Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in this debate on omnibus legislation. Like my colleagues, and particularly now my colleague from Etobicoke North, I agree with what the current Prime Minister stated in this place in 1994 when, as an opposition member, he criticized the use of omnibus legislation asking:
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 of the measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse?
The complaint of the Prime Minister, then speaking as an opposition member in 1994, about the use of omnibus bills ought now to underpin his work as Prime Minister. Rather, he is forcing legislation through this place as he himself regaled against. Indeed, it is time that the House took action to study and restrict the use of sweeping omnibus legislation that, among other things, deprives MPs of the opportunity to undertake the requisite detailed and differentiated analysis of the diverse constituent elements in a given omnibus bill, deprives the members of the House of the necessary public oversight with respect to these bills and undermines public participation in the political process as well as the public right to know.
I am not suggesting that the government somehow does not have a right to pursue its policy objectives. What must be debated, however, is the integrity of the process used and the merits of the means chosen. The purpose of Parliament is not to serve as a rubber stamp of the government, to be disconnected from the people and our constituents, even in a majority Parliament. Indeed, the government has yet to explain how Canadians are worse off when this body does take the necessary time to study subject matter items in detail, to separate out disparate legislative proposals and thereby, as a result, to produce the appropriate high-quality legislation deserving of our Parliament and our people. Indeed, it would seem by his own acknowledgement in this place that the member for Calgary Southwest at the time acknowledged these same views in 1994.
Accordingly, my brief remarks will be organized around the discussion of two particular pieces of legislation, the recent federal budget implementation bill, and Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill. While those are the two latest and most blatant examples of the use and abuse of the omnibus process, the government has a pattern of bundling perfectly acceptable items with utterly untenable legislation, and does so not only to its peril but to the peril of its own case and cause.
The recent federal budget legislation, Bill C-38, is what I have referred to elsewhere as the hydra-headed Trojan Horse omnibus budget implementation bill, for it was as stealth-like in its scope as it will be and has been prejudicial in its impact, the whole constituting an assault on the integrity of Parliament and its members, as well as on the democratic process. That is putting it modestly and mildly.
Simply put, while this 400-plus page piece of legislation was supposed to be anchored in the budget, in reality it had very little to do with the budget. Rather, in its sweeping scope it introduced, amended or repealed more than 70 federal statutes with the omnibus Trojan Horse providing political cover for pervasive and prejudicial impacts on everything from Canadian retirement plans to environmental protection, from immigration to food safety. All of this was accomplished through sleight-of-hand omnibus legislation where, for example, one provision undermined the whole of our environmental protection safeguards.
This enormous hodgepodge, this disconnected bundling together of variegated legislative proposals, did not and does not allow for the requisite differentiated discussion and debate, let alone the necessary oversight of the legislation. It imbued the executive with arbitrary authority to the exclusion of Parliament thereby serving as a standing abuse to the canons of good governance, transparency, accountability, public oversight, cost disclosure and the like. Indeed, this alone should have been cause for its defeat.
As Andrew Coyne put it at the time, “The scale and scope is on a level not previously seen, or tolerated”. He noted that the bill made “a mockery of the confidence convention” and that there was no “common thread” or “overarching principle” between the legislative items therein, let alone its standing contempt for Parliament in matters of process and procedure.
Moreover, and again on the crucial issues of parliamentary process and procedure, this bill was sent to the finance committee. Accordingly, the review of the environmental regulations therein, which overhauled, weakened and undermined the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and environmental protection as a whole, were thus not reviewed by the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development where it belonged.
Similarly, the provisions that changed the First Nations Land Management Act were not the subject of examination and study by the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, as my colleague from Etobicoke North identified, where they ought to have been deliberated. I could go on with numerous examples in this regard.
Moreover, if circumventing proper and thorough parliamentary review were not enough, the government invoked time allocation to limit discussion on the bill at every stage of the legislative process.
I am not suggesting that invoking time allocation, as the government has done again and again, violates the rules of this place. What I am suggesting, as many commentators have said, is that this use of it, particularly in the context of omnibus legislation, is unnecessary, prejudicial, surprisingly undemocratic, in effect, unparliamentary, and otherwise unsubstantiated, unwarranted and, frankly, is a contempt of Parliament and the people.
Surely if Parliament had to debate something like going to war, it would be easy to see why we might have time allocation to ensure that we get to the most pressing debate first. Or, if there were court decisions that affected many statutes, we might easily welcome an omnibus bill that could make the same change to many statutes at once, and that has been done by this House.
What is so disconcerting with the budget implementation bill is that the government need not have been in such a rush. There was no coherent or compelling theme, as commentators and experts have pointed out, to the omnibus proposals contained in the bill. Frankly, it could have used more study and, as we see with the current tainted beef scandal, the provisions on food inspectors perhaps warranted a more thorough review.
There are many issues that remain with the budget implement bill, not the least of which is the question of cost disclosure and the remaining possibility of a lawsuit from the PBO over the government’s failure to be open and transparent about the extent of the budget cuts proposed and its cost impact.
