A rough guide to Bill C-38

Why all the fuss about ‘an Act to implement certain provisions of the budget’?


With C-38 set to soon return to the House for a final showdown, we thought it might be necessary to explain the story so far. Herein, a rough guide to the controversial budget bill.

What is C-38?

Bill C-38 is officially “an Act to implement certain provisions of the budget.” After the government presents its annual budget, it must pass legislation that carries out the promised changes or initiatives. In theory, C-38 is that legislation.

So what’s the problem?

C-38 numbers more than 400 pages and amends dozens of pieces of legislation. Among other things, it changes environmental regulations, amends the Fisheries Act, allows for new rules to be imposed on Employment Insurance, repeals the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act and eliminates the CSIS inspector general. Over the last 20 years—see here—the budget implementation act has gone from a relatively short piece of legislation to a regularly massive bill that attempts to do dozens of things all at once. Between 1994 and 2005, budget implementation acts averaged 73.6 pages. Since the Conservatives came to power, the acts have averaged 308.9 pages. Bills in which many different changes are packaged together are generally referred to as omnibus bills.

Are omnibus bills inherently bad?

Not necessarily. A bill could package together a series of directly related changes to a number of directly related acts. You could argue that the government’s omnibus crime bill was such a piece of legislation. You can make a fair argument that such bills are both democratic and reasonable.

So what’s wrong with an omnibus bill like C-38?

Let’s let Stephen Harper (circa 1994) explain. “First, there is a lack of relevancy of these issues. The omnibus bills we have before us attempt to amend several different existing laws. Second, in the interest of democracy I ask: How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns? We can agree with some of the measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse? Dividing the bill into several components would allow members to represent views of their constituents on each of the different components in the bill.” In addition to complaints about the specific changes in C-38, the opposition parties argue that the bill is undemocratic: that by packaging so many different things together, proper scrutiny, study and debate is not possible—see here and here, for instance.

What does the government have to say for itself?

Here is an interview with Government House leader Peter Van Loan. Generally speaking, the Conservatives argue that all of the measures in the budget bill go toward positioning the country for future prosperity and economic growth. They also argue that the bill will be subject to more House debate than any budget bill in recent memory, but this is a problematic metric.

Speaking of debate, how’s that gone?

For your viewing pleasure and general edification, here are some opposition speeches and here are some government speeches. (And here is a rough guide to the first few days of committee study.)

Was there any attempt made at compromise here?

The New Democrats proposed splitting the bill up so that certain sections could be studied by the relevant committees. The NDP and the Conservatives spent a day discussing this possibility, but ultimately a deal was not reached. The NDP has also proposed more than 50 amendments through the finance committee hearings.

Have any Conservatives raised concerns?

Well, there was this one guy. Last month, Conservative MP David Wilks was videotaped voicing concerns about C-38 and the general state of democracy in Ottawa. But then the Prime Minister’s Office called and Mr. Wilks released a statement pledging his full support for the budget bill.

What about people who are not beholden to one political party or another? What do they think?

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities would like to see the amendments to the Fisheries Act separated from the budget bill. And the president of the Canadian Medical Association has some thoughts about what C-38 means for health care in this country. There was also an online protest that saw dozens of websites go dark this past Monday.

So what now? 

The finance committee will soon return the bill to the House of Commons for third reading. This will be the opposition’s last stand. As an independent MP—at least so far as Parliament is concerned—who was not part of the committee study of the bill, Elizabeth  May will be able to propose substantive amendments. She has suggested she will have about 200 to table. The New Democrats and Liberals, having participated in the committee stage, will not be able to propose substantive amendments at that point, but they will be able to move motions asking that individual clauses of the bill be deleted (and the bill contains more than 700 clauses). In addition to perhaps changing the bill, these amendments and motions will require votes, potentially hundreds of votes. And the House will have to get through those votes before moving on to any other business. In other words, the House could be tied up for hours. By way of example, consider what the Reform party did in 1999. Opposed to a bill to implement the Nisa’ga Treaty, Preston Manning’s side tabled 471 amendments that required nearly 43 consecutive hours of voting. In that case the Liberal government held firm and refused to change the legislation, but such tactics theoretically have two goals: to force the government to backdown and/or to bring attention to the legislation that is being opposed.

