POLITICS

Peter Van Loan Says Budget Bill Helping Canada Avert Economic Calamity As Session Wraps (VIDEO)

06/21/2012 10:38 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - The Conservative government wrapped up a bruising spring sitting of Parliament by channelling Larry the Cable Guy and his bulldozer, blue-collar ethic: "Git 'er done."

"We got the job done," Peter Van Loan, the Conservative House leader, repeated no less than 12 times in a seven-minute address Thursday as he sang the praises of a "productive and orderly" session.

Making a virtue of its critics' harshest broadsides, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the massive omnibus budget implementation bill it jammed through the House of Commons last week is a symbol of strong, focused leadership in a troubled world.

"It was important to implement our budget on a timely basis to secure Canada's place as an island of economic stability," said Van Loan.

"While many parts of the world face political paralysis and economic turmoil, our government has made sure that decisions are made and action is taken."

The budget bill contains a truck-load of big-impact measures — a complete rewrite of the environmental assessment act, new ministerial powers to override the National Energy Board, and the elimination of numerous oversight and advisory agencies — all tucked into routine "implementation" legislation overseen by a single Commons committee and sub-committee.

Considering that some of those "timely" economic measures, such as changes to old age security, won't take effect for years, opposition critics say the government's haste is a sham designed to sneak through major changes with little public notice or debate.

"A lot of the changes we're talking about are changes that we are all going to be addressing together in the next election campaign (in 2015)," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

In the meantime, said Nathan Cullen, Mulcair's House leader, New Democrats will be "continuing the effort of breaking this out of the Ottawa bubble and having people understand what those impacts will be."

"This is an effort by the government to fundamentally change the country for as long as a generation or more," Cullen added.

In addition to the Swiss Army knife budget bill, the government used the spring sitting to finally kill off the long-gun registry, revamp immigration and refugee policy and launch an attack on advocacy work by the charitable sector.

In fact, a lot of significant reforms were addition by subtraction —another "git 'er done" aspect of the spring sitting.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy went into the dumpster, as did the inspector general's office at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and a national body for gathering statistics on natives.

The parliamentary budget officer was stonewalled in his attempts to get departmental information on budget cuts, then was told he was overstepping his mandate. The Conservatives also launched a concerted campaign to characterize environmental groups as "radicals" serving foreign interests.

"This is a truly bad government. It has a bad ethic about it. It doesn't understand its own limits," said Liberal interim Leader Bob Rae.

"It's not just a style but it's a profound attitude toward other people and other opinions which is deeply, deeply unhealthy."

Critics — and not only partisan players — call the Conservative behaviour "authoritarian" and the stuff of George Orwell, a literary reference Larry the Cable Guy would take pleasure in not getting.

"They're dumbing down the system so one day you will find yourself in a position unable to challenge it, because there won't be the data to say, 'Wait a sec, that's not true,'" Paul Kennedy, the former RCMP public complaints commissioner and spy agency counsel, said in an interview.

"It's quite clear that any voices out there that speak or prove that their narrative isn't correct are going to be suppressed or eliminated or attacked."

Kennedy, who toiled under Liberal and Conservative governments for 36 years, said the Harper Conservatives "don't want to formulate a rationale to confront any narrative out there that is different than their own. They just want to eliminate it.

"It's quite startling .... This is not a typical government."

Others say the clamouring about the ill-treatment of independent overseers, such as parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, is overblown.

Donald Savoie, an eminent political scientist at the University of Moncton who has long studied and critiqued what he calls "court government" in Canada, says Page's "grandstanding before the media" has served parliament well.

"What he's done, I think, is that future governments will be very hesitant to establish another officer of parliament," said Savoie.

Savoie argues that power should be put back in the hands of elected MPs, not independent officers of parliament whose numbers have proliferated over the years.

Rae, told of Savoie's critique, said the academic is missing the reality of what's taking place in the House of Commons.

"With great respect to Mr. Savoie, we've tried to exercise our powers as MPs and what's happened? In a majority parliament we just get stifled and stuffed. So let's get real here," said Rae.

Indeed, the prime minister used the final question period of the sitting Thursday twist the knife, saying the New Democrats "have proven themselves to be the least influential opposition in terms of legislative agenda in the history of this Parliament."

But was getting the job done worth the cost of bypassing the normal workings of parliamentary democracy?

"The real cost is the cost of not being able to take decisions," Van Loan responded. "That's what we see in Europe. That's what we see to some extent in the United States with political gridlock. And what is the consequence? The consequence is fiscal crisis."

It begs the question: How will the country survive until MPs return from the summer break on Sept. 17?

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