Mr. Speaker, this is my first opportunity to speak in the House since the events of last week. I am proud of how the House conducted itself in the wake of such terror, such atrocities, such shocking tragedy. It was good for Canada that we resumed sitting the very next morning, that we stood strong, that our leaders addressed Canadians, and that our leaders embraced. It was good for the nation to embrace.
It has been three years, and last week was the first time as a member of Parliament that I felt partisan lines dissolve, momentarily at least. I felt somewhat that way after Jack Layton died and after the passing of Jim Flaherty, but not to the degree I felt it here a week ago today. The House came together as one.
It is not every day that I stand up and applaud the Conservative Prime Minister. It is not every day that the Prime Minister stands up and applauds the leader of Her Majesty's opposition, the New Democratic Party of Canada, or the third party Liberals. It is not every day I personally compliment the Prime Minister. In fact, it never happened until last week.
The Prime Minister made a statement in the House last Thursday that I have since repeated a number of times because it struck a chord and I agreed with the statement. The Prime Minister said: “In our system, in our country, we are opponents, but we are never enemies”.
We are united in the House by the desire to better our country. As opponents, we disagree on how to get there, but we all strive for a better Canada, for this country to be the best country it can be. We are opponents, but we are never enemies. That is why it is so infuriating to see the government introduce, yet again, an absolutely massive anti-democratic omnibus bill. It is a bill that amounts to an affront to the principles and spirit that this precious institution was built on.
The Prime Minister said we are opponents but we are never enemies. I say we are Canadians but we are never fools. We are members of Parliament, but we are never puppets, at least we should never be puppets. We are elected to serve, to stand on guard for the Canadian way, for democracy, for our communities and our constituents. However, omnibus bills such as this are an attack on Parliament. Omnibus bills undermine Parliament.
In the words of former auditor general Sheila Fraser, “Parliament has become so undermined it is almost unable to do the job that people expect of it”.
Bill C-43 is a budget bill, but it is so much more than that. It is an omnibus bill, meaning it is a proposed law that covers a number of diverse or unrelated topics. In this case the number is a truckload. It could fill a boat to the gunwales. The bill is 400 pages long. It has more than 400 clauses. It amends dozens of acts. The bill contains a host of measures that were not even mentioned in the original budget. This is the Conservatives' sixth straight omnibus bill. It is too much for one bill.
There are some things in it that we like, such as ending pay to pay billing so Canadians are not forced to pay for a paper copy of their bills. We like that, although even that does not go far enough. The bill only bans pay to pay billing for telecom and broadcast companies. What about banks? Why should banks still be allowed to gouge Canadians? That is what they are doing. By charging Canadians for their paper bills, they are gouging Canadians, and the Conservatives are letting them get away with it.
There are also some things that we outright disagree with in this omnibus bill, like denying access to social assistance for refugee claimants. What else do they live on if not social assistance, in so many cases? This attack on the most vulnerable comes on the heels of Conservative cuts to refugee health care, a move that the Federal Court called “cruel and unusual”.
Denying access to social assistance for refugee claimants was a backbench private member's bill that was rammed into this omnibus bill after the media and anti-poverty and labour groups tore it apart.
There are parts of this omnibus bills we like; there are more parts of this omnibus bill that we do not like; and there are more parts of this bill that I will not even get to. It is not possible. In the end, there is no way that I, as the member of Parliament for St. John's South—Mount Pearl, can critique this omnibus bill, let alone analyze details of more than 400 clauses, given such limited debate and limited time, with so much stacked and rammed into one bill.
Here is how one parliamentarian described the use of omnibus bills. This is from a column by Russell Wangersky in today's The Telegram, the daily newspaper in east coast Newfoundland. This parliamentarian stated:
In the interest of democracy I ask: how can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and such concerns? … I would argue that the subject matter of the bill is so diverse that a single vote on the content would put members in conflict with their own principles.
Who was the parliamentarian who was so outraged about the Liberal blockbuster omnibus bill? It was none other than the Prime Minister of Canada himself, when he was in opposition in 1994.
When the Conservative government and the Liberal governments before it ram so much legislation into omnibus bills it leads to mistakes. Who pays for those mistakes? Canadians pay for them. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pay for those mistakes.
The Conservative government used a 2012 omnibus bill to create the new Social Security Tribunal, which hears appeals related to the Canada pension plan, disability benefits, employment insurance, and old age security. My constituency office has officially been told that the backlog of cases is one year. Unofficially the backlog is three years. That 2012 omnibus bill capped the size of the tribunal at 74 full-time staff. It also removed limits on the number of hours part-time staff can work—thus, the backlog.
Now the Conservative government is using this latest budget bill to expand the Social Security Tribunal. The government has said that the change would allow it to add employees to respond to a backlog of nearly 11,000 cases across the country related to CPP and OAS. That mistake would likely not have happened if that piece of legislation had not been lost in an omnibus bill and if members of Parliament had been given an opportunity to better scrutinize the bill. However, we were not given that opportunity, and Canadians have paid the price.
The journalist Michael Harris, who is well known in Newfoundland and Labrador for his work with the Sunday Express newspaper and for books such as Unholy Orders and Lament for an Ocean, has a new book called Party of One, reflections on a prime minister.
He quotes Peter Milliken, former speaker of the House of Commons, who stated:
Parliament can hardly be weakened any more than it already is. [The Prime Minister] can't go much further without making the institution dysfunctional....
Michael Harris also quotes the late Farley Mowat, who stated that the Prime Minister is, “the most dangerous human being ever elevated to power in Canada”.
We are opponents; we are never enemies. The Prime Minister is right. We are opponents, and the Prime Minister has to stop treating us with contempt. The Prime Minister has to stop treating us like fools.