Speaking of Elizabeth May, what’s she up to?

On Monday, Ms. May rose on a point of order and asked the Speaker to rule that C-38 was, by the rules and standards of the House, not a proper omnibus bill. You can read her rationale in full, but ultimately she thinks the Speaker could do one of three things: allow the bill to proceed, reject the bill entirely or reject the bill and, rather than toss it out, suggest that the House find some kind of compromise (for instance, splitting the bill into proper separate bills). The Speaker will likely wait to hear from the government and the opposition parties before making a ruling. He’ll presumably have to rule before C-38 comes to a vote (or votes) at third reading.

Anything else?

Well, I suppose we could go through the bill clause-by-clause, but if you click here you’ll find a full archive of our budget implementation act coverage so far.

But what if I have other questions?

Post them in the comments beneath this story and I’ll do my best to answer.


A rough guide to Bill C-38

  1. Couldn’t the CPC argue that since all of the clauses involve cuts to government spending, they are ipso facto budget items? That they savage policy issues is otherwise coincidental.

    • Yes. That’s the justification, for instance, for including the elimination of the CSIS inspector general. See my interview with Mr. Van Loan.

      • In the extreme then, everything is about money. Everything, then, is a budget item. Since democracy and consultative government cost money, why bother with any of it?

        cartoon life dougsamu.wordpress.com

        • They don’t, Doug, they don’t.

          • I somehow think Canada didn’t sign up for that.

  2. So, if any of the motions to delete a clause passes, it is truly a confidence vote? aka could the govt accidentally fall on one of these motions?

    • This, I think, is a fairly tricky question. The confidence convention is not spelled out in writing anywhere. It is generally accepted, I believe, that if a government’s budget is defeated then the prime minister is justified in going to the governor general and saying the government has lost the confidence of the House (and the House is justified in saying it has demonstrated its lack of confidence). Could a prime minister say the same thing if a clause was deleted? I suppose he could. Would he? I guess if he wanted to have an election he would.

      This is all subject to interpretation and the government’s desire. A friend on Twitter points to one example: in 1983, a clause in a tax bill was defeated. The official opposition said this was a matter of confidence. The government said it wasn’t and carried on governing.

      In this case, the discussion is probably entirely academic. I assume the government will be mindful enough to avoid losing a vote.

    • Yes.
      To my understanding, there is no such thing as a vote of non-confidence in the sense that the House of Commons actually votes on weather or not they want to collapse the government. If the ruling party is defeated on a vote, the result is a vote of non-confidence and the government falls.

      • There are definitely specific votes of confidence or non-confidence. The rules allow a limited number of such motions per session. A majority government never loses such a vote. A defeat on a ‘major’ piece of legislation, like a budget, is taken as a non-confidence vote – but what is ‘major’ is a matter of interpretation sometimes.

  3. Can you give a bit of a timeline of the legislative process? When was the bill introduced, when did it pass first reading, what deadline the finance committee has for its review and any other details?

  4. In unrelated news, perhaps, Ontario Nature is raising objections to the 350-page Ontario budget.

    • I wouldn’t say it’s unrelated; It shows a pattern: our governments have such contempt for the people that they don’t even want us to participate in how our legislation gets changed (or gutted). The reason the Ontario government put sweeping changes to their Endangered Species legislation into the budget was so it would avoid a public review under the Environmental Bill of Rights. The federal government similarly has limited any debate over their restructuring of the laws that govern us, and has very unfairly cut public participation. None of them want to hear from us, even though they are spending our money and telling us what we can or can’t do.

      • And I have, as Mr. Wherry suggested above, called and emailed my constituency office (Dean DelMastro!) and have never gotten any replies, ever, since this regime began. So they are not answerable to us for spending our money. The flipside of that is that we no longer have free speech, at least in the workplace ~ look at the gag order for government scientists (eg, tarsands) and Parks Canada. Pretty hypocritical.

  5. How often has a Speaker sided with the opposition when there is, at least traditional and legal logic to the argument (such as the one put forward by Elizabeth May). Any precedent here?

    • really wondering this to. Elizabeth May makes far too valid a point to be ignored for any reason other than partisanship. Guess we will have to wait and see his decision. I am hopeful but not optimistic. Harper controls his party far too well to allow the Speaker to vote against him on something so important.

