Monday, May 20, 2013

On Omnibus Bills and Budgets

For the last several years, the Harper Government has been pushing through the bulk of its legislative agenda as part of the legislation associated with what we would traditionally call a "Budget Implementation Bill".  (I would note that Harper doesn't call them "budgets" any more, preferring the more jingoistic moniker "Economic Action Plan" as part of his government's propaganda campaigns.

By definition, an omnibus bill is one that affects multiple pieces of legislation when fully enacted.  Most budget bills are a form of omnibus bill because they end up not only authorizing the overall expenditure of money by the government, but also make a myriad of adjustments to various laws related to the budget.  For example, the 2007 budget implementation legislation changed multiple acts - the Income Tax Act, the Excise Tax Act, Tax Back Guarantee Act, and others.  This is fairly typical.  In the case of budget implementation bills, they usually do affect multiple pieces of legislation and it makes sense to deal with them as part of a larger whole rather than bombarding parliament with a ton of smaller bills which deal with the individual changes to each act.

In 2009, the Harper Government introduced the term "Economic Action Plan" as a subtitle for their budget that year.  This is something of a turning point in Harper's approach to the entire process of parliamentary budgets and how they are communicated to Canadians.  The moniker of "Economic Action Plan" was used to label the projects associated with the economic downturn that had begun in 2008.

Since then, even though the spending related to economic stimulus is long since expired, Harper has continued to use the "Economic Action Plan" moniker as part of the ongoing propaganda campaign that he has been running to prop up his government.

The 2012 Budget Implementation legislation ( Bill C-38 ) took the concept of "omnibus" legislation to a new level, containing far more than legislation required to implement a budget, and instead making massive changes to implement more of Harper's policy agenda.

In particular, it gutted the existing body of legislation related to managing Canada's environment and implemented an entirely new regime:

Division 1 of Part 3 enacts the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, which establishes a new federal environmental assessment regime. Assessments are conducted in relation to projects, designated by regulations or by the Minister of the Environment, to determine whether they are likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects that fall within the legislative authority of Parliament, or that are directly linked or necessarily incidental to a federal authority’s exercise of a power or performance of a duty or function that is required for the carrying out of the project.
Other writers have commented at length on the flaws and problems with this legislation.  I will only add that I am appalled by the degree to which the legislation moves decision making powers into the political sphere by enabling the "Governor in Council" to make key decisions, without accountability to either Parliament or process.  Traditionally, the ability of the government to make decisions via the "Governor in Council" mechanism has been limited to making decisions related to the essential expenditure of funds at times when Parliament is not sitting.  (e.g. to respond to an emergency of some kind)
Division 2 of Part 3 amends the National Energy Board Act to allow the Governor in Council to make the decision about the issuance of certificates for major pipelines.
This is part of a change of direction that places a great deal of power in the hands of the Cabinet, and in particular the Privy Council ultimately.

Harper has spent millions of dollars on his propaganda campaign to convince us that the "economic action plan" is a "good thing".

In 2005-06, Ottawa spent $41.3 million on advertising, a number the government has roughly doubled in every year since Stephen Harper took office in January 2006.
The Conservatives — who rode to power in part due to the Liberal sponsorship scandal and government advertising corruption — spent more than half a billion dollars, $548.6 million, on advertising through their first six years in office.
In 2010-11, Ottawa’s ad budget was $83.3 million, including almost $23 million on the Economic Action Plan. That was well down from 2009-10, when $136.3-million in total advertising included $53.2 million on the action plan.

Think about it.  While the government needs to communicate with the public, a steady doubling of expenditure is hardly a prudent use of taxpayer dollars, especially from a party which continues to insist that it is "a sound financial manager" for Canadians.

These are not supposed to be political ads. They feature no Conservative politicians. Still, they hardly feel like public-service spots. They aim to set a mood, rather than convey practical information. And get ready for more of the same on other key Tory themes. Under fire from the Opposition NDP for planning to gradually raise the eligibility age for Old Age Security to 67 from 65, starting in 2023, the government has budgeted $8 million for OAS ads. With Harper’s image as an economic leader tied so closely to streamlining approval of natural-resource projects, his government has $5 million earmarked for ads to promote that thrust. “The problem with this kind of advertising,” says Queen’s University politics professor Jonathan Rose, “is that it serves no public policy purpose.” 

Clearly, this is no longer about informing the public.  It is part of a planned propaganda campaign designed to keep Harper in power.

There are really two things going on in parallel here.

The first is the use of omnibus legislation in Parliament to overwhelm the legislative process and ensure that policy based on ideology is not adequately discussed in the House of Commons.  Everything that is said in the House is recorded in the Hansard and there is a clear written record of what every member has said.  When the legislation is so massive that it cannot be effectively analyzed, much less debated in the time limited fashion that Harper has brought in by invoking time limits on debate for his larger bills, it makes it far easier to ram through legislation which would otherwise be stopped by the howls of public protest even if the governing party has a majority.  (as happened with Vic Toews' "spy on everybody" act a year or so ago, which was allowed to quietly die on the backburner after citizens raised a fuss over it)  Along with other tactics such as the "manual on how to disrupt parliament" from 2006, we need to recognize that Harper is attacking the very underpinnings of our democratic institutions.

The second part of things is a propaganda campaign the likes of which Canadians have never experienced before.  Harper has reached into the toolkit used by just about every authoritarian or totalitarian regime in the last hundred years or so and pulled out the classic propaganda tools.  He is spending millions of taxpayer dollars not to inform Canadians of what the government is doing, but rather to misinform and misdirect us.  Although the EAP ads may not be overtly partisan, there is a myriad of subtle ways that it is.  The choice of colours for example, closely reflects the governing party's logo colours, carefully chosen wording, and the use of phrases like "The Harper Government" on press releases from Government Agencies are all means of reinforcing the association between these ads, government programs and the political party led by Harper.

In short, Canadian taxpayers are paying for Conservative party advertising.  These aren't campaign ads per se, but rather part of the ongoing "always in campaign mode" approach to governing that Harper adopted from the Bush II era Republicans.

We should bear in mind that Harper is unique in Canadian history.  Never before have we had a person in the PMO who is so strongly authoritarian in his approach to governance.  It is more important now than ever before to carefully evaluate everything that we see from this government and its allies and ensure that we corroborate from multiple sources.

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