Mamidosewin (meeting place, walking together)

Debate on motion no. 139 concerning the pre-study of the second budget implementation bill, Bill C-63

Debate on motion no. 139 concerning the pre-study of the second budget implementation bill, Bill C-63

Hon. Joseph A. Day (Leader of the Senate Liberals): 

Honourable colleagues, this motion has really two aspects. They do blend together and sometimes we talk about them together, but it’s important that we understand there are two aspects.

One is the length of this particular omnibus budget bill. This one is 317 pages. A couple of banks are created in it. I have made arguments on several occasions in the past in this chamber about omnibus bills, and here we are again.

You see it by us generally agreeing to divide the bill and send sections off to a number of different committees. That’s a sure sign that this bill has a lot in it that can’t be dealt with well by just one committee.

We have generally agreed with the deputy government leader to the division of the workload amongst the various committees, but that’s a practical decision to deal with the situation we have with a multi-faceted bill. I would like to go back to a situation where, when a bill comes here it has the same subject matter.

Bill C-49 is fine as an omnibus bill because it’s all about transportation, and it goes to the Transportation Committee, and we can deal with that.

But when you get a budget omnibus bill that goes all over the place, then you have problems, and we make mistakes. We have made mistakes in the past. You’ve heard about those mistakes.

The one that keeps coming back to me is when we agreed to a small clause at the very end of a 300- or 400-page document that said that no longer would Parliament need to give approval to the executive before it could borrow money. That was such a fundamental role for Parliament to play, and we gave it away without any debate and without most of us even noticing it until it was too late. That’s generally my concern about omnibus budget bills.

The other aspect of this is pre-study. Senator Harder focused his comments on the pre-study aspect, but I want you to have in mind that both aspects are here. I am generally cautious about pre-study. I know it’s in the Rules. I know it can be a useful tool from time to time. But in my view, it takes us away from being a chamber of sober second thought. It puts us into a concurrent role with the House of Commons, and that has always caused me concern. I’ve spoken about that in the past.

Let me focus a little bit more precisely on this motion and the situation we have here.

Bill C-63, Budget Implementation Act No. 2, deals with the budget presented in the other place on March 22 of this year. The first budget implementation bill referred to by Senator Harder, Bill C-44, received Royal Assent on June 22, just before summer break, after amendments made to it by the Senate were rejected by the House of Commons. We agreed not to insist on our amendments. You’ll all recall that time back in June.

This is the second bill we’re dealing with, which allegedly implements certain aspects of the same budget, Budget 2017. Bill C-63 is currently at report stage in the other place. Yesterday it was reported back — and this answers Senator Eggleton’s question — from committee without any amendments. My understanding is that in the House of Commons they have the bill down for report stage and third reading debate on Monday and Tuesday.

Colleagues, one of the main arguments that are traditionally made in support of pre-study — and we heard it just now from Senator Harder — is that it gives the House of Commons an opportunity to take our findings into consideration as they conduct their own examination of the bill. The other place can then take notice of our pre-study recommendations and make amendments to the legislation to address our concerns before sending it to us. That’s an argument that is often made.

But the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance has already conducted its examination of the bill. It has completed its clause-by-clause consideration. The draft house calendar, as I’ve mentioned, indicates that they will be doing report stage with no amendments, so that will go through pretty quickly, and then third reading on Monday and Tuesday. When we are back here Tuesday afternoon, we could be receiving the bill.

If there had been any opportunity for the other place to take our pre-study findings and recommendations into consideration, that opportunity, in this instance, is long since gone. Senator Harder indicated he had hoped this motion would have been introduced here earlier, and maybe the arguments would have been different at that time. But we are now dealing with a situation where we could be expecting this bill next week, so why are we even arguing this motion at this time? Even if we adopted the motion today, can anyone seriously suggest that the Finance Committee in the other place would be in a position to take into consideration our work on this pre-study that would just be starting next week?

