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?
Justin Trudeau, MP
Justin Trudeau, MP
Justin Trudeau, MP
Justin Trudeau, MP
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.