Voting marathon starts near midnight hour on Tory budget bill battle

OTTAWA – It was just before 1 a.m. ET Thursday when parliamentarians began voting on proposed changes to an omnibus Conservative budget bill dubbed the “the omni-mess” by opponents.

But by then, the derisive sobriquet for the massive, 400-plus-page piece of legislation that makes sprawling changes to almost every facet of Canadian life — from pensions to fish habitat — had snuck into even Tory vocabulary.

The bill, known as the Jobs, Growth and Long Term Prosperity Act, or C-38, had been buffeting government MPs with unanticipated political turbulence well before it locked them into a 24-hour voting marathon not expected to end much before midnight Thursday.

After interminable procedure, the first of what could be 159 recorded votes began at 12:59 a.m.

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his front bench all in place, the Conservative majority won 150-133, setting the pattern to follow.

MPs turned their Commons seats into mini-daycares, packing plastic bags filled with junk food and IPads loaded with the latest TV shows.

An already long haul was stretched even further by a series of Liberal motions, designed to ensure one of their private members’ bills would be dealt with before the budget amendments hit the floor.

Thus, as a prelude to the main event, the Conservative majority voted down an NDP motion aimed at making Canada meet the international 30-minute standard for search-and-rescue response times. Some Tories, however, joined with the opposition to pass a Liberal motion requesting a finance committee study of income inequality.

And just to add to the day’s frenzy, Speaker Andrew Scheer ruled Wednesday evening that MPs were not “impeded in the fulfillment of their parliamentary duties” by government stonewalling on the budget bill’s impact. The NDP had argued the Conservative refusal to detail cuts to public service jobs and programs was a breach of privilege.

Four deputy speakers read all 871 motions into the record — a three-hour-plus dirge — and there were 55 voice votes before the real voting business finally got underway.

The mind-numbing exercise is all in the name of democracy, opposition MPs argued.

The budget legislation — which alters everything from the age Canadians will receive Old Age Security to environmental regulations, spy agency oversight and cross-border policing, to name just a few items — hasn’t received the detailed study such enormous changes require, they said.

“We are facing a government that does not respect this institution,” said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

“The reason we are elected is to look at the laws carefully and they are refusing to allow us to have a serious look at this bill.”

Their criticisms were echoed by a series of protests taking place across Canada, including on the steps of Parliament Hill.

About 100 people gathered beneath the Peace Tower, one sign reading: “Good friends know how to split a bill.”

The government has insisted it needs each and every legislated change to follow through on its promise of job creation and economic growth.

“We live in a global economy and global events will affect us here, so we need to have the tools to continue to keep Canada strong,” said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

“We need to get the right balance of appropriate resource regulation, sustainable social program and job creation and, of course, fiscal sustainability.”

The government refused repeated requests from opposition parties to break up the bill into more manageable sections.

“By refusing to compromise, the Conservatives are setting a dangerous precedent,” said Liberal House leader Marc Garneau.

“This budget bill goes too far and the Liberal party is using all the tools at our disposal to fight this government’s bully tactics.”

When the dust settles, the Tories may have a mess of their own to clean up. Party insiders say the government has been getting an earful from constituents who are complaining not only about the major policy changes in the bill, such as streamlining the environmental assessment process and raising the age of OAS eligibility, but the omnibus nature of the bill itself.

The push back is unexpected, the insiders say, given that the Conservatives have used omnibus bills with increased frequency and little sustained resistance since they took power in 2006.

They’ve been deployed for legislation linking together a series of similar bills, like crime, and for budgets.

The 2010 budget implementation bill, for instance, weighed in at more than 800 pages.

It’s about time for some resistance, argued political science professor Ned Franks, who has kept a watchful eye on budget implementation bills in particular.

He said they’ve increased from 36 pages on average from 1994-95 to 692 pages in 2010-2011.

In addition to the page lengths, the budget bills have taken to adding “and other measures” to their formal titles, Franks noted.

“Not only are recent ones far longer than those of the past, they make no pretence of being limited to subjects actually mentioned in the budget speech,” he said.

It’s reducing the role of MPs to little more than a rubber stamp, he said, as they don’t have enough time to fully study the bills at hand.

“I was hoping that the Harper government, once it had a majority and knew it could get stuff through, would stop using what I consider an abuse of parliamentary procedure,” Franks said. “They haven’t.”

The government argues the omnibus bills help streamline the legislative process.

They also offer the strategic bonus of allowing a government to focus its offence and defence entirely on a single major bill, rather than being forced to face a political firing squad on multiple pieces of legislation.

Whether the omnibus strategy remains part of the Conservative playbook will likely be part of upcoming strategy talks for the fall session, when another budget implementation bill is due.

The New Democrats say they won’t be letting the issue rest.

“We’re going to stand up to the Conservatives. It will be a long and difficult process,” Mulcair said.

“But even if the result under a majority is already pre-determined, the actions being taken by a Conservative government will have long-term consequences.”

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning, however, the focus for all parties was singular: getting through the voting marathon. With no less than 67 and no more than 159 individual votes scheduled, MPs likely will need to stay in or close to their Commons seats until well into Thursday evening.

The opposition is mindful that if the Conservatives allow their attention to falter in the Commons, some amendments could pass.

The Tories have divided their caucus into 11 groups, with 10 required in the Commons at all times. Each group will get a 30 minute break roughly every five hours.

Notwithstanding the voting showdown, the budget bill will eventually pass, given the Conservatives have a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. It is scheduled to get third reading on Monday before it goes to the Senate.