Now, there is also the question of the work that our committee would be doing here. Our Standing Committee on National Finance is currently in my home province of New Brunswick holding hearings, at the government’s request and encouragement, into Finance Minister Morneau’s new tax proposals. When the committee returns to Ottawa, it needs to elect deputy chairs and organize itself because they haven’t been able to do that on the road; it needs to work on its report on the tax change hearings that they’ve held throughout Canada; and it needs to begin its examination of Supplementary Estimates (B), pursuant to the motion that we just passed. That’s what Finance will be doing over the next while. They’re not even going to get to the pre-study for a week or more.

In these circumstances, can we realistically expect our committee to conduct a pre-study in time for it to be considered at report stage on Monday in the other place? I don’t think so.

Colleagues, we have been told that Bill C-63 must pass quickly, that it needs to pass before the government starts working on its budget for 2018. It would not be reasonable, we are told, to still be examining a bill in relation to Budget 2017 as the government was preparing to introduce Budget 2018, which we expect sometime in the new year, probably in March of next year. We are told that it would be inconceivable that the government should be expected to introduce the new budget without first having the budget bills of 2017 passed and out of the way. But would that really be inconceivable?

Let’s look at another budget implementation bill No. 2, the one to implement Budget 2004. That budget was tabled by Finance Minister Ralph Goodale on March 23, 2004. Almost a year later, on March 7, 2005, the Senate received budget implementation bill No. 2, which was Bill C-33. I recall that because I was the sponsor of that particular bill.

Senator Plett: It was a horrible bill.

Senator Day: It was finally passed by the Senate. Thank you for your support of that bill at that time.

Senator Mercer: He wasn’t here then.

Senator Day: There was no pre-study of that particular bill, colleagues. It was treated as a normal government bill, which it was, though admittedly it dealt with some important aspects of the budget from a year earlier.

But in the meantime, on February 23, 2005, Mr. Goodale tabled Budget 2005. So the Senate received and then passed budget implementation bill No. 2 for 2004 long after the government had introduced the budget for the following year. I think that speaks to this idea that oh, my goodness, we have to get all of these budget implementation bills done for this year because another budget is coming in March of next year, is misguided. This was not seen as anything unusual back in 2004-05 by anyone.

As a matter of fact, on April 20, 2005, Senator Murray said during debate that “there is not an urgency attached to this bill . . . ”

That’s what we usually look for when we start talking about pre-studies. What’s the urgency; why are we charging ahead with this particular matter? Why do we feel that we have to do something out of the normal process here?

Senator Murray said this even though it was a bill to implement provisions of the budget tabled 13 months earlier, and even though another budget had been tabled in the meantime.

In my own remarks at second reading on Bill C-33, I actually cautioned senators not to confuse my comments with respect to the 2004 Budget with the more recent announcement of the 2005 Budget. Both budgets made adjustments to the security fee passengers were being charged under the Air Travellers Security Charge. The Senate had no difficulty or problem in dealing with the changes contained in the 2004 Budget and the Budget Implementation No. 2, which we were discussing that day, even though those fees had already been changed by announcements in the 2005 Budget.

So Bill C-33 is an instructive example of a budget implementation bill of the previous Liberal government and how it was dealt with by the Senate. But now we are being told by the current Liberal government that we must pass this budget bill before the end of the calendar year, many months before the next budget will be presented. Unfortunately, we are not being given any substantive reason for this urgency. We have yet to receive the bill, but it could be here as early as next week. But to ensure that we dispose of it very quickly after it arrives, the government is urging us to agree to this pre-study motion.

We are being urged to abandon our role as a chamber of sober second thought and become a chamber of sober concurrent thought. If there was a compelling reason to take that approach in this instance, I might support it, but I’ve heard no compelling reason for a pre-study. If there are any provisions in Bill C-63 that cannot take effect until the bill receives Royal Assent, that would influence our decision to proceed with the pre-study. There are none.

More than a week ago, my office asked the office of the Government Representative if there were any provisions in the bill that were time sensitive, any provisions at all that required passage before we adjourned for the Christmas/New Year’s break. The response did not identify any such provisions, but it did say that Senator Harder was “of the view that passing C-63 this year is appropriate and reasonable in light of public expectations, past practice with budgetary legislation, and the need to manage the timely review of the government’s overall legislative agenda.”

