Corp Comm Connects

Opposition MPs cry foul over Liberals’ tabling of 300-page bill
April 11, 2017
Bill Curry

The federal government tabled a wide-ranging budget bill Tuesday that includes legal changes to the powers of the Parliamentary Budget Officer as well as a new law that creates the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

The opposition says the legislation, at more than 300 pages, amounts to an omnibus bill at the very same time that the governing Liberals are separately proposing changes to the parliamentary rules that would make omnibus bills illegal.

At first glance, opposition MPs say Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s latest budget bill appears to be an example of the very thing the Liberals say should be banned.

“It’s hypocritical,” said Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen, who added that if the Liberals wanted to end the use of omnibus bills, they could just do so.

The Liberal Party campaigned on a pledge to end so-called omnibus bills based on concern that such large bills force MPs to vote yes or no on a large package of changes even though they might support some parts and not others.

Parliament’s spending watchdog is expressing concern that the latest budget bill will limit its ability to hold the government to account.

Mostafa Askari, the assistant PBO, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that the legislation raises concerns over the PBO’s independence. New requirements to have the Speakers of the House of Commons and Senate review and approve an annual PBO work plan and to receive advance copies of any PBO report are the main points of concern.

Currently, the PBO is free to release reports at any time on any relevant topic on its website.

“My first impression is that certainly those would be some issues of concern to us,” he said.

“There are those kind of issues that, to me, are the constraints that may, in practical terms, affect the PBO in a negative way. But there are other aspects in terms of the appointment [of the PBO] and those kinds of things that are certainly improvements.”

Proposing an end to "improper" omnibus legislation is part of the package of changes to the rules of the House of Commons that recently caught opposition parties by surprise.

Ms. Bergen said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is using his majority to push through changes to the House rules that should require the support of all parties. She said changes related to the Parliamentary Budget Officer should be removed from the budget bill and studied independently.

NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice agreed that the budget bill is an example of what the Liberals say they want to eliminate.

“It’s an omnibus bill, from our point of view,” he said. The NDP MP argues the bill includes changes to the Parliament of Canada Act, the Judges Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, the Food and Drugs Act and a new law called the Canada Infrastructure Bank Act that appear to be the types of measures that should be introduced separately, rather than included in a budget bill.

Daniel Lauzon, a spokesperson for Mr. Morneau, defended the legislation and said all of its measures relate to what was in the March 22 budget.

“Our commitment to transparency is real – and as far as the size of the bill and its content, it’s all in the budget plan.‎ So no surprises for anyone,” he said in an e-mail. “Compare that with the Conservatives’ long-standing practice of trying to ram through unrelated measures by forcing confidence votes on them. That’s not what we’re doing.”

The new Canada Infrastructure Bank Act gives cabinet the power to appoint a board of directors of between eight and 11 people. The board would then select a chief executive officer.

“The purpose of the bank is to invest, and seek to attract investment from private sector investors and institutional investors, in infrastructure projects in Canada or partly in Canada that will generate revenue and that will be in the public interest …” the legislation states.

The legislation includes criteria for the CEO, including that he or she must be at least 18 years of age, not be bankrupt and not be employed by a federal, provincial or municipal government.

The salary and benefits for the CEO will be set by cabinet on the advice of the board. The legislation gives the Minister of Finance the power to pay the bank up to $35-billion from the consolidated revenue fund.