Members of Parliament were back in Ottawa Monday after a week in their constituencies, and the opposition parties said they heard that Canadians are worried about the Conservatives' massive budget bill.
The Liberals and NDP both vowed Monday to keep pressuring the government to back down on the "sweeping" changes contained in Bill C-38.
The NDP held a series of public meetings last week across the country and solicited feedback from Canadians online about the budget implementation bill and the party's House leader Nathan Cullen said they heard from hundreds of people.
"People are concerned about the budget and worried about the changes that are going to be happening to their lives. Canadians are unhappy about the cuts to Old Age Security, new restrictions on employment insurance and cuts to environmental protection," he said at a news conference Monday morning.
"Conservatives have a majority and will pass their bill, our goal is to make sure that they aren't allowed to just sneak through these changes without the voices of Canadians being represented," he said.
NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said the overriding opinion from the Canadians who spoke out was that the Conservatives weren't up front about their plans and that so many policy changes are contained in one single bill. The budget implementation bill is more than 400 pages and it seeks to repeal several laws, amend dozens of them and implement a new environmental assessment regime.
The NDP said it will continue to listen to Canadians over the coming weeks, present their views to the Commons finance committee which is currently studying the bill, and will pressure the government to accept amendments to it.
Hearings on the budget bill continue this week. The Commons finance committee is hearing from officials from 14 different government departments Monday night and the subcommittee established to study the environmental assessment portion of the bill also meets Monday.
Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said his party will also keep pressuring the government to listen to public opinion and reverse course on the budget bill. He said public outrage has worked before to prompt the government to change its own legislation and the Liberals hope that will happen with C-38.
Garneau told reporters that his party is trying to engage Canadians in the debate and that when it comes to the next vote on the bill, the Liberals will send a strong message to the government.
Garneau said when the bill is back at report stage the Liberals will propose clauses they want to see deleted.
"We feel this is the best approach rather than to hyperventilate and make lots of noise. This procedurally is the best way to approach this because this government is clearly abusing democracy," he said.
Garneau also said the Liberals will appeal to backbench Conservative MPs to listen to the concerns of their constituents and vote against Bill C-38.
Liberals team up with Green MP Elizabeth May
He referred to Tory MP David Wilks, who made headlines last week when a video of him meeting with constituents was posted online. The British Columbia MP said he has some concerns about the number of policy changes that are packed into a single bill, but later he issued a statement saying he fully supports the bill.
Garneau also said his party is teaming up with Green MP Elizabeth May to propose amendments to Bill C-31, the government's immigration and refugee bill, at the report stage.
The Liberals tried to amend it at the committee stage but few of their 28 proposals were accepted, said Garneau. The bill is due to be debated at report stage Tuesday night – if it is not delayed by back-to-work legislation for Canadian Pacific Railway workers – and because May isn't allowed to sit on committees, she is permitted to propose substantive amendments at the report stage.
She will propose similar amendments to the Liberal ones that were rejected. Debating May's amendments could substantially delay a vote on the bill.
"We've very, very clearly indicated that we are the real opposition here because we found that the best way to deal with this is to work with other parties, in this particular case with the Green Party," said Garneau.
The budget implementation bill aims to reform the employment insurance program and Monday's question period was the opposition parties' first opportunity to react in the House of Commons to some of the details announced last week by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
The government wants to toughen up the rules for EI claimants and intends to take a person's EI history into account when determining how long someone can collect benefits before having to broaden their job search and accept work with lower wages than their previous job.
Opposition MPs said the Conservatives are attacking seasonal workers with their proposed changes and criticized the government for not consulting enough with provincial and territorial leaders.
Finley defended the government's plan and said the changes will address labour shortages and connect unemployed Canadians with available work in their local areas.
The government also defended its introduction of back-to-work legislation for Canadian Pacific Railway workers who went on strike last week. The bill was tabled after question period. Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said earlier the bill was necessary to protect Canada's economy and international reputation.
Here's a look at some of the measures in the bill's 400-plus pages. It's not an exhaustive list, so be warned: there will be another budget bill in the fall.<br><br><em>With files from CBC</em>. (CP)
The government wants a "one project, one review" environmental assessment system, so it is repealing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and replacing it with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. It allows the federal government to designate an assessment to another jurisdiction, such as a province, and for another jurisdiction's assessment to substitute for a federal one. It sets out time limits for the completion of reviews and the minister will have the power to shut down a review panel if he thinks it won't finish on time.
