Senators join campaign to break up Conservative budget bill

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

A stop sign is shown on Parliament Hill on Dec. 30, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Conservative budget bill is so packed with power-grabbing extras that campaigns are mounting for the legislation to be blown apart and its individual components studied.

Senators - including Progressive Conservative Lowell Murray - environmentalists and postal workers are among the varied groups now pressuring MPs to split the 904-page budget bill just as the House of Commons is poised to pass the wide-ranging legislation.

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Bill C-9 contains sweeping measures that would affect Canada's nuclear policies, pension rules, environmental assessments and mail service. Critics say it amounts to an abuse of traditional budget practices because it is crammed with legal changes that have faced little, if any, debate.

Mr. Murray, who specializes in reviewing government spending reports, said his analysis shows that at least half of the bill's 24 main sections should be pulled out and studied as stand-alone legislation.

"It's time to call a halt," said Mr. Murray, who will review the bill as a member of the Senate finance committee. "No self-respecting or Parliament-respecting MP or senator should allow C-9 to go through as is."

Not all of the measures are necessarily controversial, but critics warn that such areas as pension reform and new credit card rules are so important that they should be thoroughly studied to avoid unintended consequences. Other measures, including changes to Canada Post and new ministerial powers over environmental assessment rules, face strong opposition.

The executive director of Ecojustice Canada, Devon Page, said the environmental change is a "fairly radical" move that stealthily overturns a Supreme Court ruling from January forcing Ottawa to assume a broader role in environmental assessments of big construction projects. In an interview, Mr. Page said the government is taking advantage of the fact that it knows the opposition will avoid criticizing a bill that could trigger an election.

"Given the state of politics right now, it effectively silences debate by the opposition parties," he said. "If they ever wanted to ram something through without full House attention and public awareness, this is the way to do it."

The House finance committee approved the bill without amendment on Thursday after the Liberals kept one MP away from all votes to ensure no sections were defeated. Liberals argue the tactic was consistent with their position that while they oppose the budget, they do not want to trigger an election.

The NDP tried last month to give the House finance committee the power to split the bill, but the attempt fell short in a 133-128 vote.

Liberal senator and finance committee member Pierrette Ringuette said she's "not impressed" by her party's position in the House, and said the bill can be split without sending Canadians to the polls. She has written to MPs asking them to split the bill before sending it to the Senate.

In an interview, Ms. Ringuette warned that budget bills will keep getting bigger unless the trend is stopped. "If members of the House of Commons do not react to this, in the not-too-distant future we may have one bill a year to deal with," she said.

The House will vote again on the bill in the coming weeks at report stage, followed by third reading, before it is sent to the Senate. While the Conservatives have more Senate seats than any other party, they do not have a majority. That means the votes of three independent senators and two Progressive Conservatives can hold sway if they vote with Liberal senators.



"Opposition MPs voting together can stop this abuse," Mr. Murray said. "Non-government supporters in the Senate should be able to round up enough votes to do so if the opposition parties in the Commons, again, fail in their duty."



Annette Robertson, a spokeswoman for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, noted that the last Liberal government budget bill in 2005 was similar in its scope, yet the Senate finance committee approved it after two meetings.

"We hope the Liberal Senators are not threatening to delay C-9 and its important economic measures," she wrote in an e-mail. "The all-party House of Commons finance committee has scrutinized C-9 and passed it without amendment. We hope the Liberal senators follow suit."

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