Eugene Lang

Opinion: Omnibus budget legislation hits a new low

October 29, 2012

‘What does this have to do with the ways and means of the government?”

It was a question asked in the mid 1990s by government House leader Herb Gray in the early days of the Chrétien government, during a briefing he was having with finance department officials on the Budget Implementation Act (BIA). Gray, then a 35-year veteran of the Commons, had spotted a provision in the legislation that was non-budgetary, that had nothing to do with “the ways and means of the government.” To parliamentary purists like Gray, that is what budget bills were supposed to be restricted to.

The finance officials were caught flat-footed and had no answer to the veteran minister’s question. Nevertheless, despite Gray’s protestations, the bill remained as was and was introduced into the House of Commons.

Thus began a new era in Canadian politics — the era of the abuse of budgets and their implementing legislation. A period characterized by the increasing dominance of the finance minister and his department. An era in which the role of parliamentary committees in scrutinizing and amending legislation was disappearing before our eyes.

After 10 years in office, the Chrétien government’s budgets had grown from a slim 63 pages in length in 1994 to a bloated 380 pages in 2003. Not to be outdone, the final budget of Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government in 2005 was 450 pages long.

Budgets had morphed into governing agendas for the year rather than fiscal and economic statements that were restricted largely to taxation measures and the ways and means of the government. If a policy or program wasn’t in the budget, it either wasn’t happening that year or it was too trivial to worry about.

But the real abuse hasn’t been so much with the budget per se, but rather its implementing legislation. The 1994 Budget Implementation Act, or BIA, was 10 pages long. By the early 2000s, the BIA, then known euphemistically as “the omnibus budget bill,” had increased 12 fold. The advent of the omnibus budget bill did not come about due to an increase in the size of government. Rather, it happened as a function of the concentration of power — in a sense the shrinking of government — especially within the finance department.

The abuse of budgets and their implementing legislation has reached eye-watering level under Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Flaherty recently introduced his second BIA of this year, Bill C-45. It’s a staggering bill, 443 pages long, amending some 60 statutes. Together with C-38, the government’s first BIA of this year, we have nearly 900 pages of legislation to implement a 500-page budget. A new measure of efficiency in government is thus born.

C-45 is controversial due to the degree of non-budgetary measures it contains, such as amendments to the Fisheries Act, amendments to the Hazardous Materials Information Review Act, changes to the Canada Grain Act, etc. So much so that the minister of finance has now decided to allow various parliamentary committees to study some components of the Bill. This is window dressing of course, because ultimately C-45 will likely be voted on as one gigantic legislative tome.

This year’s budget bills follow on the heels of the 2009 BIA, Bill C-2, which amended more than 40 statutes, many of which had nothing to do with the ways and means of the government. C-2 changed, for example, the Access to Information Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Canada Council for the Arts Act and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation Act. What are the financial implications of these legislative reforms? There are none. Canadians can be forgiven if they weren’t aware of any of the legislative changes resulting from C-2 because hardly any of them were ever debated in Parliament. C-2 was dealt with as one big omnibus bill, by one little committee of the House — the finance committee — over a few short days.

C-2, C-38 and C-45 are examples of budget legislation on anabolic steroids. This is the way Canada is governed today. It is the tyranny of the finance department. It is the subjugation of Parliament. It is the marginalization of the member of Parliament in the legislative process.

The logical extension of this 15-year path is to have Parliament sit for a week every year and pass with alacrity one big fat omnibus bill that deals with all the business of the federal government for that year. Then our legislators can retreat to their constituencies, we can save a few million tax dollars by turning the lights off early on Parliament Hill, and Canadians can sleep well at night secure in the knowledge that the finance minister and his department has everything in hand.

Eugene Lang, a former FinanceCanada official, is co-founder of Canada 2020. He began his career as policy analyst in the office of the Right Honourable Herb Gray.

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