E-I, E-I - OH? 'SUITABLE WORK?'
Employment insurance claimants are required to demonstrate they are actively seeking "suitable work" in order to receive payments. C-38 removes definitions of "suitable work" from the Employment Insurance Act and gives the federal cabinet the power to create new regulations about what constitutes suitable work and reasonable efforts to find work. The budget bill gives no details about what the new criteria will be. It also makes changes to how payments are calculated, to pay claimants based on their "best 14 weeks" of employment.
LIGHTER LOAD FOR AUDITOR GENERAL
Auditor General Michael Ferguson will no longer be required to annually audit several agencies, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Northern Pipeline Agency and the Canadian Polar Commission. The agencies must submit annual financial reports to the minister instead. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says this move was made at the request of the auditor general.
CHARITY RULE CHANGES
C-38 proposes amendments to the Income Tax Act's rules around political activities of charities. Charities aren't supposed to spend more than 10 per cent of their budgets on political advocacy. Under C-38, donating to a charity could be considered a political activity if the donation can "reasonably be considered" to be for the sole purpose of supporting political activities. So, if one charity gives money to another charity for political purposes, it would count toward the donor's 10 per cent limit, not just the recipient's total. It also gives the minister of national revenue the power to withhold tax receipts from a charity or association if it devotes resources to political activities in excess of the limits.
BACKLOGGED IMMIGRATION APPLICATIONS ELIMINATED
Among the amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act is a move to wipe out a backlog of 280,000 applications under the Federal Skilled Worker Program. Applications made before 2008 would be deleted and the application fee refunded.
Legislation currently protects fish habitats that are defined as "spawning grounds and nursery, rearing, food supply and migration areas on which fish depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes." Bill C-38 would instead protect fish based on their use: bodies of water that support commercial, recreational and aboriginal fisheries or fish that support such fisheries. It rewrites the Fisheries Act's rules against work that can cause the destruction of a fish habitat. The bill also would allow the federal government to transfer Fisheries Act responsibilities to a province with equivalent laws.
MINI TAX BREAKS
There is some good tax news in the budget bill. It expands the list of goods and services free of GST and HST, adding some prescription drugs and more medical devices to currently exempt items like false teeth and hearing aids. The bill would also allow literacy organizations to claim a GST rebate or the federal component of HST paid on books they give away for free.
GG GETS RAISE, TAX RETURN
The bill increases Gov. Gen. David Johnston's salary from $137,500 to $270,602 starting on Jan.1, 2013 -- but he's no longer exempt from paying income tax. His salary was hiked to offset the taxman's bite.
NEW CROSS-BORDER LAW
The budget bill creates a new law to implement the Framework Agreement on Integrated Cross-Border Law Enforcement Operations that was signed between Canada and the United States in 2009. It applies to joint operations between authorities in both countries on the seas.
BYE-BYE AT SPY AGENCY
The budget bill scraps the office of the inspector general at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The office is meant to be the public safety minister's eyes and ears overseeing CSIS. It also makes other changes on how CSIS reports to the minister.
Bill C-38 shuts down several government-funded groups and agencies, including the National Council of Welfare, the Public Appointments Commission, Rights and Democracy, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, the Canadian Artists and Producers Professional Relations Tribunal and Assisted Human Reproduction Canada.
It creates a new Social Security Tribunal to hear appeals of decisions made on Old Age Security, employment insurance and other benefit programs, and creates the new Shared Services Canada Department.
NOT A PENNY MORE
The government is phasing out the penny but is changing the law so pennies can still be used as legal tender even though they are being removed from circulation. The current law says a coin that's been "called in" is not legal tender.
SEE YA SIN CARDS
The government wants to phase out the plastic card that displays your social insurance number, and Bill C-38 makes the necessary changes to existing laws so it is no longer required. Canadians will still have SINs, they just won't be carried on a plastic card.
OLD AGE SECURITY
The age of eligibility for OAS will rise gradually to 67 from 65 starting in 2023. C-38 lays out a complicated chart showing how that change will be phased in.