From omnibus to "minibus," Finance Minister Flaherty tables new budget bill

OTTAWA – Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled a trimmed-down budget bill Monday that he promised would face the proper parliamentary scrutiny, but the official opposition says the legislation still needs to be chopped up.

The Conservatives faced intense criticism over their so-called “omnibus” budget bills last year, which were stuffed with a laundry list of policy measures, including controversial changes to environmental monitoring.

The NDP and the Liberals introduced more than 1,000 amendments to the 2012 bill to register dismay with both the process and the content.

This year’s version is more modest in length, and Flaherty promised that sections would be studied by different parliamentary committees.

“So we’ll have a minibus instead of an omnibus?” Flaherty joked to reporters after question period Monday.

But Flaherty did not acknowledge a link between the criticism last year and the shorter bill this year. This year’s legislation comes in at 125 pages, compared with 452 last year.

Another budget bill is expected later in the year to implement more of the government’s promised changes.

“We had a very large budget last year and we had to put a lot of legislation into the first budget bill and the second budget bill was substantial too,” Flaherty said.

“This is a smaller budget this year. As I said, we did a lot of the heavy lifting in the budget last year.”

NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said despite the shorter length, the budget legislation still qualifies as an omnibus bill because of the wide variety of measures it tackles.

Some of those items include:

— Changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program that increase the lengths to which employers must go to find Canadian staff before they’re allowed to bring in foreign labour.

— The creation of a new department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, incorporating the now defunct Canadian International Development Agency.

— Changes to the Investment Canada Act and how it reviews investments in Canada by foreign state-owned enterprises.

— The transfer of some duties away from the National Capital Commission to the Department of Canadian Heritage.

— Giving more power and oversight to the Treasury Board Secretariat over collective bargaining conducted by Crown corporations.

“It is once again an omnibus budget bill. We call it omnibus 3.0. It is a compilation of changes to two dozen different laws,” said Nash.

“We believe still that these omnibus budget bills should be broken up and introduced as separate pieces of legislation that can be studied by the appropriate committees.”

Flaherty is also warning of more job cuts in the federal public service.

“We have a lot of duplication of government services. And, as you know, we have a plan which has been set out in the last two budgets to reduce the size of our own spending by something less than five per cent,” said Flaherty, pointing to attrition as a source of cuts.

At the same time, the parliamentary budget officer’s latest report is warning that the government’s cuts will act as a drag on both job creation and economic growth.

The report predicted the government will announce an even bigger surplus — $3.7 billion rather than $800 million — in the critical 2015-16 year when the Harper government is to face the electorate in a fall vote.

© The Canadian Press, 2013

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.