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.
Opinion: Why the US and Europe must stand together
President Obama’s trip to Europe is an opportunity to build on the vision he outlined in his West Point speech last week, and to set out a plan to renew the transatlantic relationship. This backbone of an alliance of liberal democracies across the globe, and the foundation of the post-war order, faces fresh challenges today. Over the past few years, though, this alliance has suffered from neglect which is troubling, as the inexorable triumph of liberal democracy is not inevitable – it requires constant work and vigilance.
Global Progress: Making Progressive Politics Work
“Making Progressive Politics Work: A Handbook of Ideas” is a collection of essays from the organizations and thinkers that are a part of Global Progress, an international exchange of ideas that will fuel the creation and implementation of progressive policies around the world. The handbook, organized and published by the U.K.-based Policy Network. Divided into two sections – Future Wealth Creation, and Jobs, Wages and Skills of the Future – the publication is required reading for Canadian progressives.
Analysis: Who is Matteo Renzi?
At just 39 years of age, Matteo Renzi became Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister in late February. The dramatic events that led to this meteoric rise are nothing new for Renzi. Over the course of his relatively short political career, the former lawyer and regional counselor earned the nickname “il Rottomatore”—meaning “the bulldozer” or “the demolition man”—thanks to his reputation for taking on the establishment and pushing through political reforms.
Opinion: It’s not unemployment, it’s underemployment
As short as 20 years ago, our combined attainment of education, work experience, and connections would place many young Canadians on a secure career track that would allow us to pay back our loans, save for a house, and contribute to the overall productivity of this great country. Today, that’s more or less not the case, and an increasing number of young Canadians are caught in a veritable limbo state of underemployment.
August 15, 2013
Summer Reading: 10 infographics you should see
We love infographics at Canada 2020 – and there’s no better time to browse and read them then over the long summer office hours.
Here’s 10 online features from The Guardian, The Economic Policy Institute, The White House and more than you should catch up on. Topics include tracking and comparing national carbon outputs, measuring exactly how inequality is rising in North America and answering what makes Canadians sick.