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Another omnibus budget bill and a test of Parliament’s will

The information commissioner expresses serious concerns, to which Parliament might now shrug


 
Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Charged yesterday with facilitating the illegal destruction of government records, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney stood and invoked nothing less than the “will of Parliament.”

“We are proud,” he said, “to make sure that the will of Parliament and this country is respected.”

The will of Parliament. That near-holy principle of the legislature’s supremacy. The profound expression of the nation through its elected delegates. It is this, apparently, that Blaney and the Conservative government are proud to defend and uphold.

More specifically, the government is apparently proud to use a budget implementation bill—Bill C-59, officially dubbed Economic Action Plan 2015 Act, No. 1—to retroactively exempt the long-gun registry from the Access to Information Act. It is proud to do so despite the existence of an outstanding request for information from that registry, one filed in 2012 before the registry was abolished, and despite the information commissioner’s finding that the government did not fully comply with that request and despite the commissioner’s having written to the government to suggest it investigate whether the RCMP illegally destroyed records that were relevant to that request.

The actual expression of Parliament’s will to which Blaney referred would presumably be the passage of the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, the bill that was to officially abolish and delete the registry. That bill passed into law on April 5, 2012. But the changes in C-59 would actually be retroactive to Oct. 25, 2011, the day the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act was first tabled, when it was officially nothing more than a 22-page stack of paper. So not only would the government retroactively reinterpret the will of Parliament, but it would retroactively birth that will into existence on an earlier date. (If Parliament was already considered a perfunctory check on legislation, now it would be made official.)

Whatever compliments the government might be due for chutzpah and creativity, the information commissioner is rather unimpressed.

“The proposed changes in Bill C-59 will deny the right of access of the complainant,” the commissioner ventured in a letter to the Speaker of the House this week, “it will deny the complainant’s recourse in court and it will render null and void any potential liability against the Crown.”

As well, “Bill C-59 sets a perilous precedent against Canadians’ quasi-constitutional right to know.”

The “will of Parliament” is perhaps best understood in the proactive sense of power—a setting forth of opinion, law or permission. Even if generally implicit, it is of course only by the will of Parliament that any government can continue in office.

But another way to view the notion, perhaps more relevant in contemporary discussions of our national legislature, is to understand the will of Parliament as what Parliament is willing to do and let be done: what its members are willing to let the government do with it, through it and to it.

It is here then that parliamentarians must ask themselves what they are willing to do, how far they are willing to let the government go, how much or how little they are willing to bless this place with a sense of self-respect.

Whatever Blaney’s declaration to the House on Thursday, the government’s deference to the will of Parliament is, at best, selective. Indeed, its disregard for the will of Parliament is happily advertised in television spots that herald policies that have yet to be adopted by Parliament—the hours of debate and study that Parliament is to expend reviewing such measures reduced to a fine-print afterthought. Surely even those MPs who sit behind the government might still wish to have their work as legislators viewed with slightly more respect.

As it is and as yet, it does not seem that Parliament is too excised by what so greatly concerns the information commissioner. So far this perilous precedent for Canadians’ right to know, this apparent undermining of an investigation into the RCMP’s compliance with the Access to Information Act, has merited only three questions over the course of two sessions of question period, all three of those questions posed by Liberal MP Wayne Easter.

While the government dismisses the information commissioner’s concerns entirely and the RCMP insists it did nothing wrong, this would still seem the sort of thing that deserves a comprehensive parliamentary hearing. If the will of Parliament is anything to take seriously, the ethics committee would be convened and the commissioner invited to appear. The public safety minister and the RCMP commissioner would be summoned to answer for the force’s actions. The justice minister would be called to explain why he has not responded to the commissioner’s submission to him that the law was violated. All relevant documentation would be demanded and reviewed and a full airing of the facts would be had.

Instead, this particular portion of C-59 is scheduled to be looked at by the finance committee, where it will apparently be studied alongside all of the tax and fiscal measures that the committee has given itself all of eight hours to review.

As if the 41st Parliament, a parliament about parliament, hadn’t given everyone enough to lament already. This would be a last hurrah, a farcical victory lap for the much-maligned.

Indeed, if parliamentarians did wish to be taken seriously, if the will of Parliament was more than a perfunctory principle, MPs would simply refuse to allow this issue to be dealt with through a budget bill.

There would seem to be questions here about an individual’s right to demand information from his or her government, the government’s handling of that request, the actions of the RCMP, the proper expression of Parliament’s power and the legitimacy of retroactively rewriting law, but a thoughtful MP needn’t even begin to ponder those questions before deciding that nothing to do with access to information and the long-gun registry should be included in a budget bill under the heading of “Economic Action Plan 2015.” That to include such amendments in a budget implementation bill is a perversion of the legislative process.

 

Oh, but we are so far past this sort of thing being a thing, aren’t we? Just last year, this Parliament passed budget bills that measured 380 and 478 pages respectively. Two years ago, this Parliament passed a budget bill that included an amendment to the Supreme Court Act, an amendment apparently intended to ensure the eligibility of Marc Nadon and an amendment that was, like the ill-fated appointee, subsequently ruled unconstitutional. This Parliament, and indeed all subsequent parliaments, might be hard-pressed to top the profound absurdity of that particular move and perhaps it is almost as absurd to suggest that now, at this late date, that members might assert themselves. That having recently deferred to the government on a decision about their own security and having cowered at the prospect of dealing with a fraught matter of law and society, that a decisive combination of opposition and Conservative MPs might make a small stand to insist that this matter be properly handled. But surely there should always be hope. Maybe tomorrow an idealistic Conservative backbencher will heed the long ago words of an idealistic Reform MP and object.

