Liberals take aim at 'dumpster' legislation

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on May 26, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Rebellious Liberal senators are threatening to carve large swaths out of an omnibus Conservative budget bill, excising everything from plans to sell off Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to breaking Canada Post's monopoly on overseas mail.

"The Senate has very strong views because that's where sober second thought comes in," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Wednesday. "I can tell you, Liberal senators are steaming for very good reason. This is a terrible way to do legislation and we said so last year, we said so this year."

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Bill C-9 is a confidence matter that could bring down the government if it is defeated. For that reason, the Conservative government has stacked it with measures that the opposition is unlikely to support - none of the political parties wants to go to the polls at this juncture.

The decision to lump all of these policies is an "abuse of power" on the part of the government, Mr. Ignatieff said. "But the issue is whether you trigger an election," he said.

The Senate, however, could hive off the items that are not budget matters without risking an election. While the decision to do that has not been taken, there is strong sentiment running in that direction.

"We've done it before in my time with animal cruelty legislation," said Joseph Day of New Brunswick when asked if the Senate could split up the 900-page bill. "The Senate will do what we are constitutionally required to do."

The Liberal Senators have an ally in Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray, who has said "no self-respecting or Parliament-respecting MP or senator should allow C-9 to go through as it is."

The Conservatives hold a majority on Senate committees but not in the Senate as a whole. Working together, the Liberals and the independents like Mr. Murray could split the bill over the objections of their Conservative counterparts.

In that case, only certain portions of C-9 would be sent to a committee to be debated and ultimately passed in the Senate. The bill would then go back to the House of Commons in its abridged form, and it would be up to the government to try to reintroduce the parts that had been removed.

The NDP has introduced a number of amendments to Bill C-9 that seem destined to be defeated in the Commons.

"There's all kinds of nefarious moves that the government is making under the cover of a budget bill," said NDP Leader Jack Layton, "and we intend to fight it and fight it hard in the House of Commons every step of the way just like we have up until now."

For his part, Mr. Ignatieff seems content to let the senators do the work. But he also said a Liberal government would not engage in this kind of tactic.

"The right way to do budget bills is to do it piece by piece by piece," he said. "The Conservatives put you into the my-way-or-the-highway position, and we want to propose a whole set of reforms that make C-9 and dumpster bills impossible."