Senators have formally recorded their concern that large budget bills compromise Parliament’s oversight role, but are nonetheless poised this week to approve the government’s latest budget bill, C-19, without amendments.
The Senate’s national finance committee wrapped up its hearings on C-19 and reported the bill back to the full Senate Tuesday while referencing recent related reports from six other committees that studied specific sections of the bill.
A common theme in the reports is a concern that the 440-page budget bill is too wide-ranging for a proper review.
The finance committee report noted “with concern” that Bill C-19 includes “a large number of highly technical amendments to the Income Tax Act, further complicating the entirety of the Act, and making it seriously difficult for Canadians, including tax experts, to understand how it affects them.”
The Liberal Party’s 2015 platform criticized Stephen Harper’s Conservative government for using omnibus bills to prevent Parliament from properly reviewing and debating policy proposals and vowed to “bring an end to this undemocratic practice.”
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While the Liberals did approve new Parliamentary rules in 2017 related to omnibus bills that amend or enact several laws at once, the change included an exemption for budget bills, provided that their contents were mentioned in the budget.
The exemption was criticized as “a significant failing” on the day of the rule change by some MPs, including Green Party MP Elizabeth May, and as a cynical joke by Conservative MP Pat Kelly.
According to research compiled by the Library of Parliament, the first reference to a “budget implementation bill” occurred in 1991. Throughout the nineties, they were small bills of about a dozen pages each.
Budget bills started to grow in size in the next decade, but their page count jumped dramatically to hundreds of pages in 2009 and 2010 as the government dealt with a global economic crisis.
The latest budget bill includes a section that would restrict the use of dry cells in federal prisons. Such cells, which do not have a toilet, are used in cases where an inmate is believed to have ingested contraband or is carrying contraband in their body.
The change is in response to a 2021 Supreme Court of Nova Scotia decision, which ruled their use contravenes the Charter.
The Senate’s national security and defence committee said in its report that it “questions the appropriateness of amending the Corrections and Conditional Release Act in budget implementation legislation.”
The only reference to the issue in the budget document released in April was a paragraph in an annex called “legislative measures,” listing measures that would be implemented through legislation. That is where the government said it would be prohibiting the use of dry cells for inmates “who are suspected of concealing contraband in the vaginal cavity.”
Another section of C-19 would amend the Criminal Code to create a an offence of willfully promoting antisemitism.
“It is indisputable that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity and a genocide that must never be forgotten,” Senators on the legal and constitutional affairs committee said in their report on the bill. They said their concern is that the provision “is a significant addition to the Criminal Code that is being introduced in a large budget implementation bill. Amendments to criminal laws may engage important constitutional and legal questions that require in-depth study in committee and thorough debate in the Senate.”
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is a section implementing a new luxury tax on some vehicles, boats and planes. Industry groups in those sectors had urged Senators to water down the provisions over concerns that they will cost jobs in Canadian manufacturing and tourism.
The Senate finance committee opted not to amend the bill, but did call on the Finance Department to conduct a study on the economic effects prior to implementing the luxury tax, which is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, 2022.
The senators said in their report that they were “surprised to learn that the government has not studied the economic impacts of the proposed tax, including on business activity and employment in these sectors.”
Conservative Senator Elizabeth Marshall, the critic for the bill, said it was not possible for the Senate to thoroughly study the bill given its size and the time available.
“The bill is too big,” she said in an interview. “We can’t go through almost 500 pages of legislative changes and really figure out with what’s going on in all the areas. ... There’s a lot of things in that bill that should never be in a budget implementation bill and should be broken out separately and studied separately.”
In response to a request for comment on the senators’ concerns, Adrienne Vaupshas, a spokesperson for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, did not address them directly. She said in an e-mail that the budget contains key measures for Canadians and the government hopes it receives royal assent shortly.
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