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Tread carefully, Tories: Governments can live to regret omnibus bills

The Conservatives are determined to push through an omnibus bill that would not only enact Jim Flaherty's landmark budget but also bring sweeping changes to environmental regulations, unemployment insurance and much else. They should take care.

Bringing down the legislative hammer can force the opposition to take desperate measures, leading to unforeseen consequences. Just ask Tony Clement.

Bill C-38, in more than 420 pages, cuts government spending and raises the retirement age for some federal pensions, along with everything else in the March 29 budget.

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It also changes environmental regulations, in many cases weakening federal oversight, and puts in place new rules that could force people on Employment Insurance to take jobs or lose benefits.

There are changes as well to the oversight of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, along with other various and sundry measures.

In short, the bill enacts major policy shifts on a range of fronts and converts laws once overseen by Parliament into regulations that can be altered at will by ministers – really, the Prime Minister.

Whether Parliament should further surrender its powers, giving the government of the day the unfettered ability to rewrite or dismantle regulations as it sees fit, deserves a lengthy and lively debate.

On Monday, the NDP reasonably proposed that the omnibus bill be broken into five parts that could then be examined by the relevant committees. Instead, the Tories are imposing time allocation, which means that by next week the bill could be passed in principle and sent to a single committee, backed up by a subcommittee.

Neither will be able to carry out the proper mandate of a parliamentary committee, which is to examine and debate every clause of a proposed bill, incorporating amendments as required.

In this Parliament, the NDP and Liberals have too often sought simply to delay and obstruct, rather than amend and improve, and to that extent they have brought this on themselves.

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But a government that tries to ram through an omnibus bill without proper debate can live to regret the decision. Consider Bill 26.

Mike Harris's Ontario Conservative government introduced the omnibus bill – the Speaker of the day repeatedly, inadvertently and hilariously called it "the ominous bill" – in Fall 1995. It changed 47 different acts, enacting massive reforms to health care, to municipal governments and to labour laws.

When the Conservatives tried to force the bill through the House, Liberal MPP Alvin Curling refused to leave his seat after being ejected by the Speaker, forcing the House to adjourn. Rather than see the bill hijacked entirely by the opposition, the Tories appointed two committees to hold public hearings. A young Tory backbench MPP named Tony Clement chaired one of those committees. It turned out to be his ticket to cabinet.

The opposition parties went even farther to forestall closure on a Harris government bill that amalgamated Metro Toronto into one city. They found a way to introduce 13,000 amendments, forcing the legislature to sit 24 hours a day for two weeks before exhaustion forced a compromise. By the end, the legislature smelled like rotten fish.

Farther back in time, Joe Clark's Conservatives were so determined to delay Pierre Trudeau's omnibus energy bill in 1982 that they brought Parliament to a standstill for 15 days by refusing to answer the bells summoning Members to attend the House.

To be clear: this space does not advocate extreme measures by the NDP or Liberals to obstruct this duly elected government from doing its job.

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But omnibus bills are red flags. They show contempt for the opposition, within Parliament and without. Sometimes the opposition lashes back in the most creative ways.

If the Tories don't watch themselves, the House of Commons could end up smelling like rotten fish.

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About the Author

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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