In the matter of the omnibus crime legislation, Bill C-10, the problem with omnibus legislation is illustrated no less compellingly. While the same generic omnibus critiques operate in this context, namely, what Richard Poplak in a Globe and Mail piece termed “Chinese disease…hollowing out democracy”, for which Canadians are increasingly bearing the burden of this onslaught, I would refer to one case study of the government’s omnibus failure: the amendments to the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, JVTA.
The JVTA was one of nine constituent bills of Bill C-10, one which received little attention. This landmark legislation, however, allowed, for the first time, Canadian victims of terror to sue their terrorist perpetrators in Canadian courts.
I supported the principles of the JVTA and had even introduced similar legislation in a previous session for that purpose. However, the government’s version of this bill warranted improvement, which it did not allow for. Accordingly, I proposed a series of amendments at the legislative committee, explaining that I sought only to strengthen the government’s bill. All of my amendments were summarily rejected by the Conservatives, as were all opposition amendments. Indeed, all 50 of my proposed amendments to Bill C-10 were summarily rejected. There was no debate or consideration given. In fact, I was accused of obstruction and delay for merely suggesting these changes. At the next meeting, the government moved to shut down debate entirely, a flagrant abuse of the parliamentary and legislative process.
Certainly a majority government has the procedural right to use its majority as it pleases. However, it ignores the opposition at its peril. Indeed, the government eventually realized the merit of my amendments and proposed them later as its own. Therefore, these amendments became part of the legislation in a dilatory fashion, prejudicing the outcome and even the improvement that could have been warranted in that legislation.
Simply put, legislation has to be examined on the merits and, when so examined, the Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill revealed that it would result in more crime, less justice, at greater cost, with fewer rehabilitation opportunities for offenders, less protection and voice for the victims, and less protection for society. We are now slowly seeing the consequences of the legislation being that which we predicted at the time. In fact, we have situations and problems with regard with prison overcrowding, mandatory minimum penalities and the like, that are likely to be struck down by the courts. I could go on.
Mr. Craig Scott (Toronto—Danforth, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, some of the contributions today from the opposite side have brought to mind a comment that at the time shocked me. Back in May when the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, omnibus Bill C-38, was being debated, the Conservative member for Vegreville—Wainwright said:
Mr. Speaker, the member must really have very little to complain about when it comes to this legislation, because he focuses on the process, as do so many others opposite.
Quite frankly, Canadians do not care about process; what they care about is what the end result will be. What they care about is having ample time for debate, and there has been a record amount of time for debate on a budget bill.
Does my colleague think this might be indicative of a broader attitude that underlies how the Conservative government thinks of democracy in the House? I wonder if the hon. member for Mount Royal might comment on whether this reveals an underlying problem with how the government thinks about the House.
Hon. Irwin Cotler:
Mr. Speaker, as I mentioned, when the Prime Minister was a member of the opposition, he addressed the question of process in particular and expressed his concern that omnibus-type legislating was undermining the parliamentary process. As I said, this has been undermining the integrity of Parliament itself because process is inextricably bound up with parliamentary procedure, inextricably bound up with our constitutional responsibilities for public oversight, for seeking cost disclosure and the like.
When legislation is bundled together and rushed through Parliament, it has adverse consequences on both process and substance. The legislation itself may be flawed but may never get properly examined. The committee process that is used does not allow for adequate review and the calling of appropriate witnesses, particularly when we have time allocation. The use of such time allocation may compound matters to exclude stakeholders, not only us here in this Parliament but even in a federation it may exclude provinces’ input, as we saw with Bill C-10 and the omnibus crime bill.
Mr. Rodger Cuzner (Cape Breton—Canso, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, each time my colleague delivers a speech in the House people usually take note, and today is no exception. He has nailed a couple of very important points, the reflection on and the comparison with what took place with Bill C-10. The member proposed amendments that were voted down by the Conservative majority in committee. The minister tried to put them back into the legislation at the last minute, which did not happen, but at least the amendments did get in through the Senate. Those improvements, because it was at odds with the charter, made sense.
Eight hundred amendments were proposed to the omnibus bill through debate here in the House and through votes in the House, and the government supported none of them. Was the member somewhat surprised that there was not one suggestion or amendment brought forward that might have been able to improve the omnibus bill? Was he surprised that the government rejected all 800 amendments?
Hon. Irwin Cotler:
Mr. Speaker, normally one should be surprised; in fact one should even be shocked by such an approach. However I have come to learn that such has become a matter that is passed off as normal process and procedure in the House, which really is an abuse of process and procedure. It goes much further.
We are witnessing situations because of the manner in which we are enacting legislation with constitutionally suspect provisions. I am not only referring here to those mandatory minimums, which have already been ruled unconstitutional in the Smickle case in Ontario, but to other provisions with regard to prison overcrowding, where we are going to witness constitutional challenges as well.
There is a whole series of constitutionally suspect legislation where we could be avoiding unnecessary litigation. We are going to be imbuing the public with unnecessary costs, and the legislative process will be unnecessarily burdened.
Let me just quote and conclude with what the Prime Minister himself said, because this is a perfect conclusion to this debate. The Prime Minister argued in 1994 that his concern with omnibus legislation was “in the interests of democracy”. Surely it is in the interests of democracy that this matter now be properly studied and remedied by this place.