‘We may have reached the point where we are going too far’

by Aaron Wherry

On the afternoon of January 26, 1971, Robert McCleave, the Progressive Conservative MP for Halifax-East Hants, rose on a point of order to complain about Bill C-207, the Government Organization Act. In Mr. McCleave’s opinion, the bill should not be read a second time, but rather be divided as it contained “at least seven distinct proposals or principles.”

I suggest to Your Honour that there is more than one proposal or principle involved in this bill, and therefore, having regard to the very ancient privilege of the House that members should not be asked to give simple answers to what are, in effect, several questions intermingled together, I ask Your Honour to take the position of ordering that the bill be divided when the vote comes so that honourable members have a chance to make a decision on each proposal.

A discussion—including contributions from revered parliamentarians Allan MacEachen and Stanley Knowles, among others—ensued. After various members had had their say, Speaker Lucien Lamoureux ruled. It was this ruling that Young Stephen Harper invoked when he objected to the Liberal government’s budget implementation act in 1994.

I’ve photocopied and scanned the debate and you can read it here. I’ve transcribed Speaker Lamoureux’s ruling below.

The argument was well put, as it was well put today by the honourable member for Winnipeg North Centre and others. I said that I did not want to go into the details of the few precedents I have before me of more recent vintage. However, reference was made to the Veterans Benefits Act of 1954, and again the same argument was made by the honourable member for Winnipeg North Centre. Then, jumping a decade or so we go to 1964, when the late, respected and beloved member for Digby-Annapolis-Kings, the Honourable George C. Nowlan, raised the same point. He said, as reported at page 9086 of Hansard for October 15 of that year: “As the minister has told us, we are dealing here with the Canadian and British Insurance Companies Act, the Foreign Insurance Companies Act, the Trust Companies Act and the Loan Companies Act. Quite a mélange.”

Perhaps honourable members might have wanted to say the same thing about the bill now before the House. There is no question, without going further into the details, that this is a long established practice. We have had this type of omnibus bill before the House on many occasions. The President of the Privy Council and the Minister of Agriculture have quite rightly argued their case that this is long established practice and that the government has followed past practice. That is their argument and it has to be respected. Certainly, the Chair must take that into account because of the importance of precedent in our system.

However, where do we stop? Where is the point of no return? The honourable member for Winnipeg North Centre, and I believe the honourable member for Edmonton West, said that we might reach the point where we would have only one bill, a bill at the start of the session for the improvement of the quality of life in Canada which would include every single proposed piece of legislation for the session. That would be an omnibus bill with a capital “O” and a capital “B”. But would it be acceptable legislation? There must be a point where we go beyond what is acceptable from a strictly parliamentary standpoint.

At the same time, having now reached second reading and having had this bill before us for some time, I doubt whether we should take the very drastic and extreme position, as I suggest to honourable members it would be, of saying that this bill is not acceptable to the House, that it not be considered by honourable members. In my view it should be the responsibility of the Chair, when such bill is introduced and given first reading, to take the initiative and raise the matter for consideration of the House by way of a point of order, as I have taken the liberty of doing with a number of private members’ bills. When those bill came before the House for first reading I entered a caveat about them and gave honourable members an opportunity of expressing their views. At any rate, some of those bills were refused by the Chair.

At that point, it is much easier for the government to go back to the legislative mill, to the judicial luminaries of the Department of Justice, where these bills are prepared for the consideration of Parliament. If I may say so, I think that even those very learned gentlemen should take into account the fact that this aspect of legislation is of interest to all honourable members, of interest I am sure to the government, and certainly of interest to the Chair, namely, that there must be a point where an omnibus bill becomes more than an omnibus bill and is not acceptable from a procedural standpoint.

One or two honourable members have argued that there would not be an opportunity for members to express their views by way of a vote on individual parts of the bill or individual clauses. That is perhaps not entirely correct. I am not here referring to the committee of the whole; I have made that distinction before now. For honourable members to express their view in committee of the whole on a particular clause of the bill is not the same as being given an opportunity to express their views on a clause of the bill by way of a recorded vote.

The House must note that there is a third reading stage of a bill. When a bill comes to the House for third reading there is not one clause or one part of the bill that cannot be brought into question by way of an amendment proposing that the particular clause or section be referred back to committee. I think this gives every honourable member an opportunity to vote either for or against, or to express his views in the House either for or against, a particular clause or part of the bill, and to do so by way of a recorded vote. Accordingly there still is a measure of protection afforded honourable members.

Having said this, I would have to rule—if I must rule—that the government has followed the practice that has been accepted in the past, rightly or wrongly, but that we may have reached the point where we are going too far and that omnibus bills seeks to take in too much. All honourable members should be alerted to the difficulty of which the Chair is fully conscious. When another omnibus bill is proposed to the House, it should be scrutinized at first reading stage, when honourable members will be given the opportunity of expressing their view, and the Chair can express its view, either that the bill goes too far or that it is acceptable from a procedural standpoint.

I think that this discussion has been a valuable one, certainly as far as the Chair is concerned, and I thank honourable members for the views that they have expressed. Certainly, I am very impressed by them and propose to take them into account when the circumstances warrant an examination of the point of order in the future.


‘We may have reached the point where we are going too far’

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