The House is currently going through the motions of third-reading debate on C-43, the second budget implementation bill of the year. At 478 pages, it will go into the books as the third-largest budget bill of the last 20 years.
But it will not go to the Senate unamended. After careful review by six House committees, a single amendment was accepted by the finance committee—the government moving to correct an “editorial error” in the English version of the bill. That amendment also, at least, led to this delightful exchange between committee chair James Rajotte and NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen after a parliamentary secretary had moved the motion to amend.
James Rajotte: Mr. Cullen.
Nathan Cullen: Very briefly, this is, I suppose, a level of progress and we congratulate the government. We will not have to wait for the next omnibus bill to fix it. We only had one correction to this omnibus bill and I’m sure there will be more, but this is an advance in the making of law in Canada. It’s one for the good guys.
James Rajotte: Who are the good guys in this case?
Nathan Cullen: Us. The committee doing the good work on behalf of—
James Rajotte: Order. I think the Chair started that. I shouldn’t have.
This actually makes C-43 just the fourth budget bill since 2006 to be amended by the House of Commons before passing, following C-28 in 2006, C-52 in 2007 and C-31 earlier this year.
Between C-52 and C-31, the House passed 12 budget bills, totalling 4,246 pages of legislation, without moving so much as a comma. In the case of C-31 this past spring, one of the amendments was actually authored by the NDP, but three others were merely efforts of the government to fix drafting errors.
As someone wondered to me the other day: What’s the point of subjecting budget bills to hours and hours of committee hearings if those hearings almost never result in the bills being amended?
Of course, to imagine that government bills might be amended is to imagine that House committees, particularly when the governing party has a majority, could function with some great measure of independence, not simply as extensions of the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet. Imagine a world, for instance, in which the membership of committees was a decision of MPs and not at the whim of party whips. Imagine committee hearings that did not feature ministers being questioned by their own parliamentary secretaries. As if committees existed for the dedicated purpose of scrutinizing and improving legislation without particular concern for the government’s wishes.
None of which, mind you, would quite get Parliament away from the inherent flaws of omnibus legislation. But that, too, would require parliamentarians being willing to assert some standards on their own proceedings.