Senators have officially made it clear they are concerned that major budget bills will undermine Parliament’s oversight role, but they are nonetheless set this week to approve the government’s latest budget bill, C-19, without amendment. .
The Senate National Finance Committee concluded its hearings on C-19 and sent the bill back to the full Senate on Tuesday while referencing recent related reports from six other committees that studied specific sections of the bill. .
A common theme in the reports is concern that the 440-page budget bill is too broad for proper scrutiny.
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 entire act and making very difficult for Canadians, including tax practitioners, to understand how it affects them.
The 2015 Liberal Party platform criticized Stephen Harper’s Conservative government for using omnibus bills to prevent Parliament from properly considering and debating policy proposals and vowed to “end this undemocratic practice” .
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Although the Liberals approved new parliamentary rules in 2017 regarding omnibus bills that amend or enact multiple laws at once, the change included an exemption for budget bills, provided their content is mentioned in the budget. .
The exemption was criticized as ‘a significant failure’ on the day of the rule change by some MPs, including Green Party MP Elizabeth May, and as a cynical joke by Tory MP Pat Kelly.
According to research compiled by the Library of Parliament, the first mention of a “budget implementation bill” was in 1991. During the 1990s, these were small bills of about a dozen of pages each.
Budget bills began to grow in size over the next decade, but their page count soared to hundreds of pages in 2009 and 2010 as the government faced a global economic crisis.
The latest budget bill includes a section that would restrict the use of dry cells in federal prisons. These cells, which have no toilets, are used in cases where an inmate is suspected of having ingested contraband or carries contraband in their body.
The change follows a 2021 Nova Scotia Supreme Court decision, which ruled that their use violated the Charter.
The Senate National Security and Defense Committee said in its report that it “considers whether to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act in the budget implementation act. “.
The only reference to the issue in the budget document released in April was a paragraph in an appendix titled “legislative measures”, listing the measures that would be implemented through legislation. This is where the government said it would ban 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 an offense of willfully promoting anti-Semitism.
“It is indisputable that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity and a genocide that must never be forgotten,” the 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 introduced in a major budget implementation bill. Amendments to criminal laws can raise important constitutional and legal issues that require careful study in committee and debate in the Senate.
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is a section implementing a new luxury tax on certain vehicles, boats and aircraft. Industry groups in those sectors had urged senators to water down the provisions, fearing they could cost jobs in Canada‘s manufacturing and tourism sectors.
The Senate Finance Committee chose not to amend the bill, but asked the Ministry of Finance to conduct a study on the economic effects before the implementation of the luxury tax, which is expected to take effect on 1 September 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, spokesperson for the bill, said it was not possible for the Senate to give the bill a thorough study given its size and the time available.
“The bill is too big,” she said in an interview. “We can’t go through nearly 500 pages of legislative changes and really understand what’s going on in all areas. … There are many things in this bill that should never be in a budget implementation bill and should be broken down and considered separately.
In response to a request for comment on the senators’ concerns, Adrienne Vaupshas, spokeswoman for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, did not respond to them directly. She said in an email that the budget contains key measures for Canadians and that the government hopes it will receive royal assent soon.
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