Speech About the Use of Omnibus Bills

Mr. Todd Smith: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for recognizing me this morning. It’s a pleasure to rise today and speak to Bill 144, but only because it’s always an honour to rise in the House and speak. It’s not a pleasure to address this bill because this bill shouldn’t even exist.

 

I know that we have a long history of omnibus bills in parliamentary systems. In fact, the history stretches all the way back to 1968, when the first bill was introduced as part of a review of the Criminal Code. However, the practice of introducing omnibus bills remained a fairly restrained practise and stayed fairly consistent to a theme, which was that the bill that was being introduced would amend all bills toward a common policy aim. In 1968, reviewing the Criminal Code required amending several acts to change the legal status of different offences. Other omnibus bills over the years have included items such as the national energy plan and the free trade agreement. However, it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that omnibus bills became common practice at the federal and provincial levels.

At first, Speakers actually had to rule whether such bills were out of order or not. What we now know is that it would have been better if they hadn’t opened the door or, if they had, at least introduced a litmus tests that omnibus legislation would have to meet in order to be introduced in the first place. However, at the time, the practice was such that the bills were limited to a single matter in terms of size and scope. They dealt with one issue, not like what we are dealing with today. It wasn’t until the omnibus budget bill, or omnibus bills to enact budget matters, such as we are debating this morning, became common place that they became a problem.

The decision handed down governing omnibus in this House actually originates in Speaker Sauvé’s ruling regarding a 1981 bill brought in by the Trudeau government. Sauvé said, “It may be that the House should accept rules or guidelines as to the form and content of omnibus bills, but in that case the House, and not the Speaker, must make those rules.” It was that quotation that Speaker McLean used in this chamber in 1995 when ruling on a question of privilege raised by, among others, the current member from St. Catharines, who was just speaking.

Speaker McLean quotes Beauchesne’s parliamentary rules and forms which states, on the matter of omnibus bills: “Although there is no specific set of rules or guidelines governing the content of the bill, there should be a theme of relevancy amongst the contents of a bill. They must be relevant to and subject to the umbrella which is raised by the terminology of the long title of the bill.” So that’s the problem with Bill 144 and almost every omnibus bill that this government has introduced since I’ve been a member of this House.

For the first 25 years of omnibus legislation, governments respected the idea that omnibus bills must have a theme of relevancy amongst the contents of the bill. For the last 20 years, governments have relied on the second part of the rule out of sheer laziness to get away with cramming as many unrelated and unconnected amendments into one piece of legislation as they possibly can. 

As with Bill 144, this leads to the government abusing House procedure for the purposes of limiting debate on controversial measures which it knows would be subject to greater resistance, particularly from government members, if debated separately. This is particularly true of schedule 22 of the act, without which the government would not be able to follow through on its plan to privatize Hydro One. Were that matter to be held separately, Speaker, or were government members ever compelled to vote on any matter related to the sale of Hydro One, they might actually have to act on the disagreement with their government that they so readily voice in private. We know there are a lot of members on the opposite side who don’t agree with the sell-off of Hydro One, and given the opportunity to have that fulsome debate here in the Legislature, that may actually bear out in the votes and in the debate that we have.

The government may argue that the point of omnibus legislation is to save debating time and, on this, even parliamentary experts agree that’s a valuable objective—but only when the act in question addresses a single issue. It’s unquestionably better for the House to have one vote on free trade or one vote on the national energy program than to have 24 votes on them. But because the use of omnibus legislation is already a time-saving measure, the government should not then be able to enact time allocation on an omnibus bill, but that’s what they’re doing here. The only purpose for doing so has been done in the case of Bill 144, and that’s to stifle debate in opposition here in the Legislature.

As has been previously stated, the original intent for omnibus bills was that amendments to different acts would be made under a common theme. In Bill 144, the amendments are made without a single common thread running through them. This is a bill that deals with, among other things, liquor licensing, the Hydro One sale, the debt retirement charge, illegal tobacco, escheats, business property taxes, horse racing and abolishing the Ontario Economic Forecast Council. No possible common theme could bind together so many different topics aside from the government’s desire to not have each individual act and amendment debated separately in the House.

In his submission to Speaker McLean in 1995, the member for St. Catharines alleged that there was a point at which omnibus bills, such as Bill 144, might go too far and become unacceptable from a procedural standpoint. I ask the member: How is this not such a bill? How is this not such a bill?

Hon. James J. Bradley: Do you want a reply?

Mr. Todd Smith: Question period is in an hour.

Its schedules and amendments have no common theme in spite of the fact that it’s entitled An Act to implement Budget measures and to enact or amend certain other statutes. Two of its statutes, those pertaining to escheats and the Ontario Economic Forecast Council,  are never mentioned in the speech that the finance minister gave to the House or the related budget documents.

I stand to accuse the government and the Premier of rank and unbelievable hypocrisy. They’ve spent the last few years railing against the use of omnibus legislation at the federal level and the destructive tone it sets for our politics. I submit to the House that this bill is no better in that regard than any which members opposite have previously opposed.

In his ruling to the House on December 5, 1995, Speaker McLean stated:

“However, omnibus legislation is accepted in many parliamentary jurisdictions in this country and it is something to which this assembly is no stranger. I share the concerns raised by many members here and caution that the use of omnibus legislation should be considered carefully and exercised judiciously. I also urge this House to break ground in this area and develop guidelines and policy as to the acceptable form and content of omnibus legislation.”

This government has made no end of the use of the blunt instrument of omnibus legislation, and I don’t anticipate that that’s going to end any time soon. In fact, in spite of the rhetoric of the new federal government, I fully expect they will find the cudgel of omnibus legislation far too tempting, and they will probably employ it too, because it has strayed from its inherent purpose and it has become an insidious tactic. If a government is low on political capital but wishes to pass an unpopular piece of legislation, it can simply package that legislation with a more popular piece of legislation, which is in no way related, and then push it through.

The reality is this bill is going to pass. However, I am going to vote against it because it would be an absolute affront to democracy to let it pass without loudly vocalizing the opposition to this tactic.

The only way we can stop this from happening in the future is to write it into the practises of this House that first, omnibus bills must be on a common theme. It’s not enough simply to include every amended and introduced statute in the long title; it must deal with a single issue. Second, the use of time allocation on omnibus bills must be prohibited. You do not get to compound one time-limiting technique by using another, even more severe time-limiting technique. It’s been 20 years—20 years since Speakers of this Legislature first started expressing concern about the use of omnibus legislation.

There is a lot we could do to revive democracy, elevate discourse, and celebrate divergence of opinion in this chamber given the opportunity, and taking the leadership—but it should start here. If the government will not—and I believe this government never will surrender the cudgel—then it must be taken from them.

If you want better laws, you need better debate; you need more ideas, not less ideas. An omnibus bill, such as Bill 144, only makes for less debate.

It’s an affront to what we’re sent here to do. It can be defined as nothing else, and nothing less.

For that reason, if for no other, this should be defeated.

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