In 1982, an omnibus bill proposed by the Pierre Trudeau government provoked such indignation in parliamentarians that the official opposition whip refused to show up in the House of Commons.
Back then the custom was for Parliament to ring noisy “division bells” when opposition whips pulled a no-show and in this case they rang loudly — for two whole weeks.
The noise was so unbearable that parliamentarians were supplied, and this is no joke, with earplugs at the door.
While the division bells no longer ring, the passing of the Harper government’s most recent and certainly most contentious omnibus bill, the anti-terrorism bill C-51, has created a tremendous amount of noise.
Yet the federal Conservatives seem to have found that old pile of earplugs.
Dense, Murky C-51 Put Opposition, Media in Impossible Position
Bill C-51 has generated outrage from a broad swath of society.
Former prime ministers, national editorial boards, tech experts, legal scholars, civil society organizations, democracy watchdogs and droves of citizens have opposed the bill, saying it goes too far in its fight against terrorism, ultimately undermining the democratic rights of Canadians.
Part of that outrage can be tied back to the content of the bill, which affects a grab bag of civil liberties — from freedom of expression to the right to protest.
Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice, says that while he’s encouraged to see so much public engagement with C-51, it was disappointing to see the bill survive a vote in the House of Commons.
“It was disappointing to see the bill be passed and to have the outcome the federal government intended: to make a bill of such a mix of issues that opposition parties both support and oppose that it put opposition parties in an impossible position,” he said.
“Opposition parties were handcuffed in their abilities to understand and engage in the issues and vote accordingly,” Page added.
"These bills are threat to democracy because they don’t allow fulsome debate,” he said. “To parse that out a bit, because they link typically unrelated issues in bulk, their side effect is … they typically short circuit that.”
Page added this federal government has used omnibus bills to avoid full debate in question period. Even where bills address single issues, question period debate still usually falls short of engaging all relevant issues.
But he said, “when you combine issues,” in an omnibus fashion, “the intention is to frustrate debate.” Not only in Parliament, he adds, but for media saddled with complex issues that are difficult to cover.
Laurel Collins, an instructor of social justice studies and doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria, agrees.
“Omnibus bills, like Bill C-51, often make proposed legislation inaccessible to the Canadian public,” she said. “This so-called anti-terror bill had so many broad changes that it’s hard to provide people with a comprehensive yet still accessible critique.”
Collins, who studies social movements and nonviolent activism, has been actively speaking out against the bill at public forums in Victoria, B.C.
She said Canadians were lucky the NDP filibustered the bill, “which bought us more time to inform Canadians about the far-reaching impacts of this bill, and allowed for a few more expert witnesses in the committee hearing.“
“Without this, we may not have seen the dramatic drop in public support for Bill C-51.”
Collins said the Harper government assumed it could get away with passing the bill without much public scrutiny.
“I think it shows their extreme hubris, that even after Canadians overwhelmingly opposed the bill, they still pushed it though.”
Wheels on the Omnibus Go Round and Round
Like other omnibus bills forced through Parliament by the Harper government, Bill C-51 was a complicated wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Called an anti-terrorism bill, opposition parties were faced with the challenge of appearing, unfairly, pro-terrorism if they fought the bill. It’s an old trick: a ‘you’re either with us, or your with the terrorists’ kind of thing.
Page said this has the effect of “embarrassing opposition parties by tying in favourable and unfavourable issues” that make it difficult for them to take a strong stance (this is surely the trap the federal Liberal party fell in to).
The same goes for other major omnibus bills vigorously fought by the opposition.
Omnibus budget Bill C-38 was nicknamed the environmental destruction act by federal Green party leader Elizabeth May because of its sweeping changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Energy Board Act, the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act and many, many more.
(Seriously, just take a look at all the acts that bill affected. Warning: your hand might get tired from scrolling down the page.)
That bill was amazingly called the “Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act.” Similarly, the cousin omnibus Bill C-45, which eliminated protection for the majority of Canada’s waterways to the benefit of pipeline operators, was called the “Jobs and Growth Act.”
And if that’s not Orwellian enough for you, omnibus Bill C-10, which promised to overhaul Canada’s justice system and fill its prisons, was called the “Safe Streets and Communities Act.” The Canadian Civil Liberties Association called the bill “unwise, unjust and unconstitutional,” a sentiment that was echoed by the John Howard Society, the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Council on Refugees among many others.
Although these omnibus bills are perhaps the most well-known, there are many more, according to federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May.
Banned in the U.S., Omnibus Bills a Harper Specialty
“The business of using omnibus legislation to push through things that are unpalatable so they don’t get properly studied and don’t get proper time allocation — this is pure Harper,” May said.
“We’ve had two omnibus budget bills every year — 2012, 2013, and 2014. There were some that were more targeted on the environment than others but none of them were good.”
May said in a way, budget Bill C-38 laid the groundwork for some of the worst implications of bill C-51.
"Back in the spring of 2012, among the many things that C-38 did…one of the less noticed ones was getting rid of the inspector general for CSIS. So there’s nobody reviewing CSIS activity. There’s the Security Intelligence Review Committee,” she said, ”which reviews CSIC activities, but nobody’s playing an oversight role.”
The lack of CSIS oversight has been cause for huge concern considering the expanded powers extended to the spy agency under new rules. This is where the “secret police” criticism comes in.
May said Canadians need to make the passage of C-51 into an election issue.
“We must make it a sufficient election issue so that whoever become prime minister, whatever party forms government, will have to act on this and repeal C-51.”
Beyond that, May said we need to eliminate the use of omnibus legislation in Canada.
“It really has to stop after the election,” she said. “We have to take steps to make sure nobody can do this again.”
Page said many U.S. states have already done so, with California banning bills that include more than one subject.