The federal Conservative government is in a hurry, but it is playing fast and loose with the parliamentary system, to the point where it is at risk of endangering democracy.
When prime minister Stephen Harper’s party won a majority in the May 2011 election, it put five years of minority status frustration behind it. Now unencumbered, it is marching forward on its desire to shrink the size and scope of government and reduce environmental and regulatory constraints on business.
To roll back what it sees as decades of Liberal excess, it wants to take big steps.
The evidence is two omnibus budget bills. The first, introduced last spring, sparked an opposition filibuster that froze parliamentary business for several days.
The second boot dropped two weeks ago in the form of Bill C-45, a 457 page doorstopper that will amend 64 pieces of legislation from the Indian Act to the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
Of particular interest to readers of this newspaper are the sweeping changes planned for the Canada Grain Act.
It will end the requirement for Canadian Grain Commission inward inspections of grain moving between facilities owned by the same company.
It will change protection for farmers against grain buyer business failures, shifting from the current bonding process to something else, likely an insurance system.
It will end regional appeals tribunals and give grain companies the option to pay private providers for some services now provided by the CGC.
Many farmers and grain companies support the changes, saying they recognize the consolidation in the grain handling industry and improve efficiency and reduce costs. That will be important to limit the service fees that will be necessary to meet the government’s goal of making the CGC financially self sustaining.
As the Canadian Canola Growers Association said in a news release, farmers will ultimately pay the bill for the CGC so it is important that the institution is lean, efficient and effective.
But other farmers are uncomfortable with a shift toward industry self-regulation and think producers will have less protection under the new system.
It is imperative that the reform is done right. The CGC is a critical piece of the system upon which rests Canada’s vaunted international reputation as a seller of consistent, high quality grain. It has also been a protector of farmer interests.
The legislation deserves the full examination that the House of Commons agriculture committee can provide.
However, initially it appeared that the Conservatives wanted to limit discussion by allowing only the Commons finance committee to examine Bill C-45. It also used its majority in the House of Commons to pass a motion imposing time allocation on debate.
Later, it said it would allow 10 Commons committees to examine the bill, but because it holds a majority, the government is unlikely to allow opposition amendments. Furthermore, the government is expected to limit the time granted to committees for hearings, since it is pushing to get the bill through Parliament quickly.
Ultimately, the bill will be voted on a take it or leave it basis.
The Conservatives might view omnibus bills as an efficient tool to advance their agenda. Those who support the government and tire of what at times seem endless debate and little action might applaud the full speed ahead attitude.
But omnibus laws are anathema to good parliamentary government, designed as it is to give voice to all citizens, regardless of whether they support the government.
Those who despair of parliamentary debate and compromise should remember that governments come and go.
The next party to hold a majority might pursue an agenda they disagree with and they won’t want it acting like a dictator.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.