The anti-abortion forces gathered on Parliament Hill almost achieved their dream. They convinced a few MPs among their ranks to attend the thousands-strong March for Life rally, made a bunch of noise on a sunny day, and riled their cause. As if by miracle, the question period that followed the front lawn’s collective plea to parliamentarians produced passionate remarks about abortion on Hansard’s immortal record.
No, that parliamentarian wasn’t a social conservative who hoped the government might outlaw the A-word so rarely uttered in the Commons. That particular faction remained silent. It was NDP MP Hélène Laverdière, a former diplomat, who dared say the word. And she said not a word about outlawing anything.
“Mr. Speaker, unsafe abortion is responsible for 13 per cent of all maternal deaths worldwide. But Canada won’t help women in developing countries access safe abortion services,” said Laverdière. “Why is the minister refusing to save the lives of women and girls in developing countries by refusing to offer the full range of reproductive health services?”
Christian Paradis, the minister of international development, wasn’t around to respond. He left his parliamentary secretary, Lois Brown, to make the government’s case against funding abortion services overseas. “Mr. Speaker, we will not export controversy,” she opened, rather directly, before defending the government’s multi-billion-dollar Muskoka Initiative, a massive effort to fund maternal and child health on a global scale. But abortion? Not a chance, said Brown. “We won’t reopen this debate, and we won’t export divisiveness.”
The crowds outside, leaning against the door, hoping beyond hope for some sort of advocacy, would surely have been crushed, though probably not surprised. On abortion, the only Conservative pledge in the Commons is to do nothing at all. Stephen Harper’s official position in the House is effectively the same as Justin Trudeau, the pro-choice villain of the #no2trudeau cross-country tour. One is just more outspoken than the other, that’s all.
To understand the legislative beast that is the omnibus budget bill, one must accept that money bills, which historically fussed themselves with the spending of money, can be so much more. They can tinker with tax rates, sure. They can fold in balanced-budget legislation, absolutely. But they can also quietly alter the law that abolished Canada’s long-gun registry. No rule dictates that a budget bill can’t do that, so of course a budget bill can. A budget bill could symbolically abolish the law of gravity, if it had the votes.
A government that tables 200-page budget bills might deny that it’s trying to hide objectionable measures, or at least hope its critics don’t find the troublesome elements in time. That bad faith, real or imagined, almost doesn’t matter. What does matter is smart people pull out a fine-toothed comb that identifies problems and hopes the democratic process responds to concerns. It’s a team effort.
Today, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is doing her part to burst the tires on the omnibus now rolling through Parliament. Legault says Bill C-59 sets a “perilous precedent” for access to information and the public’s right to know.
You have to read most of the way through C-59 to find Legault’s concern—all the way to Section 230, under the bill’s Division 18. Section 230 proposes a new subsection to the Ending the Long-gun Registry Act, 29(6), which would read as follows:
(6) For greater certainty, any request, complaint, investigation, application, judicial review, appeal or other proceeding under the Access to Information Act or the Privacy Act with respect to any act or thing referred to in subsection (4) or (5) that is in existence on or after October 25, 2011 is to be determined in accordance with that subsection.
That subsection would exempt the law from the Access to Information Act, retroactive to October 2011—a substantial change to a controversial bill more than three years hence.
Legault’s special report into long-gun registry records also agrees with a complainant who said the Mounties failed to comply with the access-to-information law. She says the RCMP might have broken the law.
The public’s right to information doesn’t light up the campaign trail, nor does it ever last all that long as a spotlight issue in Parliament. Even wrapping it all up in an election-year budget bill can’t compete with the salacious Duffy affair. Such is the power of the omnibus, designed and built to splinter opposition into so many pieces that resistance is futile.