In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

What happened in the Senate Finance Committee last week

Posted 7/12/2010 by Grant Mitchell

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Or, to put it another way, how did a Liberal minority on the Finance Committee manage to defeat 4 parts of a government bill?

The Senate Finance Committee has spent several weeks reviewing the government’s budget implementation bill, Bill C-9. All bills that come from the House of Commons have to pass through three readings and committee stage in the Senate. Many senators were very concerned that the bill had serious flaws that required examination. The committee heard from over 100 witnesses and deliberated for over 60 hours. While I am not a regular member of this committee, I have been in the past and I sat on it as a replacement for one of our members for the last two weeks.

Liberal senators felt that the basic problem with the bill is that it is a flagrant abuse of parliamentary process. An omnibus bill at 900 pages, 2200 clauses, and 24 parts, it is longer by far than any budget bill ever before. It contains, moreover, many provisions that have nothing to do with the budget. The contention is that the government has used this bill as a “Trojan horse” for getting through legislation it would be unable to pass in a minority parliament without the “hammer” of non-confidence if defeated.

Budget bills are required to implement those features of a budget that require some form of legislative change to authorize their implementation, but they should be short and limited to budget matters. (Budget implementation bills should not be confused with the many kinds of “supply” bills that authorize the actual money to be spent as a result of a budget.)

In addition to our concern that this bill is an abuse of process, we also found some serious substantive weaknesses in it, including:

1. The bill redefines certain financial services as being eligible for GST and then makes that tax retroactive 20 years.

2. It seriously weakens the environmental impact assessment process by allowing the minister to greatly diminish the scope of assessments. When I asked the minister if he would assure us that he would ensure that climate change implications of major projects would be reviewed, he would not make that commitment.

3. The government has carte blanche to sell the Atomic Energy Commission of Canada without any review or any evident conditions. About the time that nuclear energy is becoming increasingly important in the world due to climate change fears, this government is getting us out of it without a clear vision of what is to come.

4. The bill confirms private sector involvement in international mail services which is seen by some as eroding the market monopoly of Canada Post.

Each of these concerns represents a provision that has no reason for being in a budget implementation bill.

So, the particularly significant feature of this process was that we were able to overturn those four sections even though we did not have a majority. Here is how it happened. In fact, on the committee of 12 members, the Conservatives have 7 places and we have 5. Senator Lowell Murray is a Progressive Conservative who is widely respected and the Conservatives had selected him for one of their spaces. He then decided to vote with us because he shared our concern with the nature of this omnibus bill and with some of our substantive concerns.

So, when these four sections were called for vote, the votes were a 6/6 tie. And, under Senate rules, a tie reverts to the status quo and so the sections were defeated.  One amendment advanced by Senator Murray was defeated in the same way, on the same tie.  The rest of the bill passed “on division” meaning there was opposition but not with the intention of defeating the bill.

C-9 is now back in the Senate for third reading. We’ll soon find out whether these amendments will pass in the Chamber, which would send the bill back to the House of Commons for their approval.

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