we cannot represent our constituents in dealing with such massive omnibus legislation.
 
What is the solution?
 
The solution is to show this arrogant, entitled, out-of-touch Conservative government, a government that has forgotten right from wrong, a government that is trying desperately to cling to power by changing the rules in its favour, the door.
 
 
 
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate a number of the comments made by my colleague, and certainly his reflection on the approach the government is taking with the omnibus bill. Successive budget implementation bills have become worse and worse. They are like the Police Academy movies. The sequels are worse than the previous ones.
 
The member did reference ECBC and ACOA. The minister, when he arrived in Cape Breton to disband the office of ECBC, said it would enhance that community's ability to deliver programs. I am concerned about the lack of flexibility. I am concerned with the fact that the ECBC programs are considerably different from the ACOA programs. I am concerned that the money will lapse and am quite certain that it will be sent back and that programs will not be supported.
 
Is there anything my colleague sees in what the government has undertaken here that is going to enhance the economic development opportunities for the people in Cape Breton who have just seen their crown corporation closed?
 
 
Mr. Speaker, the short answer is no. I do not see any way that rolling the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation into ACOA will actually enhance the services for Cape Breton. I do not see that.
The Conservatives can spin it any way they want, but this is not a good thing.
Another point that I made in my speech is the fact that the Conservatives are taking the ECBC and rolling it into ACOA in advance of a report by the federal Auditor General of Canada on a controversial grant by the ECBC for a marina development. The fact that the Conservatives are getting rid of the ECBC in advance of this report is highly suspicious. I suspect that the AG will find the Conservatives guilty of even more patronage.

 
 
Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from St. John's South—Mount Pearl for his speech. He was right to criticize this omnibus bill. It covers all sorts of things that we will unfortunately not have time to study in depth.
 
As I said last week, in Beauport—Limoilou, a group of parents whose children attend an elementary school near a railway has decided to take matters into their own hands because of the government's inaction. The Conservative government is busy adding secrecy to cabinet decisions on the rail transportation of dangerous goods, among other things.
 
Can my colleague comment on the government's very clear desire to operate behind closed doors and do everything to eliminate parliamentary oversight?
 
 
Mr. Speaker, personally, I see this fifth piece omnibus legislation for a budget implementation bill as an affront to democracy.
 
The hon. member mentions the railway. Indeed, beside the parts of the bill that have to do with budgetary matters, the bill also has to do with the railway, hazardous materials, temporary foreign workers, ACOA, as I have already outlined, and a bridge for the St. Lawrence, and on and on it goes.
We are talking about a single bill that is 350 pages long, with almost 500 clauses, and amends dozens of other bills and has a slew of measures not even mentioned in the budget speech.
 
There is no way possible for us to do what we are tasked to do by our constituents, which is to keep an eye on these bills and an eye on the government. It is too big. It is too massive.

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