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Hill Dispatches: It's omnibus bill time (again) -- where's the evidence? Plus, C-4 debate gets personal

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In March of 1982, the Progressive Conservative Opposition of the day forced the complete stoppage of Parliament for 15 days as a protest against a Liberal government omnibus energy bill. The Opposition did this by not answering the call of the bells announcing a vote on the bill -- which meant there was no quorum, and the bells rang constantly for more than two weeks, while the House sat vacant. The stalemate ended when the Trudeau government agreed to break up its bill and allow separate votes on each of its numerous provisions.

Joe Clark's Conservatives believed they had won a significant victory and that no future government would dare commit such a flagrant offence to democracy. They argued that members of Parliament should have the right to consider distinct legislative initiatives separately and support or oppose them on their merits. Bundling together a basketful of vaguely related new laws did not cut it, they said, and they forced the government of the day to back down.

The Harper Conservative government likes to claim a direct lineage to Canadian Conservative governments and Oppositions of the past. It just named a building in Ottawa after John Diefenbaker (Progressive Conservative Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963), as part of an effort to identify with the party's long history. But on Tuesday, that same Harper government introduced exactly the type of omnibus legislation that gave Joe Clark's Conservatives conniptions.

Tuesday's bill, the "Safer Streets and Communities Act," bundles together nine previously separate and distinct pieces of proposed legislation. The individual initiatives range from:

- Mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and production (including, it seems, growing marijuana), to...

- Encouraging more adult sentences for youth offenders to...

- Eliminating courts' ability to impose "house arrest" in a wide variety of cases, to...

- Allowing victims of terrorism to sue foreign organizations and governments in Canadian courts.

Whew! And that's just a small part of it.

Parliament is supposed to consider all of these provisions, and a whole lot more, in a single, massive piece of legislation. Law enforcement and the judicial system, primarily within the provincial jurisdiction, will then have to pick up the pieces, deal with it all -- and pay for it, too.

There is not a word about social conditions, mental health, addiction or restorative justice in all of these many pages of new proposed laws. There is no mention of the impact on Aboriginal Canadians, already vastly over-represented in Canada's prisons; nor any recognition of the economic and social factors that contribute to crime. And, of course, there is no evidence, whatsoever, offered to support the need for this legislation. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's only allusion to facts, at the press conference in Brampton to announce the new omnibus bill, was to admit that crime rates had, indeed, gone down. He asserted, nonetheless, that the government would like those rates to be even lower. He did not even make a token effort to demonstrate how any of the many provisions in this new bill would have any impact on crime rates.

Each new day of this Conservative majority affirms a rueful, and very private, observation one senior public servant made many months ago: "This government has no interest in evidence-based policy-making." The point of it all is ideological positioning, not effective policy. It is an exercise in political theatre, right down to a 905-district backdrop (why show respect for Parliament by announcing legislation there?) complete with dutifully assembled, uniformed police officers.

This omnibus bill will certainly be the subject of very vigorous debate in the House, although the rules have been changed so that the bell-ringing strategy the 1982 Progressive Conservatives used is no longer possible.

In the meantime, today, the House continued to debate the proposed "human smuggling" law, Bill C-4.

There was a touching moment when newly elected NDP member Anne Minh-Thu Quach stood to speak. Ms. Quach is the child of boat people, and knows something about what it feels like to be a refugee. In her speech, she made the point that locking up people for one year, who have fled violence and persecution, is hardly a way of showing a warm welcome to refugees!

During yesterday's debate on C-4, the NDP's Don Davies made a similar point when he brought up the 1939 case of the SS St. Louis. That ship was carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Cuba, the United States and Canada all turned it away, and it had to go back to Europe. Many of its passengers perished in the Holocaust. Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's response was to forcefully state that this government would never send any ships full of refugees back where they came from! He did not add that, according to the provisions of Bill C-4, while the government might not send the would-be refugees back, it would jail them for a year, deny them access to due process, and prevent them from reunifying with their families for at least five years!

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