I think we heard that in so many words from Senator Harder just now. I believe I have already shown with Bill C-33 in 2004, that past practice does not support the proposition that the Senate must automatically agree to pre-studies of all budget implementation bills so that they can be rushed through our chamber as soon as they arrive here, particularly when there are no provisions that can be identified as time sensitive.

However, I do agree that the government needs to manage the timely review of its overall legislative agenda. But that review needs to be conducted within the context of the Senate fulfilling its constitutional role of a complementary legislative chamber of sober second thought. My priority here is in ensuring that the Senate can fulfill that role. The Senate should be allowed the time to do its job of reviewing the legislation passed by the other chamber. Routine pre-study short circuits that process. The House of Commons will have studied Bill C-63 for more than a month before we finally receive it. It was introduced in the House of Commons on October 22. Why should our chamber be expected to pass it in a few days after we receive it?

The government needs to do a better job of managing its legislative agenda.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Day: The House of Commons should not take for granted that we will bypass or circumvent our normal and traditional practices in order to compensate its own failings in managing its agenda.

Finally, colleagues, I note that on page 30 of the Liberal 2015 election platform it’s stated as follows:

Stephen Harper has also used omnibus bills to prevent Parliament from properly reviewing and debating his proposals. We will change the House of Commons Standing Orders to bring an end to this undemocratic                        practice.

Whatever changes were made in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, they were not enough to prevent this latest 317-page omnibus bill from moving forward to us.

Although the Speaker in the other place did rule that certain measures contained in this bill had to be voted on separately at second reading because they were not even mentioned in the 2017 Budget, the so-called “undemocratic practice” of omnibus bills obviously continues. But as the 2015 Liberal Party platform so clearly said, omnibus bills “prevent Parliament” from doing its job and the Senate remains a fundamental part of Canada’s Parliament.

Colleagues, we need to be able to have the time to do our job when examining important government legislation. By routinely agreeing to pre-studies, we are only facilitating and perhaps even encouraging the government’s reliance on omnibus budget bills, thereby making the work of Parliament and parliamentarians even more difficult.

My objection to receiving large omnibus budget bills at the last minute from the House of Commons is not new. For instance, in 2012 we received the second budget implementation bill of the year on December 6. It was 414 pages long. On December 10, 2012, when I spoke at second reading, I described how we were receiving the bill very late and how there was an expectation that we would pass it in a matter of a few days.

I said, “That is an insult to the role that we have to play as overseers of the public purse.” I went on to explain that conducting a pre-study went against our role as a chamber of sober second thought.

I said:

We lose the role that the Senate was created to perform. We are giving up on that in order to adjust to a new practice.

Senator Mitchell immediately said, “It is an assault on democracy.”

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh!

Senator Day: The same Senator Mitchell. That is what he said about the pre-study of that ominous budget bill: “It is an assault on democracy.” His words can be found at page 3,013 of the Debates.

In December 2014, we received another omnibus budget bill, Bill C-4. It was 460 pages long. When I spoke to the pre-study report of the National Finance Committee on December 10, I said:

Pre-studies of legislation distract from the role we traditionally have of providing sober second thought.

I also took the opportunity of once again criticizing the government’s reliance on omnibus budget bills. I said:

Time and time again we have talked about the undesirability of omnibus bills dealing with so many different subject matters. How could we possibly treat these subject matters in the manner we should be treating them                when they all come here together? The real question. . . is whether the public interest is being served by these omnibus budget bills. . . .

I did not believe then and I do not believe now that the public interest is well served by omnibus budget bills and pre-studies. And it does not matter which government introduces them; they all conflict with the Senate’s fundamental role as a legislative chamber of sober second thought. Since we have been given no reason why we should be treating Bill C-63 differently or in some special way because of some special provisions that are there that are time sensitive, I cannot support this motion for pre-study.