Hyer on the Hill – Flies in the Ointment

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Stimulus projects have often been used to help struggling economies back on their feet, and this year’s Budget is being advertised as just that.  Despite stimulus funds that aren’t flowing, key sectors (like forestry) being largely ignored, and reckless billions spent on corporate welfare, the Harper government has marketed this year’s Budget as a cure-all economic ointment. Trouble is, sometimes the cure is as bad as the disease.

This past week Parliament has been debating a controversial budget bill called C-9. It’s the latest example of a disturbing trend. To be fair, it’s a trend that previous Liberal governments started. Mr. Harper is merely perfecting it.

That trend is towards American-style “junk” legislation. The US is famous for having massive omnibus bills stuffed with every pork-barrel initiative and pet project; bills are often so large that elected representatives can’t possibly have a reasoned debate or decide on issues independently. It’s no way to run a country. But that approach is now being copied here.

C-9 is a bloated 902-page bill that stuffed with policies that have little or nothing to do with the Budget. MPs were expected to carefully pore through its 2,200 legal clauses (and debate their impacts) in only seven short debates. The House Finance Committee passed all 2,200 clauses without amendment in a single day.

Maybe that’s just the point. Perhaps Harper didn’t want elected representatives to be able to carefully study and debate the bill. If the function of Parliament is to scrutinize the government, legislating this way is nothing but a ploy to avoid scrutiny.

Mr. Harper knows that budget bills are matters of confidence, and defeating C-9 would trigger an election. By shoving everything that won’t pass independently into his budget bill, Harper is abusing our system of confidence. It’s his self-proclaimed “accountability” government using another gimmick to avoid accountability.

As a result, Canadians get little chance to see or debate what Harper is doing. It’s a tune we’ve heard before: last year’s budget bill had provisions denying women in the public service the right to fight for pay equity. It also gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act, by granting the government unprecedented powers to re-define which projects on heritage waterways will be exempt from environmental assessments.

Harper has expanded on that scheme in 2010. In C-9, the government is seizing new authority to unilaterally scrap up to 95% of ALL environmental assessments so they can steamroll ahead with controversial projects like oil sands expansions.

On top of all this, Harper’s new budget bill introduces a new tax on air travel, massive payroll tax hikes, the sale of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, and the privatization of Canada Post delivery services, to name just a few hidden bugs.

In previous columns I’ve said that the payroll tax hikes in this Budget amounts to a tax on work. At the end of this year, workers and employers alike will be hit with the maximum E.I. premium hike allowed under the law… and again the year after that. And the year after that. And on for the foreseeable future. Shouldn’t this be debated?

The exclusive privilege of Canada Post to deliver international mail is also being scrapped. If passed, this will allow foreign postal services and private companies to take over one of the few profitable revenue streams that Canada Post has. A stream that the post office depends on to help offset the cost of local and rural mail delivery. This threatens the long-term viability of Canada Post itself as a universal service to Canadians.

All these bugs in C-9 – and countless more – really should be given the full debate they deserve. Harper has a right to propose pet policy projects, but they shouldn’t be hidden under the cover of a budget bill.

Bruce Hyer, MP