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How to drive a bus through the House

This Thursday morning, I learned from the national press that Canada's elected representatives stayed up all night "debating" amendments to the federal budget omnibus bill.

This Thursday morning, I learned from the national press that Canada’s elected representatives stayed up all night “debating” amendments to the federal budget omnibus bill. I learned that at the end of that long night they were tortured by the smell of breakfast from the parliamentary cafeteria, and that the embattled politicians took a few minutes out to salute one of their number with the traditional singing of Happy Birthday to You.

All of this was front-page news. To learn what our nation’s leaders were fighting about, I had to dig a little deeper. Having a lifelong fascination with words and their meanings, my first question was, what is an omnibus bill? The Latin word omnibus means “for all,” and first came into common use in English to describe a public passenger vehicle. The word was later shortened to ‘bus.’ And that is what Bill C-38 is: a great big bus on which pretty much anything the government wants to drive through the House can catch a ride.

Topping out at a whopping 400 pages, the Jobs, Growth and Long Term Prosperity Act marks the Conservative government’s commitment to getting all of the things it dislikes onto the next bus out of town. These hindrances to growth and prosperity include an odd assortment of items such as old age pensions, employment insurance, and fish.

In 1994, then-Reform MP Stephen Harper said the following about a Liberal omnibus bill: “This bill will ultimately go to only one committee of the House, a committee that will inevitably lack the breadth of expertise required for consideration of a bill of this scope ... it will be very difficult to give due consideration to all relevant opinion.” At the time he was being critical, but at some point since taking office a little light must have gone on in the prime ministerial cranium, illuminating the thought that shutting out all relevant opinion is in fact a good thing.

There are of course nay-sayers. There are those who will say that if the Conservatives wanted to put environmental review and oversight over the national spy agency on the same bus and drive it over a cliff, the 2011 campaign bus might have made a more honest choice. They complain that C-38 amends or discards 70 laws, none of which received a word of mention at election time. To these, the Conservatives have a single answer. These are responsible measures in parlous economic times.

According to Bill C-38, Canada’s long-term prosperity hinges on the ability of the minister of the Environment to reject the findings of an environmental review if he feels they’re bad for business. Jobs and growth will be at risk unless health-spending transfers to the provinces are cut by more than $1 billion. In such times as these, it’s necessary to privatize food inspections - listeria, anyone? - cut border patrols, and dissolve the Public Appointments Commission to pave the way for Conservative patronage appointments.

To no one’s surprise, the marathon session to consider hundreds of opposition motions to C-38 resulted in no changes. Governments don’t allow their members free votes on budget bills, so there’s really no need for debate; the bus is loaded, and nothing is getting off. Conservative MPs demonstrated their function in life by voting the party line on each and every amendment.

So if, for instance, you live in the Yukon, you need not call Ryan Leef’s office to ask whether he voted to uphold changes to the Fisheries Act that four former fisheries ministers, including two Conservatives, have slammed for gutting habitat protection with no consultation and no explanation of the need to do so. Rest assured that however foolish and unpopular the provisions of C-38 might be, your Conservative MP voted to keep them.

They’re on a bus right now and heading your way. Try not to get under the wheels.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.