Oh man. It’s finally October. The month of reckoning. The month, God willing, that I can finally start prefixing ‘former prime minister’ to all my complaints about Stephen Harper. Or cry/drink a lot. I guess we’ll see.
The election is upon us so I don’t mind tipping my (poorly hidden) hand. Stephen Harper sucks. He sucks on the environment, indigenous rights, women’s rights, foreign affairs, humanitarian aid, social services, intergovernmental relations, the rule of law, civil liberties, maintaining the basic statistical information necessary to coordinating the operation of a transcontinental federal state in the 21st century, and he also sucks on the economy. He even sucks at being a conservative.
The government is only shrinking in terms of the way it helps people; it’s repressive and carceral (that is, punishment and prison) dimensions have expanded. Dude can’t even be bothered to pay veterans properly. What a hack.
Basically, omnibus bills are when governments package a whole bunch of different (and often unrelated) measures into a single, giant document in an attempt to overwhelm Parliament and short-circuit its ability to read, scrutinize, and debate each item on their own merits. It’s the legislative equivalent of parking a truck diagonally across three handicap spaces and planting land mines around it in case anyone calls a tow truck.
In fairness, Harper & Friends didn’t invent this. The Liberals used to really like doing this too, and Young Stephen Harper would get really really mad about it until he discovered the joys of doing it himself. But the Conservatives have perfected it into an art. Omnibus bills are something of a trademark.
The Harper Government has routinely dropped bills over 450 pages in length in the House of Commons and routinely invoked closure on them to force everyone to vote on them. They dropped one that clocked in at over 880 pages in 2010. Even the budget this year ran almost 160 pages, and included bonus provisos giving security officials the power to seize passports and set up a new police force for Parliament Hill.
Why? To deliberately sabotage Parliament’s function as a check on executive power.
Don’t take my word for it: Reform MP Stephen Harper chewed out the Liberals for tabling a 21 page omnibus bill in 1994 by noting that it would “ultimately go to only one committee of the House, a committee that will inevitably lack the breadth of expertise required for consideration of a bill of this scope.”
Of course, that was Harper Then – Harper Now would submit a few of his own between 20 to 40 times the size. He saw a loophole in the way our system worked and instead of patching it up, he drove a train through it. It’s ruthlessly, comically cynical. The opposition parties in the minority government days (2006-2011) were too impotent to challenge it and the public has been too disengaged to care.
The Canadian system doesn’t have many written rules, so the way government works is determined as much by habit and convention as by design. We have lived through almost a decade where gaming our (admittedly flimsy) democratic institutions to make them work anti-democratically has become the norm. The result is that we are all poorer for it.
Whether or not a change in government would buck this path of least resistance and drop a few bad habits is hard to say. It depends how cynical you feel about Canadian party politics. But letting the Conservative party take a crowbar to the Commons hasn’t done us a lot of good over the last 9 years, and it’s unlikely that’ll change if they get another 4. God preserve us if we hand them the keys again.