By Amie Gravell
“In the interest of democracy I ask: How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns? We can agree with some of the measures but oppose others. How do we express our views and the views of our constituents when the matters are so diverse? Dividing the bill into several components would allow members to represent views of their constituents on each of the different components in the bill.”
That was Stephen Harper, regarding the budget implementation act of 1994, which was 21 pages long. Bill C-10 was 83 pages longer. The Harper Government’s own budget implementation bill in 2011 was 642 pages long. Bill C-10 was rushed through the House of Commons and restricted to just six hours of debate in the Senate. This was the cause of considerable outrage; Senator Cowan, the leader the opposition lead the charge in opposing the time constraints. In his speech he reiterated that the Senate heard from over 100 witnesses totaling almost 60 hours of testimony, that was condensed into six hours of debate. Among his list of issues, one of the most pressing was that Senate rules state each Senator may speak for 15 minutes, which left time for only 24 speakers, silencing the remaining Senators.
Rule 39 was invoked to restrict debate to the minimum allotment of time; it need not have been so, for the rule states that debate is restricted to at least six hours. The debate could have been restricted to eight or 12 hours, but was not. Time allocation restriction is a tool for governments to help speed urgent legislation through the House and Senate. When asked what the urgent nature of this legislation was, Senator Claude Carignan, Deputy Leader of the Government had this to say:
“Canadians gave us a clear mandate by electing a strong majority government last May because they believe that we are committed to ensuring their safety. We promised Canadians that we would pass this bill in 100 days […] Keeping our promises is the best way to prevent people from becoming disillusioned with politics. […]This is what Canadians expect of us.” Other Senators called the time constraints “artificial” and based on arbitrary campaign promises. There was nothing in this bill that made it urgent to pass quickly and Senator Carignan made that abundantly clear.
What I expect of the Senate is that they will do what my teachers in elementary school told me their job was when we were learning about Canada in the fourth g r a d e : give sober second thought to legislation. Claudette Ta r d i f f , D e p u t y Leader of the Opposition said of Canadians “[they] expect Parliament to c a re f u l l y e x a m i n e every bill that is introduced. […]Time allocation is a tool afforded to the Gove r n m e n t that is reserved for cases where the utmost urgency is required, not to railroad those who do not agree with them.”
Mr. Harper is not the only Conservative who has had a change of heart regarding time allocation motions. In Dec. 2001, the 37th, first session of Parliament was considering Bill C-36 in the Senate, Canada’s version of the United State’s Patriot Act. At the time, Speaker Kinsella was the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and said this: “The government would move the guillotine to shut down debate and bring this Bill to a vote, as they did in the House of Commons. […]They have failed Canadians.” Senator DiNino went further to call it the “muzzling of Parliament.”
Despite their objections to how the bill was passed, when provisions such as preventative arrest and investigative hearings were set to expire in 2007, the Conservative minority government urged the House of Commons to renew them, but in a vote of 159 to 124, the provisions were allowed to expire.
Time allocation is not the only thing that Bills C-10 and C-36 have in common. Both bills were omnibus bills, proposed by a majority government, bitterly opposed by the opposition. Both bills used their size as omnibus bills and time allocation to shirk scrutiny.
B e f o r e they were l e a d i n g the gove r nme n t , many conservatives o p p o s e d legislative measures taken by the leaders of Canada that they themselves now use in abundance. Apparently the only moral uses of time allocation measurements are the ones that Conservatives put forth.
Despite having once bitterly opposed both omnibus legislation and closure motions made by Liberal Governments, Mr. Harper seems committed to proving to Canada why he was right to oppose them in the first place. They weaken Canadian democracy.
Senator Day spoke, saying that he “fundamentally objects to omnibus legislation. Omnibus legislation does not make good law. We have seen it time and again.” A step further would be to assert that the damage omnibus legislation does to our democracy far outweighs the good it can do by speeding up legislative process. Abusing omnibus legislation creates a legislative system that tolerates the level of partisan pedagogy that plagues our political system rather than encouraging sober debate based on reason, facts, expert advice and compromise.
Mr. Harper’s approach to politics is harsh enough that Senator Tardiff called it a “disturbing pattern [that] has emerged since this government received its coveted majority. We have seen instances both here (the Senate) and in the other place (the House of Commons) time and again of the government invoking procedural tactics to stymie debate on their legislation.”
Canadian politics need not be this way and was not always so. Senator Dawson stood up to talk about “the good old days.” “When I was in the other place, the House of Commons, it might surprise some of the newer Senators that members would listen to testimony. They would study, and yes, they would regularly amend legislation, even under a majority government […] this is not the case in 2012.”
Among a number of passionate and eloquent Senators that opposed this legislation, the star of the day was Senator Nolin: the only Conservative Senator to vote against party lines in opposition to Bill C-10. Senator Nolin spoke at length about the money flowing in the illegal drug trade, which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates at $450 billion USD per year; how organized crime is the primary beneficiary of this surplus of money; and the nature of drug cartels, which follow a strikingly similar business model to legal companies. He said this of Vic Toews: “It is important to bear in mind that when the minister talks about risk, he has decided that his worry was the risk: if there is risk, I will take action. In my opinion, there is risk. He and I do not agree on how to handle it.” Read the debate on <Parl.gc.ca> for all of Senator Nolin’s insightful speech made in the Senate.
Senators expressed wishes that many parts of this bill were standing alone instead of lumped in with such provisions as the removal of publication bans for offenders as young as 12 years old. The nature of omnibus legislation is that good legislation can be rejected because of the bad legislation that comes with it, and bad legislation can be passed on the basis of the good legislation paired with it. Members of the Senate and House of Commons are seeing the destructive power of closure motions and omnibus legislation.
If there is a silver lining, may it be that the next Government of Canada be a government that is ready to acknowledge loopholes in our democratic system and fix them rather than abuse them.