The word “budget” is defined as “an estimate of income and expenditure for a set period of time”. And one would expect government budgets to be just that: an outline of planned tax and spending measures for the coming year. Most would not expect a budget bill to contain major new policy changes and give the government of-the-day sweeping new powers. At least, not until recently.
Bill C-38, the budget bill tabled by the federal government on April 26, includes both such things. Coming in at over 400 pages, it contains more than 700 clauses that will make major changes to numerous policy areas such as the environment, immigration, and human resources. This “budget” amends, repeals, and creates dozens of laws that will have a profound effect on our lives, our neighbours, and the environment. Changes include:
- Tightening of Employment Insurance (EI) regulations that will place a greater onus on claimants to demonstrate they are actively seeking new work and require claimants to apply for a broader variety of jobs.
- Changes to Old Age Security that will increase age of eligibility from 65 to 67 beginning in 2023.
- Amendments to the Income Tax Act that will further limit the resources that charities can put towards political activity and give the minister of national revenue greater power to take action against organizations that exceed these limits.
- Amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to wipe out a backlog of 280,000 applications under the Federal Skilled Worker Program.
- The elimination of several government-funded groups and agencies including the National Council of Welfare, Rights and Democracy, and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.
- Complex changes to fisheries protection of fish habitats that will result in less-stringent regulations for the sake of promoting commercial and development interests.
- Repealing and replacing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in order to expedite the environmental review process and limit public input (see next week’s web feature for more details).
The Finance Minister has maintained that these measures are needed in order to create jobs and grow the economy. Regardless of what one might think about the content of these changes, one thing is clear: Bill C-38, and other bills like it in recent years, represents an undermining of the democratic process in Canada.
First, Bill C-38 will further shift power away from the House of Commons, centralizing it in the hands of the cabinet (the small, executive group of government ministers and officials chosen by the Prime Minister). The EI provisions in Bill C-38, for example, would give cabinet the authority to change EI qualification criteria (such as what constitutes “suitable work” and “reasonable efforts”) through regulations instead of legislation. This means that major decisions will be made behind closed doors, with little chance for open discussion and scrutiny.
Second, Bill C-38 contains provisions and changes that just don’t belong in a budget bill. The official opposition, as reported in Macleans, has claimed the government is “trying to hide from the oversight and accountability that Canadians deserve”; others maintain the government is merely trying to streamline the legislative process. Either way, open and responsive governance demands that major policy changes be studied and considered in their own right, not lumped together in massive blocks of disparate legislation. As it stands, it is impossible for MPs to vote on these issues separately; they must give their yea or nay to all of it at once: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Third, when the government finally did yield to pressure to at least consider the whopping 170 pages of environmental legislation in Bill C-38 in a separate Commons sub-committee, they subverted the process by cutting discussion short. At the first meeting of the committee two weeks ago, the government sent three cabinet ministers unannounced to the meeting, leaving only 20 minutes for the opposition parties to ask questions after the ministers read lengthy, prepared statements. By limiting the opportunity for meaningful discussion and questions, they undermined the ability of the subcommittee to do what they had said it would: study the implications of the bill.
Public justice demands not only policies that pursue the common good and protect the integrity of creation, it demands transparent and accountable governance. The ends are important, but so are the means. Omnibus bills like C-38 are an affront to the democratic process.
When MPs vote on Bill C-38, they will be doing much more than passing a budget. They will be shaping the future of the democratic process in Canada.