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The Progressive Economics Forum

How Harper can avoid turning a Budget Implementation Bill into a Duffy budget bill

On November 25th, I made the following submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance regarding Bill C-4, Economic Action Plan 2013 Act No. 2, on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  

 1.     Introduction and Context

Thank you for the invitation to appear before the Committee, as Members of Parliament review the second budget implementation bill for the budget of 2013.

It is a particular honour to appear as a witness, since this committee will only hear eight hours of testimony from witnesses — including one hour from the Finance Minister — over just 2 days of hearings.

It is impossible for Parliamentarians to meaningfully review the impact of hundreds of diverse and unrelated measures included in this legislation over the provided time frame.  These amendments run from tax and spending changes, to EI reforms, conflicts of interest in financial institutions, a brand new system of processing economic immigrants, and new rules for choosing Supreme Court Justices.

There are also dozens of changes to employment law which bear no relation to measures in the 2013 Budget, including over 60 amendments to the Canada Labour Code.  C-4 even envisions a new, restricted definition of danger, and new rules to appeal that definition. The Canadian Bar Association warns these changes were “conceived and drafted without consultation….contrary to custom” in a fashion that “precludes meaningful comment and debate.” [2] This is not by accident, but by design.

In 1994, a Member of Parliament named Steven Harper asked the speaker of the House of Commons to rule a budget bill out of order because of its sweeping scope.  It touched on public sector pay, EI measures, payroll taxes, a reduction in federal spending through the Canada Assistance Plan, an extension of transportation subsidies, and granting authority to the CBC to borrow money.

At that time, Mr. Harper said “the subject matter of the bill is so diverse that a single vote on the content would put members in conflict with their own principles.” [3]

That omnibus bill was 21 pages.

This bill is 308 pages. It alters 50 pieces of legislation on a mind-numbing array of topics, many of which have nothing to do with the federal budget of 2013.  It makes a mockery of the process of public oversight.  It makes a mockery of our democratic institutions.

2.     Proposed Amendment to Bill C-4  

Consequently, and in keeping with the spirit that brought Mr. Harper and his Conservatives to power in 2006 and ever since — a pledge of accountability and transparency — this Committee should split Bill C-4 into two parts, treating fiscal and non-fiscal measures separately.

Further, this Committee should treat, as separate and apart, the non-fiscal measures that are major policy initiatives.  These include, but are not limited to, the selection of Supreme Court justices, the fundamental changes proposed to employment and labour law, and the selection process for new economic immigrants.  Each of these measures demand close scrutiny.

One simple way of accomplishing this proposal is to defeat these clauses in C-4 and invite the Government reintroduce them as separate pieces of legislation.

3. At Risk: The Integrity of Democratic Processes

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has queried why the federal government has underspent its budgetary allocations by $10 billion a year for the past three years.[4]  Notwithstanding these surprise savings, the government has requested an additional $5.4 billion in the second round of supplementary allocations this fall. The Finance Minister’s economic and fiscal update shows the 2012-13 deficit came in a surprising $7 billion less than forecast just months earlier.[5] Which is it? Are we overspending or underspending?

It is hard to not to feel that the public is being gamed somehow – that expenses are being suppressed or time-shifted in order to declare great fiscal prudence, then picked up through supplementaries which are rushed through, providing little time for examination.

In 2013, tabling of the budget implementation bill was delayed because of prorogation. Supplementary budgets will be passed within three of four days, less than usual oversight.  There is no time to parse the request for another $5.4 billion. No business would operate in this way.

The integrity of the democratic process that assures there are checks and balances on a government’s actions is at risk.

Though the Stephen Harper of 1994 has silenced his concerns over these procedural sleights of hand, his deployment of power has inflamed that same ardor in many others.

4. Conclusion:  Don’t risk creating a Duffy Budget Bill

The Supreme Court controversy that led to the measures included in this “budget” implementation bill did not even arise until after the budget was tabled. This bill rewrites the Canada Labour Code and our immigration policies.

That these types of measures have been shoe-horned into a bill that needs to be fast-tracked before Christmas serves as warning: the Government is turning the workhorse of a regular budget implementation bill into a Trojan Horse.

Bill C-4 looks alarmingly like a Duffy Budget Bill: stuffed with hidden measures, designed to mislead the public.  It can, and should be, amended.

Accountability and transparency were great principles for building a political brand in 2006.  They are great principles in 2013 as well.



[1] Founded in 1980, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social, economic and environmental justice.  It is a non-profit registered charity, supported by over 12,000 members across Canada.

[2] Submission of the Canadian Bar Association to the Finance Committee on Bill C-4, dated November 18, 2013 http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/HOC/Committee/412/FINA/WebDoc/WD6320541/412_FINA_C-4_Briefs/CanadianBarAssociation-e.pdf

[3] Hansard, House of Commons Debates, March 25, 1994, Bill C-17, The Budget Implementation Act of 1994,  http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=35&Ses=1&DocId=2332300#2775

[4] Parliamentary Budget Office, Supplementary Estimates (B) 2013-14, November 18, 2013  http://www.pbo-dpb.gc.ca/files/files/2013-14%20Supplementary%20Estimates%20(B)%20Report_EN.pdf

[5] Department of Finance Canada, Update of Economic and Fiscal Projections, November 12, 2013  http://www.fin.gc.ca/efp-pef/2013/pdf/efp-pef-13-eng.pdf

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Comments

Comment from Ian Stewart
Time: November 28, 2013, 12:43 pm

As usual, an accurate and trenchant presentation!

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