Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his governing Conservatives have played a risky game with the passage of Bill C-38, the government’s massive Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act.
At more than 400 pages, the government’s omnibus budget bill survived unscathed a 22-hour, opposition-led marathon vote on hundreds of proposed amendments in the House of Commons this week and now goes to third and final reading on Monday.
As The Canadian Press reported yesterday, the bill — and the literally dozens of significant statutes it comprises on everything from environmental assessments to old age security, employment insurance rules, government contracting and cross-border policing — should clear the Conservative-dominated Senate by the end of next week.
Given the Conservative majority in the House of Commons, the passage of the bill was hardly in doubt. But the victory comes at a cost for the governing party, which has spent a great deal of political capital by cramming several pieces of unrelated legislation into a budget bill and ramming it through Parliament.
While the rather cynical move forced a highly public showdown with federal opposition parties — and even prompted ordinary citizens to protest outside Tory MP constituency offices, including that of Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed earlier this week — the more serious protests have come from within the Conservative party itself.
More than a few Tory-blooded politicians — both current and former — were rankled over the massive budget implementation bill, warning that it would change in unpredictable and dangerous ways how Canada works.
One of the most high-profile dissenters was former Reform MP Bob Mills from Red Deer, Alta., who returned to Ottawa last week to join Green Leader Elizabeth May to protest the scrapping of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which was part of the omnibus bill.
The Toronto Star said the one-time Conservative environment critic told media his old boss was making a mistake by putting other priorities ahead of the environment.
“I’ve always said that if you’re smart, you surround yourself with really smart people and if you’re dumb, you surround yourself with a bunch of cheerleaders,” Mills said.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney and two of his former ministers, John Fraser and Tom Siddon, all openly criticized the bill — Mulroney on the environmental aspect and the other two for Harper’s decision to gut the Fisheries Act.
And even rookie B.C. Conservative MP David Wilks told his constituents in a video that there was a “barrage” of caucus members who would have preferred to see the bill split up.
The Canadian Press is now reporting that the Conservatives intend to employ the same omnibus strategy in the fall when the government brings in the customary autumn budget implementation bill. And as Tory bills have been creeping up in size since Harper took office in 2006, the fall bill could be the largest yet.
That is, unless Harper heeds the pushback from within his own government. And that’s certainly a possibility. He’s done so before, notably with the online surveillance bill, which by all accounts went over like a lead balloon, and now finds itself on the back burner.
The prime minister may well count Bill C-38 as a victory, but there is no doubt that whatever the fallout — good or bad — will be from this new legislation, Harper and the Tories will wear it. By making such sweeping changes to so many Canadian institutions, Harper has put his stamp on the Canadian brand.
If it works out and the economy improves, he looks like a genius. But if it tanks, as it most likely will given the ongoing economic problems in the United States and Europe, it will be those in opposition claiming victory.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 16, 2012