    • Sure, in a general sense. To use the most recent examples, Speaker Milliken made a pair of major rulings in the last Parliament that sided with the opposition’s argument (on Parliament’s right to demand Afghan detainee documents and documents related to the cost of government policies) over the government.

      In terms of a specific question of this sort and whether speakers have sided with the opposition on them, I confess I’m not familiar enough with the precedents.

      • Appreciate the insight and example all the same!

        • Keep in mind, the speaker Aaron is referring to was a member of the opposition Liberal party. The current speaker, Andrew Scheer is a member of the Conservative Party and has NEVER sided with the opposition on anything.

      • And what has happened to those (blacked out) documents? It is never mentioned anymore. And why are these ultraimportant bills brought up just before they depart for vacation? Doesn’t it remind you of the signing of the Free Trade Agreement in 1989? No one had a clue what was in it.

    • This speaker has never ruled on the side of the opposition. He always finds “no evidence” to support whether there is or not. He is partisan; a poor excuse for a Speaker in my opinion.

  6. The Majority has shown that they were right that “Too few people in Canada really cares politics so with majority you can do anything you want. ” I am looking forward to the next bill.
    The crazier the better.

  7. What is the most effective action an extremely concerned citizen can take to voice opposition to this bill?

    • Try tucking your head between your legs and breathe deeply.

    • If you’re in a Conservative riding, call your MP. Every day. It takes less than 5 minutes.

      For future considerations, convince more like-minded citizens to vote so we don’t get a majority government from 31% of the population’s vote. Being from AB, there isn’t much hope for me, but I will still vote and take as many people with me as possible.

    • Write to all federal party leaders and key Cabinet ministers and MPs calling on them to cooperate to change the rules to prohibit such omnibus budget bills, so this can’t happen ever again — as Democracy Watch proposed here: http://www.ipolitics.ca/2012/05/16/the-point-of-it-all-the-ndp-and-the-budget-bill-roundtable/

      And also write to all federal party leaders and key Cabinet ministers and MPs to change the rules so that MPs are free to vote however they want on such omnibus bills, and other bills for which the government does not have a mandate, as Democracy Watch proposed here:http://www.dwatch.ca/camp/OpEdMay2412.html

  8. https://www.facebook.com/events/151871601604382/

    PLEASE CHECK OUT THE PROTEST WE HAD REGARDING BILL C – 38. We will have another one soon, hopefully with more sun.


  9. And thank you for covering this Aaron! We need to really get out to protect our country’s future.

  10. First, I would like the bill split up into relevant sections. Putting all the amendments into one block is a strategy of obfuscation. The ensuing cluster muck of discussions regarding how Bill C-38 is to be divided is also a strategy of distraction. Second, the opposition parties need to grow brass balls. I’m sick of their ineffectual dithering debates while ROME BURNS! Theirs is the sin of omission. What the HE** is Bob Ray, Elizabeth May or Thomas Mulcair doing? Why is Haperantics not getting more media attention? The Crime Bill, for instance is torn from the gut of the Dark Ages. What is Canada starting to look like? It is certainly not the Canada I grew up in.

    • Didn’t Harper once remark that Canada will look entirely different when he get finished with it? What has happened to our values? Drones flying overhead, Canadians being arrested by American police? This looks so Kafkian. And the tragedy of the environment ~ clearly no one on “the hill” has taken any biology or environmental sciences. What is the background of Peter Kent, beyond retired journalist? Biodiversity is not in their vocabulary. If Stephen Harper IS a true Christian, he would never, ever, put money ahead of the health of the earth. (Anais)

  11. I’m not sure how the committees work. Would the opposition parties have helped write this bill during committee meetings? Who writes the budget bill?

  12. This bill is treasonous.. particularally the section which gives American police the right to arrest Canadians on Canadian soil.. as well as provision for predator drones to surveil Canadians over Canadian skies.. give me a frigin’ break! If you piece that together with the amendments to the RCMP Act and the Maritme Acts.. it is nothing short of treasonous! TRASH IT!

  13. Has there been any independent voice that has been supportive of the omnibus budget bill, or is the anger unanimous?

  14. What happens now that the vote is over?

  15. I got a letter saying this bill had caused changes for my son’s disability savings plan. How has this affected it?

  16. This still looks very much like the work of a dictatorship.