Harper government’s move to pass federal budget bill with minimal scrutiny raises questions of due process and merit

Despite attempts by the opposition to delay the passage of the Harper government’s budget bill, it is all but guaranteed to pass before the House of Commons rises for its summer break.

Budget legislation normally includes various changes to laws needed to implement the promises made by the government in the budget. However, the bill currently before the House also includes a number of measures that were not included in the budget presented by finance minister Jim Flaherty in late March. These include sweeping changes to the requirements for environmental assessments, as well as controversial reforms to the Employment Insurance programme.

While the changes proposed by the Harper government may be sensible, the way in which they are being presented is certainly not. By bundling these reforms into a single bill — one that runs 451 pages — the government ensures that the changes will be subject to far less scrutiny than if they had been presented separately. Despite the fact that the budget legislation would change a wide range of federal laws, the entire bill was studied at a breakneck pace by the House Finance committee, which lacks the specialization needed to conduct more than a cursory examination.

To critics of the legislation, including the Liberals and the New Democrats, the budget bill is just another example of the Harper government’s pattern of abusing democracy. The government’s record on a host of issues, ranging from the withholding of crucial information from Parliament to the imposition of strict time limits on parliamentary debates, is dismal.

But the budget legislation is also the mark of a government that is not proud of its legislative agenda. Past majority governments under Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were not afraid to introduce priority legislation for study and debate in Parliament.

The changes that the Harper government has included in the budget legislation are undoubtedly controversial; some are perhaps ill conceived. However, this does not mean that they are not without merit. Indeed, the government may be correct in believing that at least some of what it proposes will benefit the Canadian economy. Why then is the government so ashamed of its legislative agenda as to not want to see it debated in Parliament? The proposed budget bill is not just the sign of an arrogant government, but of a fearful one.

Despite the deep problems with the budget legislation, it is likely to pass in both the House and the Senate. There is little the opposition can do to prevent the Harper government from introducing this type of legislation. While House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer ruled against motions to split the legislation, he ought to allow for future budget legislation to be considered by multiple committees to ensure that the bill receives proper scrutiny, as is regularly done in the Senate.

The greatest onus, however, is on the Harper government. If it truly believes in what it proposes, it should not be afraid to see those proposals debated in Parliament.

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