Budget Implementation Bill, 2017, No. 1—Certain Committees Authorized to Study Subject MatterPublished on 8 May 2017 Hansard and Statements by Senator Joseph Day
Hon. Joseph A. Day (Leader of the Senate Liberals):
Honourable senators, I wanted to say a few words with respect to this motion to deal with a budget implementation bill and to divide it into various committees for pre-study. I thought that it was important to go on the record with certain points at this stage, and I appreciate honourable colleagues bearing with me in relation to the following comments. It’s with mixed feelings that I rise to speak on this motion for a pre-study of the budget implementation bill.
First of all, as I have said before, I am not generally in favour of doing pre-studies in the Senate. Successive governments have brought forward complex legislation on different topics and then told us it was urgent and that a pre-study in the Senate would help move it along. But, colleagues, that is not our role here in the Senate. Our role is to consider legislation after it has been reviewed and passed by the other place. We are a chamber of sober second thought. Pre-studies fly in the face of that role that the Senate was intended to fulfill in our parliamentary democracy. And too often, a pre-study is then used by the government of the day to justify pressure on us to rush through the real job, and that is examining the bill when it does arrive here, as amended or otherwise.
So I’m not a fan of pre-studies, and I’ve only reluctantly participated in them over the years. But here we are again, and I thought it important to put that on the record.
Secondly, I am deeply disappointed to see that, with this budget bill, the government has apparently abandoned its election promise to end the practice of introducing omnibus bills.
Colleagues, Bill C-44 is an omnibus bill. It is long, at just under 300 pages in length, but more problematic than its length is the far-reaching scope of the topics.
In addition to the normal and traditional budget bill amendments, such as the Income Tax Act, under Bill C-44, the bill would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Canada Labour Code, the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act and the Parliament of Canada Act. Those are just a few of the statutes amended by this bill of 300 pages.
That’s not all, honourable colleagues. In addition, Bill C-44 would enact three entirely new stand-alone pieces of legislation, each of which could easily have been introduced here as a stand-alone piece of legislation. But instead they are buried inside the 300 pages of all of these amendments.
Specifically, Bill C-44 would enact the “Canada Infrastructure Bank Act,” the “Invest in Canada Act,” and the “Service Fees Act.” If this is not an omnibus bill, colleagues, what is?
Less than a year ago, on June 16, 2016, I praised the government’s budget implementation bill, Bill C-15, because the government had kept its promise to Canadians and not resorted to an omnibus bill under the guise of implementing certain provisions of what might have been mentioned in that rambling document that we call a budget.
What a change a year makes.
Hence, today I am doubly disappointed as we debate a motion to conduct a pre-study of an omnibus bill. Pre-studies I don’t like, and omnibus bills I think we should not like.
But, honourable senators, we are faced with the scope of this omnibus bill and the limited time we will have to consider the actual bill when it arrives. Because this is another problem of process. Typically we don’t have a lot of time to deal with a budget implementation bill when it finally does arrive for consideration. Given this, I believe we really have little choice. Clearly, there is work to be done on this matter, colleagues.
For my remarks today, I will focus on one part of the bill that I find particularly troubling, namely, the proposed amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act regarding the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
I initially raised my concerns about these provisions during Question Period a number of weeks ago.
These provisions are found in Part 4, Division 7 of the bill, and they are lengthy. They begin at page 77 and continue to page 110 — 33 pages dealing with amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act relating to the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
They are not minor tweaks to existing legislation, but rather the amendments completely replace the existing provisions that created and govern the work of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
Indeed, because of their complexity and their importance, many have suggested these sections dealing with the Parliamentary Budget Officer should be carved out of this budget bill and addressed as a separate, stand-alone bill focused just on this issue.
The intention of these provisions, as the Government Representative in the Senate told us, is to “provide greater independence to the Parliamentary Budget Officer” and enable the office to “do its job more effectively.”
Let me read to you from the Liberal Party election platform of 2015:
We will make the Parliamentary Budget Officer truly independent. . . .
To make sure that we have the best information on hand, we will ensure that the Parliamentary Budget Officer is truly independent of government. We will make sure that the office is properly funded, and accountable only — and directly — to Parliament, not to the government of the day.
My concern, colleagues, is that it’s not clear to me that the provisions of Bill C-44 that we’re dealing with here today fulfill that promise. Will the Parliamentary Budget Officer have true independence with these changes that are being proposed? Will the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer be able to provide parliamentarians the information they want and need to hold the government to account?
Perhaps it would be helpful to provide a little history on this matter. The Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer was created in 2006 by the previous government in its well-known Federal Accountability Act, Bill C-2. I was the opposition critic in the Senate when we studied that bill, and I well remember our deliberations as we worked to ensure that the Parliamentary Budget Officer would be independent, and be able to provide parliamentarians, not the government, with the support that we all agreed was so very important to our work.
