If the federal Conservative government hasn’t already thought about its penchant for omnibus bills in Parliament, it needs to.
The Idle No More movement has focused some of its attention on changes to federal legislation like the Navigable Waters Protection Act and Environmental Assessment Act, which are rolled into an omnibus bill. These bills, often part of a budget, give MPs little chance to debate important issues because there are so many items jammed together.
The Conservatives did not invent this strategy, but they have honed it to a fine art. Omnibus bills began appearing regularly during the five years the Conservatives governed with a minority, and were often crafted in such a way as to keep at least one opposition party from voting against the government.
While this was an understandable legislative strategy, the need for such omnibus bills does not exist when there is a majority government. But the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes the approach, because it limits the usefulness of Parliament and the ability of its critics to draw much public attention.
That worked fine when the critics were solely from the opposition parties. But when they are from outside Parliament and are energized by a variety of causes, as is Idle No More, omnibus bills have the potential to do a great deal of harm.
The harm comes from emasculating legitimate opposition in Parliament, where differences within a democracy need to be discussed. If too many people believe Parliament doesn’t work any more, and this leads them to do serious damage to Canada’s economy because of their frustrations, omnibus bills become very dangerous.
The Conservative government has nothing to fear from its opponents in Parliament. It has a majority, and it should be ready and willing to hear criticism of its plans within an elected assembly.
The prime minister would serve the interests of all Canadians if he pledged to restrict or even eliminate omnibus bills for the remainder of this Parliament’s term.
Idle No More may be a loose and disorganized movement, but it has the potential to serve as a force for either positive or negative change. The federal government needs to choose a path which is working towards positive change — on all types of issues.