OTTAWA - The parliamentary show of protest over the Conservative government's controversial budget bill will go on, the Speaker of the House of Commons declared Monday — a decision opposition critics hailed as the opening act of a great democratic drama.
The Tories, however, denounced the spectacle as a political farce.
Speaker Andrew Scheer agreed to allow voting on most of more than 800 proposed amendments to Bill C-38, the government's so-called omnibus bill, setting the stage for a marathon voting session of 24 hours or more that could begin as early as Tuesday.
What's more likely, however, is that the government will move to curtail the debate on the bill — a debate that's currently underway in the Commons — in order to set the stage for voting on the amendments to start Wednesday.
By grouping the motions together, Scheer did save MPs some measure of time by restricting the number of votes on the amendments to the bill, which weighs in at more than 400 pages and changes some 70 laws, including environmental regulation, social programs and tax laws.
"I have made every effort to respect both the wishes of the House and my responsibility to organize the consideration of report stage motions in a fair and balanced manner, " Scheer told the House as he spelled out his ruling.
The opposition initially proposed more than 1,000 amendments, and a vote on all of them would have paralyzed the House for weeks. Scheer's ruling established that the motions would require no fewer than 67 votes and no more than 159 — at a rate of roughly four or five votes an hour, a far less onerous workload.
"The Speaker was put into what I would consider an almost impossible situation," said NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.
"His ruling will confirm, though, that the opposition still does have some tools to hold government to account, that the government's not going to get away with this one easily, that they are going to have to pack their jammies as well."
The Conservatives had been hopeful that Scheer would throw out the amendments on the grounds they were intended purely to hold up parliamentary proceedings.
But they too were prepared for the fight.
"It's the opposition parties that are playing political games, playing games with process and making things look a little bit silly up here for our purposes as a government," said Tory House leader Peter Van Loan.
"We're providing a hard working, productive and orderly approach to getting our legislation through."
The use of a budget implementation bill to make such widespread legislative changes was the focus of a separate motion by Green party Leader Elizabeth May, who had asked the Speaker to rule the entire bill out of order.
But the structure of Bill C-38 itself falls within the bounds of correct parliamentary procedure, Scheer said.
May called that pronouncement an "unfortunate decision" that does nothing to prevent future omnibus bills from abusing parliamentary procedure.
It is a problem the House is going to need to tackle down the road, said interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae.
"It's something that clearly means we're going to have to change the way Parliament does business," Rae said.
"If we can't succeed in doing that under this government, we'll have to succeed in doing it under a government in the future."
But Rae said the Liberals are ready to deal with the consequences of this bill.
"We're going to be there and we're going to be there in large numbers to protest what's going on," he said.
"We'll stay with it as long as its required."
Given the Conservative majority, there is no doubt the budget bill will eventually pass.
The New Democrats have styled the fight as one that could end in the government being brought down in a vote of no-confidence, arguing that the votes are on a budget bill and therefore a confidence motion.
Parliamentary expert Ned Franks doused those hopes.
"Budget implementation bills are not, by their nature, automatically matters of confidence," he said.
House leaders were set to meet Tuesday to sort out the week ahead; the Liberals have already floated the possibility of a last-minute compromise to stave off the all-nighters.
In exchange for dropping some of their amendments, the Liberals are asking the government to pull items relating to fisheries, environmental assessment, EI and old age security and introduce them as separate bills.
But the Conservatives have signalled no willingness to make the change.
The Tories did move Monday to extend daily sessions of the Commons until midnight until the House rises on June 22, in order to get other pieces of legislation moving forward before the summer break.
Those bills include changes to copyright laws and free trade agreements with Panama and Jordan, but the Opposition expressed worry that there could be some other unknown bills coming down the pipeline.
Given that votes on the budget may only take up 24 consecutive hours, the other pieces of pending legislation shouldn't eat up all the other time, suggested Cullen. "They are going to ram through we don't know how many bills before this session rises."
Van Loan, however, said the government was booking the extra time merely as a precaution.
"If you make progress — and I anticipate progress — on those, you can rise a little bit earlier," he said. "The real objective is to get stuff passed."
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.