OTTAWA – The latest omnibus budget bill from the Harper government makes changes to everything from the Indian Act and the Canadian Labour Code to the Canada Shipping Act.
The bill kills off independent tribunals that examined things such as hazardous materials in the workplace and set the rates for employment insurance premiums, while making workers pay taxes on their employers’ contributions to group health and accident insurance plans.
It also sharply reduces project approvals required under the Navigable Waters Protection Act, sets time limits on worker complaints under the Canada Labour Code and makes additional changes to an Environmental Assessment Act that was essentially rewritten by the Conservative government last spring.
It lays out a whole new act for the building of a new bridge from Windsor, Ont., to Detroit, while exempting the project from “a number of federal laws under which permits, approvals or authorizations would normally be required.”
The bill — the second of two massive implementation acts based on the March federal budget — contains no surprises, said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who angrily accused the opposition of being too lazy to read last spring’s federal spending blueprint.
“What’s in the bill today is in the budget,” Flaherty snapped in the House of Commons.
“If you haven’t read the budget, I say to my honourable friends on the other side, I don’t know what you did all summer…. Do your work. Do your job.”
But citing the words of a young Stephen Harper, opposition MPs responded that the sprawling omnibus bill is exactly what’s preventing them from doing their job — examining proposed legislation in detail and depth.
“How do they expect Canadians to understand all the devious schemes and plans this government has for them in such a short amount of time?” demanded Nathan Cullen, the NDP House leader.
“This is a prime minister who used to have contempt for such tactics (while an opposition MP).”
Critics suggest the devil is always in the details — and at 457 pages, the omnibus legislation includes a lot of them.
“Frankly, I think it’s a little dishonest on the part of Mr. Flaherty to say that there are no surprises in the budget bill,” said Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader.
“In a Conservative budget, there are always surprises.”
In fact, a cursory search of the March 2012 budget document reveals that Flahery is wrong — not everything in the legislation tabled Thursday was flagged in the spring spending blueprint.
For instance, on EI rates, the budget stated that: “Over the next few years, the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board (CEIFB) will continue to set the rate, but the government will limit rate increases to no more than five cents each year until the EI Operating Account is balanced.”
On Thursday, the board was disbanded while the Conservatives set up what they’re calling an “interim … regime” for setting EI rates.
The budget also made no mention of changes to the definition of a native fishery included in the omnibus bill, while the Navigable Waters Protection Act is entirely absent from the March budget.
That didn’t stop the prime minister from claiming every measure in the omnibus bill — including those made public for the first time Thursday — has the public’s seal of approval.
“I don’t know what specific objections (opposition critics) have to them, but I know they’ve been well received by the Canadian public and they are important to continue the superior performance of the Canadian economy,” Harper told the Commons.
The navigable waters changes drew the sharpest reaction Thursday.
The previous omnibus budget bill sparked a lengthy parliamentary battle in June over changes to the Environmental Assessment Act that rewrote the rules for major project developments.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities applauded the latest changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which similarly clear away regulatory hurdles.
The reforms, it said, will “make it more affordable to build basic infrastructure.”
Critics, including aboriginal groups and environmentalists, were appalled.
The new act, rechristened the Navigation Protection Act, limits its scope to just 97 lakes and 62 rivers. There are almost 32,000 lakes in Canada larger than three square kilometres, according to Natural Resources Canada.
“In other words,” said Green party Leader Elizabeth May, “the minister of transport and the federal government will have nothing to say about dams, mines, bridges, highways — you name it — that obstruct and change the waterways of Canada unless they happen to be a listed waterway.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called the existing law “a worldwide model for good environmental stewardship” and said Canadians are “going to be losing an incredible, unique protection.”
And a spokesman for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta called the move “unacceptable.”
“They have made a unilateral decision to remove the protection of waterways without adequate consultation with First Nations and communities that rely on river systems for navigation and cultural practices protected under treaty,” Eriel Deranger said in a release.