Parliament has returned, with much on its plate. There are fewer than 40 sitting days before the House is scheduled to rise for the summer, never to return, and nearly as many government bills still mired in the legislative process.Among them: Bill C-97, the Budget Implementation Act, a 392-page monstrosity that enacts or amends more than 60 different pieces of legislation, on every subject under the sun. Some of its provisions might be considered the usual stuff of budgets, like “repealing the use of taxable income as a factor in determining a Canadian-controlled private corporation’s annual expenditure limit for the purpose of the enhanced scientific research and experimental development tax credit.”Others are hard to see as having anything to do with the budget: from “providing members of federal credit unions with different methods of voting prior to meetings,” to transferring responsibility for enforcing the Pilotage Act from the Pilotage Authorities to the Minister of Transport, to — notoriously — giving the government the power to reject refugee claimants out of hand “if they have previously made a claim for refugee protection in another country.”Omnibus bills, as they are called, have become an increasing source of concern as their use — and size — has grown in recent years. The Harper government’s fondness for them so scandalized the opposition Liberals that they promised, in their 2015 election platform “to bring an end to this undemocratic practice,” in that bold, unequivocal style readers will be familiar with. Needless to say, they have carried right on with this undemocratic practice — indeed, last year’s budget implementation bill, at more than 700 pages, was the largest ever. Being Liberals, however, they cannot admit, even to themselves, that they could ever sink so low as to imitate their hated Conservative predecessors, even as they have adopted the Harper government’s standards on everything from the growth rate of health-care transfers to carbon emissions targets.To be fair, the two situations are entirely different: for where the Harperites made no effort to disguise their use of omnibus bills, the Liberals have adopted the innovative technique of passing omnibus bills while denying they are doing so. Introducing his first budget bill in 2016, the comparatively svelte (179 pages) Bill C-15, Finance Minister Bill Morneau protested that it was “absolutely not an omnibus bill.” The grounds for this extraordinary claim? “Every measure in the budget implementation act is related to our budget.”The notion that a bill that contains literally dozens of other bills is not an omnibus bill so long as it merely implements a budget of even greater length may be taken as a sign of the degraded state of politics in this country. In the first place, what is required to make a bill “related” to the budget is thin indeed. The refugee provisions in the current bill, for example, were barely mentioned in the budget: a single line near the end advised of the government’s intent to propose “legislative amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to better manage, discourage and prevent irregular migration.”But even if a more substantive definition of “budget-related” were adopted, the mere fact that a bill was confined to implementing the budget’s contents would not absolve it of the charge of omnibussiness. Indeed, omnibus budget bills as such are merely the symptom. The illness is omnibudgets.Activism, whether of the left or right, does not justify authoritarianism
All of the criticisms that may be made of omnibus bills — that, by yoking together all manner of disparate bits of legislation in one bill, they prevent MPs from properly studying and debating any of them; that by forcing MPs to pass the lot at one go, rather than by voting on each, they leave it unclear whether any particular piece of the whole really represented the will of Parliament or not — may be made as well of modern budgets.It was not always thus. Budgets used to resemble some meaningful definition of the word, confining themselves to a statement of the government’s fiscal position, together with its broad priorities for spending in the coming year, plus a handful of tax changes. Have a look sometime at Mike Wilson’s budgets from the 1980s. They averaged a little more than 100 pages, versus today’s 500-page-plus doorstoppers.More to the point, they did not attempt to micromanage every corner of the economy, still less smuggle the whole of the government’s agenda, fiscal or otherwise, through an unwitting Parliament. That these legislative coup d’etats are typically enacted by governments with a mandate from fewer than 40 per cent of the voters, each claiming the right to undo the work of its predecessors on the basis of a swing of a few percentage points, only compounds the offence.Omnibus bills are usually defended on the grounds of necessity — how else are we going to get all of the legislation we have planned through Parliament? But this has the democratic cart before the omnihorse. If you can’t enact your agenda without trampling on some ancient Parliamentary prerogatives, possibly you need to rethink your agenda. Set some priorities. Live within your democratic means. Activism, whether of the left or right, does not justify authoritarianism.Like most of the democratic abuses we have come to accept as normal, omnibus bills are in fact uniquely Canadian: they are unknown in Australia and the United Kingdom, severely restricted in New Zealand. So are omnibudgets. The latest from Her Majesty’s Treasury in the United Kingdom is just 106 pages. It comes in a plain red cover marked “Budget 2018.” The only way it could have been improved upon is if they had left off the date.