Opposition parties rally against omnibus bill
Local leaders of federal opposition parties have come together to call on Simcoe North MP Bruce Stanton to speak out against the Stephen Harper government’s latest omnibus bill.
MPs have a responsibility to stand up for the best interests of their ridings, said Ryan Barber, president of the Simcoe North Federal Liberal Association.
Barber, like Simcoe North Federal New Democratic Party (NDP) president Crystal Wiltshire and Simcoe North Federal Green Party Association CEO Alec Adams, doesn’t believe the omnibus bill is in the best interests of their constituents.
“We ask you to speak out against the use of this omnibus-bill strategy,” the three local leaders said in an open letter to Stanton that they all signed. “We ask you to speak out against the undermining of the Canadian Parliament’s ability to do its job.”
Bill C-45, a 414-page piece of budget-implementation legislation, lumps together “multiple legislative changes to non-budget items,” they wrote.
Adams doesn’t think Stanton will be “properly representing the electorate if he votes in favour of it.”
“There are a lot of good people who are Tory MPs, but they’re constrained by party discipline to vote the way they’re told rather than the way they think,” Adams said. “I’d like to see that change, and I think a lot of Canadians would like to see that change.”
The Harper government is behaving in “an arrogant way” considering it won only 39% of the vote in the last election, he said, noting the current “first-past-the-post” electoral system has created a “phony majority.”
Stanton, who sees the democratic process running as it should, said tension between the government and the opposition has always been part of it.
"They'll always point to the fact that they have a responsibility to bring attention to their criticism to hold the government to account and that is entirely correct and the proper role of an opposition party," he said. "What they will quite often forget, though, is the other side of that equation, which is that the government of the day.. has to in turn, pass laws and amend existing laws that they feel are in the interest of the country."
Criticizing the process is just a “foil” for disagreeing with the measures in the bill, said Stanton, who would rather debate the content of the legislation instead of the approval process it undergoes.
“Omnibus bills have been a practice of the House of Commons since 1888,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual about them... All governing parties have used them.”
As with the omnibus bills of past governments, there is a common thread linking together the items of Bill C-45, Stanton said, noting it’s that they’re all related to achieving the objectives outlined in budget 2012.
"If you read it from one end to another, there's not actually a real, clear, consistent theme," argues Barber. "What it is is many different pieces of legislation all sort of jammed together."
Bill C-45 deregulates a number of key environmental laws, including the Navigable Waters Protection Act, Fisheries Act and Hazardous Materials Information Review Act, Barber, Adams and Wiltshire said in their letter, pointing to the fact it reduces the number of federally protected lakes from 32,000 to 97.
The list has been shortened to prevent crossover between legislation at the provincial and federal levels, Stanton said, adding “that kind of overlap... can cause numerable delays in projects that are entirely within the realm of proper environmental protection.
“Major natural-resource projects, including interprovincial pipelines, will still certainly undergo environmental assessment, as they should,” he said, noting Bill C-45 creates clarity about which projects will be subject to federal environmental assessment and which ones will be subject to provincial environmental assessment.
“We think that, on a number of issues, the Tories are out on their own,” Adams said.
Canada is faced with a number of complex problems, he said, noting the public wants to see representatives "get their heads together" and address them, "but it's not happening."
In 1994, when he was a Reform MP, Stephen Harper voted against a 20-page Liberal omnibus bill on the grounds it was dealing with "disparate issues," states the letter.
"He's putting through two bills this year, each of which is more than 20 times as big as the one he objected to," Adams said.
In the summer, representatives from local Liberal, Green and NDP parties organized a meeting for members and non-aligned voters to talk about forming a unified opposition to challenge the Harper government in the next federal election.
“We’re trying to encourage, within our own parties, this idea that there are things that we agree upon,” Barber said, noting there’s not talk of a merger at this point.
If a coalition was to form, it would have to be at a higher level, he said, adding party heads decide whether a candidate is run in a riding.
“What we can do, is agree to focus our attacks on our primary opponent, the Conservatives, and we can also try and hold them to account,” Barber said.
Over two thirds of the voters in Simcoe North don't identify themselves as Conservative, he said, adding "if we brought out all of those... voters, we would quite easily take the riding from the Conservatives for one party or another."
Stanton has been re-elected twice in Simcoe North since his first victory in 2006. In 2011, he captured more than 50% of the vote.
"It's an abuse of parliament to force through a bill that affects many different pieces of legislation without proper review," Adams said, adding he thinks the motions in it should be examined by a "wide range" of parliamentary committees.
There is ample opportunity for the opposition to highlight their criticisms of government legislation in the parliamentary system, Stanton said.
"We can't come up here to Ottawa and sit for 27 weeks and do nothing... At the end of the day, the government has to make decisions and act."