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Budget filibuster could sideswipe other bills on Tory agenda

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 6, 2012.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Ottawa is bracing for a frantic fortnight, with the Harper government determined to pass four major bills through the House of Commons before the summer recess, and with the opposition parties equally determined to stop one of those bills.

There is a risk that the filibuster against C-38 – the omnibus bill that would enact the budget, change environment assessment and Employment Insurance rules, and do much else besides – could sideswipe other legislation.

But although Government House Leader Peter Van Loan isn't tipping his hand, the odds favour passage of all the legislation by the time the House rises on June 22.

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Jordanians and Panamanians, however, are likely to leave disappointed.

Apart from the omnibus bill, the Tories are hoping to pass three new laws.

Bill C-11 would, finally, after seven years of trying, modernize the Copyright Act, with its contentious plans to create "digital locks" to protect copyrighted material.

Bill C-25 would create pooled registered retirement savings plans for workers who do not have access to a company pension plan.

Bill C-31 aims to crack down on spurious refugee claims.

There are also free-trade agreements with Jordan and Panama that need to be endorsed by Parliament.

The opposition has problems with almost all of this package, but it is the omnibus bill that has earned their special wrath.

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To block it, they plan to introduce hundreds of amendments. The goal is to force perpetual votes until time runs out, which would prevent passage of the bill until the fall.

If they succeed, the other bills could be collateral damage. If, for example, the House sits through the night and doesn't rise until the next sitting day would normally begin, that day is lost. If that happens often enough, nothing might get passed.

And because every vote is a vote on the budget bill, and therefore a matter of confidence, the government could theoretically be defeated if enough of its members fail to show up for even one vote.

But the NDP, the Liberals and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May are unlikely to succeed. For one thing, Speaker Andrew Scheer might not let them. The Speaker can, and often does, bunch similar amendments into a single vote, if he feels it is warranted.

The House can, if it must, sit around the clock to vote on bills. The Tory caucus is, overall, more numerous, experienced and disciplined than its NDP and Liberal counterparts. A filibuster could collapse through simple exhaustion.

And the opposition should be careful about what it wishes for. If there were a slip-up and the government lost a vote, it could force an election. Do NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae want to go to the people right now, for such a reason?

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Add it all up, and the odds of all four bills making it through are pretty good, though the Jordan and Panama agreements could be delayed until the fall.

Speaking of fall, the legislative agenda is pretty thin. In the category of big bills, there is the Senate reform act and little else. The Internet surveillance bill is expected to languish in committee, unloved. A native education act is expected. Most of the rest of the agenda is routine.

There will, however, be a second budget implementation bill. Given the precedent of Bill C-38, we can only imagine what the government may decide to shove into that one.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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