Otherwise, so long as the government is both proud of what it is doing and insistent that it has a responsibility to fill the airwaves and Internet with ads and infomercials to explain its doings to us, it should make a multi-million-dollar effort to explain this manoeuvre. Pierre Poilievre could be dispatched to another community centre, this time with copies of the information commissioner’s special report to thrust into the hands of passersby and he could explain point-by-point why it was nothing to worry about and completely fine to deal with through a budget bill with cursory study.

The will of Parliament, however strongly or weakly expressed, should be held up for all to see.


 

Another omnibus budget bill and a test of Parliament’s will

  1. What a lot of MSM don’t realize is, that PP is what Alfred Hitchcock would a McGuffin, typically unimportant to the whole Harper plot, and also a typical protagonist who often pursues little or no narrative explanations for the party. Just what Harper needs, to blow out his smoke and mirrors, and the opposition and media target him all the time, while being focused away from other important issues, like the Duffy trial, the identifying our soldiers to ISIL, and Twitter Twit Jason Kenny, and his bumbling tweets. PP loves the attention, like Harper, the camera is his high(drug), fix, whatever you want to call it, he is a narcissus.

  2. So if my wife was pregnant for the last seven months of 2013 and the baby was born in 2014, using the governments logic I should be able to write off (and receive childcare benefits) from the moment of conception on my taxes. What would happen if 1000’s of families asked for tax audits that would allow “date of conception” into the tax formula?

  3. Considering a substantial majority of your Parliament Press Corp, not to speak of I guess all of your Maclean’s colleagues, are unequivocal fans of The Harper Government, this piece took a considerable amount of courage.

    Thanks Aaron. It may sound maudlin but history will recognize very few members of the press as coming out of this time period with honour or even integrity.

  4. Aaron Wherry is one of the few journalists that is staying true to his values. Most of the others have grown comfortable, fat and, well, conservative.

    They have lost their way in my view

    The fact that Harper has chosen MacLeans as one of the venues that are acceptable to host the debate, as long as Paul Wells is the moderator speaks volumes about both MacLeans and Mr. Wells.

    The fact that omnibus bills that contain hidden legislation – not related to the original bill with which they are buried is now our new normal, and with the Press Gallery falling down in their duty to sound the alarm, indicates more clearly than ever that we need more Journalists like Mr. Wherry.

    Than you so much sir for your principled stand.

    • Like other federal agencies Harper appears to have gained control of the CRTC.
      Macleans owner Rogers depends on the CRTC (Harper) for regulation in phone, telecommunications, TV, cable, and Canada Post for magazine postage rates.
      If Rogers gets to moderate a debate we’ll know we’ve really reached the end of fair elections in Canada.

  5. The Crown and Parliament have the right to pardon people for crimes. This means the RCMP can be preemptively pardoned for any crimes that may have been committed in any unresolved conflict between the law eliminating the long gun registry and the law for the freedom of information act.

    Hundreds of people in Canada are pardoned every year.

    The will of the Crown and Parliament was to destroy all the data when the long gun registry was eliminated. It is absurd that bureaucrats acting in good intention should be considered criminals because of unforseen conflicts between two laws. The intent of Parliament was clear and unambiguous with respect to the long gun registry.

    This is not a case of malicious intent.

    • Blue tinted bullshit is bullshit nonetheless

    • Even if is “not a case of malicious intent”, it still sets one helluva bad precedent. Once we allow one instance of retroactively changing the law to make what was illegal at the time an act was performed legal, You can bet it will be used again and again.

      We’ll never again see an inquiry into illegal goings-on by the party in power; they will just rewrite the laws to make their past actions legal. If they get bold enough, they may even start making retroactively illegal things that were originally done legally. Opposition parties and those who oppose the government will find themselves tied up in court.

      Sure the SCC will eventually throw these things out… but at huge financial and emotional cost to those impacted.

      Malicious intent or not, it is still an evil corruption of our Parliament and the rule of law. Ends do not justify the means – though CPC and their supporters don’t seem to have any problem with tossing out the law to get their way.

      • C’mon, Aaron, Keith and the others. Get real. Everybody who has been around more than ten minutes knows what the powers of a majority government are. And the Libs have used omnibus bills and I am sure if the NDP ever got a taste of majority government they would too, as they have in provincial affairs. One of the attractions of alternate voting that never-win parties have is that several parties with power bargaining result. Perish the thought that we should be like Italy, France or Israel. What you are seeing is the realities of majority government and it has ever been thus.

        • It’s pretty clear that you did not read my comment – or if you did, your reading comprehension is poor. You should take another look.

          To my knowledge, this is the first time in Canadian history a government has been bold and stupid enough to write a retroactive law. The precedent is an extremely dangerous one. It must not be allowed to stand.

          We can discuss omnibus bills another time – as despicable as they are, that’s not the issue here.

  6. Whatever the case, it was high time to get rid of the long-gun registry. And since we are rid of it, we ought not to look into the registry that once was for ANY purpose.

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