War of words persists over Conservative budget bill as voting marathon looms

OTTAWA – The Conservatives’ controversial omnibus budget bill is so big, not even the Library of Parliament could digest it all.

At more than 400 pages, Bill C-38 pokes into almost every nook and cranny of Canadian life, from the high end —how the Governor General gets paid — to the low: making sure people can still spend their discontinued pennies.

Skipping a detailed review of the Reducing the Jobs, Growth and Prosperity Act in favour of a point-form precis may have been a time saver on the part of the library’s parliamentary researchers.

But it highlights the crux of the opposition’s argument against a bill that’s now the centre of a parliamentary game of chicken, which will keep MPs in their seats around the clock starting Wednesday, sometime around the dinner hour.

The bill didn’t get enough study or debate, they argue. It’s too big. It simply changes too much.

“The list is so broad, this has been a challenge for the opposition. In describing what’s going to happen to the country, which ones do you pick?” said NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen.

“The list is absolutely extraordinary, and extraordinarily bad.”

In a last-ditch effort to pare back the changes the bill will make to more than 70 laws currently on the books, the opposition threw more than 1,000 amendments at it last week.

On Wednesday, MPs will begin what will likely be more than 24 hours of consecutive voting on the 800 amendments that were deemed acceptable by the Speaker.

It’s not just parliamentary mischief, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae insisted.

“Procedure is just a way we have to do things sometimes because of the battle over the principle,” Rae said.

“This is over a basic principle. It’s about the principle of sustainability. It’s about the principle of democracy and respecting the public. It’s about the principle of living up to your promises and not doing things which go completely contrary to what you said even a year ago.”

The Conservatives call the barrage of amendments a stall tactic designed to thwart important and necessary legislation.

“We have had a record amount of study of this particular piece of legislation. There has been major work before Parliament for three months,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday.

“On this side of the House, we are prepared to continue getting on with continuing to produce jobs and growth for the Canadian economy.”

Opposition to the bill doesn’t just come from within the parliamentary precinct.

Environmentalists are outraged over the changes being made to assessment criteria for natural resources projects.

Social groups are upset about the plan to raise the age of eligibility for old age security to 67 from 65.

Workers in seasonal industries are concerned about changes being made to employment insurance that could see them forced to take unpalatable jobs.

And those are just the big changes.

The bill also creates stricter rules for charities on how much political activity they can carry out, eliminates oversight of Canada’s spy agency, changes the way the government approves marketing claims for food and gets rid of plastic cards for social insurance numbers.

It also targets people who aren’t even Canadian: the bill eliminates a backlog of some 280,000 skilled worker applications from countries around the world.

Those changes have spurred a global backlash, with protests outside Canadian diplomatic missions in India and China.

Other protests are planned for Wednesday, when the advocacy group is calling on people to gather outside of Conservative MP offices to demand change.

“We’ll rally their home ridings, and communities across Canada, to call for 13 ‘hero’ Conservative MPs to work together and stop the bill, split it, and start over,” the group’s executive director, Jamie Biggar, said in a statement.

Thirteen is the magic number of government MPs who would be needed to vote against the bill in order to break the Conservative majority.

Currently, the Conservatives have 164 seats in the Commons, the NDP 101, the Liberals 35, the Bloc Quebecois four and the Green Party one.

There are two independents: former Tory MP Peter Goldring, who left the caucus after being charged with impaired driving, and former New Democrat MP Bruce Hyer, who left after being disciplined for breaking ranks and voting to repeal the gun registry.

One vacancy was created earlier this month when Tory MP Lee Richardson left to work for the Conservative government in Alberta.

The math will be crucial over the coming 24 hours or more of votes: if the Tories don’t maintain their majority, they run the risk of accidentally letting some of the amendments through.

The Opposition plans to keep its benches full.

“I want these folks to feel a little bit of a pain for their arrogance,” said Cullen.

“I think it’s foolhardy to approach Parliament as an annoyance, as a problem to overcome, that democracy is somehow in the way all the time.”