I’m sure everyone here is aware of the challenges that the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer has faced from time to time, since it was created, particularly with respect to obtaining the information needed to do the job asked. Governments will often suggest that they like the idea of being held to account, but theory is often more attractive than practice.
So let’s look at some of the promises made regarding the Parliamentary Budget Officer during the last election. The amendments in Bill C-44, while containing a number of positive elements, appear to fall short on many of these promises.
However, let me begin with the positive. I welcome the appointment process for the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Under Bill C-44, the Parliamentary Budget Officer would be appointed by the Governor-in-Council after consultation with the Leader of the Government in the Senate, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, the leader of every caucus and every recognized group in the Senate, as well as the leader of every recognized party in the other place. That is consistent with the appointment mechanism for other officers of Parliament and is a welcome step in my opinion.
I also welcome the longer term proposed in Bill C-44 for the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The current five-year term would be extended to seven years.
However, I have concerns with some of the other provisions of the legislation. For instance, the bill includes a provision that I believe is unprecedented for any officer of Parliament. Proposed section 79.14 would require the Parliamentary Budget Officer to prepare an annual work plan that would be “. . . subject to the approval of the Speaker of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Commons . . . .”
I’ve looked at the statutes for several other officers of Parliament, and I could not find any similar provision.
Remember the Liberal Party’s 2015 election commitment that I read a moment ago: “We will make sure that the office is properly funded, and accountable only — and directly — to Parliament, not the government of the day.”
The Speaker of the Senate is not elected by the members of this chamber but rather is appointed by the Governor General, who acts upon the advice of the Prime Minister, who is part of the government and the executive. Our Speaker may be removed from his position by the Governor General, meaning, again, the Prime Minister and the executive.
So how would the Parliamentary Budget Officer be accountable “only — and directly — to Parliament, not the government of the day” if his or her work plan is subject to the approval of someone who is appointed by, and who can be dismissed by, the government, not by parliamentarians? Colleagues will recall that in April, just before the Easter break, I asked the Government Representative in the Senate about this clause. Not surprisingly, he replied that “it is the view of the Government of Canada that the legislation introduced does indeed provide greater independence to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.”
But he added that he recognized that this is a matter that will be debated and discussed, and he invited all senators to participate in that debate. I echo that invitation, and I look forward to our committee’s examination of this issue during the pre-study and when we study the bill itself, when it finally arrives here.
Another concern I have relates to the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It’s not often that I stand here and praise legislation introduced by the previous Conservative government but that is the case today. The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, as set out in section 79.2 of the Parliament of Canada Act, has proven to be clear and effective. It allowed the Parliamentary Budget Officer to provide excellent support to parliamentarians, both in our committee work and in holding the government to account.
I was deeply concerned to see that Bill C-44 would restrict that mandate and would appear to disallow work that has proved invaluable in the past to parliamentarians and to Canadians. Let me explain. A critical part of the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s mandate is currently found in paragraph 79.2(d) of the Parliament of Canada Act. It states:
The mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is to
(d) when requested to do so by a member of either House or by a committee of the Senate or of the House of Commons, or a committee of both Houses, estimate the financial cost of any proposal that relates to a matter over which Parliament has jurisdiction.
That’s a huge mandate, and it’s very broad. That is the provision that allowed parliamentarians, including members who are now cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries, to obtain financial costing information that proved invaluable in holding the previous government to account. For example, that was the provision that was used to obtain the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s costing of the proposed F-35 fighter jet contract and the costing on the previous government’s Truth in Sentencing Act.
The right of individual parliamentarians to make such requests of the Parliamentary Budget Officer is being removed by this bill. The only opportunity the Parliamentary Budget Officer would have in the future to undertake such a costing would be if a committee should request the information, not the individual parliamentarian, or if it had been in the annual work plan previously approved by the two Speakers.
I find it difficult to understand how this is an improvement for an individual member of either chamber.
Colleagues, those are a few concerns I have identified. There are other issues with the proposed measures relating to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and there are other complex provisions in this very long — 300-page — omnibus bill that time doesn’t permit me to mention at this stage.
The very fact that this motion divides the bill into portions for different Senate committees is evidence that we recognize that the bill is too complicated and diverse to be dealt with properly by any one committee. We do not have many options at this stage, however, honourable senators. We can wait and divide the bill when we receive it, or pre-study the bill now with various committees so that we’re ready when the bill actually arrives in this chamber.
While I maintain my dislike for pre-studies, it is clear in this case there is much work that needs to be done. So I will reluctantly support this motion, to ensure we will have the time needed to do a proper examination of the many parts of this latest omnibus budget bill.