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Hill Dispatches: Resistance to Conservatives' omnibus budget bill grows

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Protest outside the Vancouver South Conservative MP's office. (Photo: http://404systemerror.org/)

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For a while it looked like the Conservative government would get an easy ride for its omnibus budget bill, C-38.

In the early days Conservative apologists, such as Scott Proudfoot of the lobbying firm Hillwatch, characterized it as a "mild budget" - and that characterization had considerable resonance with the national media and the business community.

In an analysis posted on the Hillwatch website shortly after budget day last March, Proudfoot argued that the Conservatives' most recent budget would disappoint those who had hoped for a sharp rightward turn when Harper won a majority.

"There is some slight pruning, but no slash and burn," Proudfoot wrote.

He made brief allusion to the great length of the budget, and mentioned, without comment, that it touches on many matters: "The budget is seeking to address a series of issues around resource extraction, R & D and immigration."

That is all the Conservative friendly lobbyist had to say about the radical environmental (or, perhaps, anti-environmental?) measures in this massive omnibus bill.

And that was pretty much the government line when it first presented the budget in late March.

Nothing to see here, folks: just a "mild budget" that "addresses a few issues around resource extraction."

That well-orchestrated spin might have worked for a while, but lately it seems to be unraveling. It is proving the truth, once again, of one of Mark Twain's best known adages - the one about how you can't "fool all the people all of the time."

Somewhere along the way many Canadians have come to view this bulky piece of grab-bag legislations as, in the words of Green Party leader Elizabeth May, "an outrage."

From NDP hearings to blackout to a piercing point of order

It started with the NDP holding its own hearings on all aspects of the budget bill; especially those the government has tried bury and keep out of view.

Then columnists and commentators, even some normally sympathetic to the Conservatives, started to notice that whatever one thought about the content of C-38, it was being presented in a completely undemocratic way, in a manner that showed contempt for Parliament.

Opposition to C-38 then grew to include the environmental movement as well as a vast swath of civil society, culminating in 500 groups protesting by going black on their web sites on Monday.

Now, the Green Party leader not only has plans to tie up the House by proposing a huge volume of amendments to Bill C-38, she has just moved a point of order asking the Speaker to rule that the entire piece of legislation is contrary to the "Standing Orders" of Parliament.

"I seek a ruling that the bill has not been put forward in its proper form and is therefore 'imperfect' and must be set aside," May says in her point of order motion.

While accepting that the government has the power to propose a large bill that changes many laws and has many different facets, May says that power is not unlimited.

An omnibus bill, May argues, "must have 'a single purpose.'" In that respect, she says, C-38 "fails the test."

May's motion then details the ways in which the Bill actually fails: 

"It fails to have a central theme, 'one basic principle or purpose;' it fails to provide a link between items in C-38 and the budget itself; and it fails by omitting actions, regulatory and legislative changes described by representatives of the Privy Council as part of Bill C-38." 

The Green Party leader's motion concludes: "To allow Bill C-38 to masquerade as a legitimate omnibus bill will bring our institutions into greater disrepute. C-38 is widely understood in the popular media as a fraud."

Nobody should hold their breath and expect the Speaker to rule in favour of May's point of order. For the time being he has reserved his decision, and the Official Opposition and Liberals are now studying the motion.

Can the Government import smokestack monitoring?

On Monday, the government also had to answer for the fact that it is - again by stealth - cutting an Environment Canada team that monitors smokestack pollution.

The government has suggested that it could save much of the $700,000 it spends on this monitoring group by relying on other sources for the information - sources such as the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked the acting Prime Minister, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, about that in the House.

Mulcair: Could the Conservatives tell us how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to monitor smokestack pollution at a Canadian coal-fired power plant?

Kenney: We will take no lessons from the NDP on this. If that member chooses to distrust the EPA or President Obama, that is his choice.

Mulcair: Usually countries try to take care of their own environment. They do not outsource it. The Conservatives claim that the cuts will not affect monitoring but they are already being contradicted by our own environment department. Environment Canada's website confirms the work done by the smokestack pollution team includes enforcement and compliance. Why do the Conservatives not realize what is going on in their own environment department? Are they so busy debunking the theories about environment and volcanoes?

Kenney: The only thing volcanic here is that member's temper. Through the Clean Air Act, through the restriction on toxins, through the increased enforcement of our environmental laws, . . .through all of these measures this government, objectively speaking, has made more progress on the quality of our environment and the air that we breathe than any government in the history of the dominion.

Mulcair: The Conservatives are really good at hot air, nothing else.

Sanctimonious twaddle?

The NDP's environment critic and Deputy Leader, Megan Leslie, then turned her attention to Environment Minister Peter Kent:

Leslie: [The Minister . . .] defends climate science to the Prime Minister but then he happily axes the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and he presses delete on the Kyoto accord. He extols the virtues of science but he fires scientists, he guts environmental assessments and he stops emissions reporting. Why will the minister not actually put his money where his mouth is, do the responsible thing, do the common sense thing, and allow proper review of the environmental protection changes in the budget bill?

Kent: I can only characterize the content of my colleague's question as sanctimonious twaddle. Our government is protecting the environment at the same time as it protects Canadian jobs and the economy. A responsible resource development is the hallmark of [our] budget. . .This government is getting it done.

There's that now-familiar active, focused, he-man rhetoric again. This government never tires of reminding us that it has "a strong majority to get results for Canadians." As onetime respected journalist and early climate change adopter Kent puts it: the Government is "getting it done."

But what are Kent and his colleagues 'getting done?'

To misquote a former U.S. President: 'It all depends on your definition of it.'


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.


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