OTTAWA - Opposition parties were declaring a victory of sorts over the federal goverment's omnibus bill Friday after persuading the Conservatives to allow the legislation's MP pension-reform provisions to be passed separately.
And they expressed hope that winning the battle could help them win the larger war against the use of catch-all legislation critics decry as anti-democratic.
Speedy negotiations saw changes to the MP pension program plucked from the new budget bill Friday morning and passed unanimously by the House of Commons without any further study.
It was a rare about-face for the Conservatives, who earlier this year refused outright to carve out any of the changes included in their first budget implementation bill, which amended dozens of laws.
Critics had wanted that bill cracked open so its various provisions could receive more detailed study; they asked for the same opportunity with the second bill, introduced Thursday.
The Conservatives demurred, for what many thought were political purposes.
"The government initially, I think, wanted to put us in a position where we would be voting against the Budget Implementation Act for a variety of reasons and then to be able to accuse us of somehow being opposed to the cuts to MPs' pensions," said Liberal MP Scott Brison.
"We pre-empted that."
It was the Liberals who suggested that the pension components of the bill be separated out for a speedy vote. The New Democrats came on board when that was reduced to just the segment on MP pensions, not public-sector pensions across the board.
The Conservatives agreed.
"We had an opportunity here to have that proceed through the House of Commons with unanimous consent and we were pleased to be able to do it," said government House leader Peter Van Loan.
New Democrat House leader Nathan Cullen said the all-party consent made two important points.
"One is proving that Parliament can work, which Canadians are increasingly believing they can't because of this Conservative government," Cullen said.
"We also proved that the finance minister was a bit wrong in saying that the bill could not be broken apart. It's not true. It can."
The second budget implementation bill makes changes to a number of acts and regulations, including the Indian Act and the Canadian Labour Code and the Canada Shipping Act.
The Conservatives insist that the measures were all in the budget introduced in March and thus belong in a budget bill. Not so, say critics.
Among the most contentious is changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
The Conservatives say the proposed changes are included in the section of the budget that focuses on the Transport portfolio — page 282 of the budget document, to be precise — but that page makes no explicit mention of the act.
The new act, named the Navigation Protection Act, limits its scope to just 97 lakes and 62 rivers, which the New Democrats say puts the thousands of others at serious risk.
"Canada has hundreds of thousands of rivers and lakes that are vital for our ecosystems, drinking water and recreation," said NDP MP Olivia Chow.
"And now the Conservatives are throwing out vital protection mechanisms to please their big oil friends."
The Conservatives say they are doing no such thing.
"What we are doing is modernizing a piece of legislation that was passed in 1882," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Friday, adding the changes are in response to concerns from municipalities about red tape.
Van Loan said if the opposition would agree to swift passage of other measures, the government would be glad to hive them off.
"We're always willing to talk with other parties about if they want to see things passed through quickly," he said.
The NDP had wanted the changes to the MP pension program put before a committee, because they feel there is a conflict of interest for MPs in deciding their own remuneration.
The alterations to the MP program will sharply increase the contributions MPs must make to their pensions and require them to wait until age 65 to collect.
Contributions which now run about $11,000 a year will rise to about $39,000.
Under the old system, MPs could start collecting a pension at age 55.
The changes could provide incentive for an exodus from politics, since key provisions won't take effect until after the next election in 2015.
So those MPs who have served the minimum six years required to collect a pension could exit public life that year and still access the old plan.
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