Mr. Speaker, I rise to address the motion today by starting with the observation that there are effectively two points to this motion.
One is that the motion asks us to agree with some sentiments expressed several years ago, almost 20 years ago, by the member for Calgary Southwest, who is now the Prime Minister, with respect to a certain characteristic of what he called omnibus bills and what we are now discussing as omnibus bills in the current Parliament.
The second point is a concrete recommendation to have the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs study and report on exactly what omnibus bills are and how in fact they can be regulated within the confines of parliamentary procedure.
I will start with the second part and say simply that we would, I believe, benefit from such a study. It would clarify practice and allow a serious discussion of how bills called “omnibus”, whether by the government or by the opposition, do or do not undermine parliamentary democracy and indeed democracy at large.
At minimum, through such a study there could be a debate, hopefully not in camera, on best practices without there needing to be a decision or recommendation to give more power to the Speaker to rule on a bill in terms of it being out of order or that it should be split. We could have a study on best practices that would actually share the sentiments of all members of this House about what ideal practice would look like. Then governments, including the present government in the years of its mandate and future governments, can make their own decisions about how they want to situate themselves within a best practices framework. That is all that this report need be. Therefore, I certainly would like to commend this second part of the motion to the House.
On the substance of the issue and the specific reasons for which the motion refers to omnibus bills as problematic, it is clear that the point of order raised by the member for Calgary Southwest in 1994 talks about the problem of diversity of content in what he was calling an omnibus bill. Members should remember that this was a 21-page bill versus the almost 500-page bill that we received, which passed the House in the spring, and a much larger bill that we hear will be coming at us. However, on the 21-page bill, he says:
How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns?
His concern was that members of the House should be able to vote on specific issues more often than is permitted when omnibus bills, or something resembling omnibus bills, become standard practice. He sees it as a question of accountability to constituents.
I would suggest that it could also end up in the context of some kinds of bills being a question of conscience. There may be elements in a bill that members would very definitely want to vote for or against and want that known and on record.
It is certainly the case that the commentator from Postmedia, Andrew Coyne, also sees it in this way when he says:
But lately the practice has been to throw together all manner of bills involving wholly different responsibilities of government in one all-purpose “budget implementation” bill, and force MPs to vote up or down on the lot. While the 2012 budget implementation bill is hardly the first in this tradition, the scale and scope is on a level not previously seen, or tolerated.... We have no idea whether MPs supported or opposed any particular bill in the bunch....
Keep in mind that 70 pieces of legislation were amended in the recent Bill C-38.
He goes on to say: “...only that they voted for the legislation that contained them”.
This is the concern specifically referenced in the motion, and it is a real concern for the reasons given by the Prime Minister in his former capacity as solely the member for Calgary Southwest, and as Mr. Coyne has just articulated the question.
It is also important to know that there is another dimension to this that is at least as worrisome. That is the subsequent use that governments or MPs from the government party make of an omnibus bill in their debates and references in the House, quite commonly in ripostes in question period. What will they do? An MP from the opposition will raise a question in question period on unemployment insurance or on food safety. Lo and behold, a minister will stand up, give some sort of answer and say that “In any case, you're the party that voted against” this, that or the other measure. “You're the person who did so, because you voted with your party”. What they are almost always referring to when that tactic is used is budget implementation bills. We know this.
We in the House know there can be many features of a budget implementation bill that everyone is perfectly happy to see and support. Almost always, when ministers answer in that way their reference points are precisely the provisions that accord a hundred per cent with the sentiments and policy of the opposition. The opposition would have voted for it if given the chance to vote separately. The government knows this.
Omnibus bills are dovetailing with what is effectively, and what we all know to be increasingly, a deliberate strategy of misdirection and indeed mistruth on the part of the government.
We must be very clear that this practice of responding to questions in this way, by attributing votes against matters that members of Parliament are perfectly in favour of, is very much a combination of deliberate party tactics. I hesitate to say this, but it is becoming more apparent that it is a culture and mindset that is taking over the government party. It is a mindset of complete subservience to a Prime Minister's Office and an approach that really plays fast and loose with the truth and demands that its MPs fall in line with that strategy.
Even today, the House leader managed to bring it up at one point in his response to a speech. He parroted the exact same nonsense we have been hearing for a month now with respect to a carbon tax. Why, I would ask, would so many respected journalists take to print over the last month to speak out on exactly this particular tactic of using the carbon tax spectre by the government, this culture of misdirection and mistruth? It is because they know that something profound is underway in terms of the extent to which untruth is becoming part of the democratic fabric of the country, to the point that we cannot talk about a democratic fabric if it takes hold as deeply as it is starting to.
I would add two final points about the democratic problems. One is the problem that committees cannot achieve any kind of scrutiny of omnibus bills. We have to take into account how democracy is profoundly limited by lack of scrutiny. We also have to understand that omnibus bills end up being a game of cat and mouse or even catch me if you can, because of how much time is spent just trying to understand what is hidden and buried in the bill.
Finally, we have to understand the role of the media. The media too need to be able to understand, report and critically discuss bills. In a world where we have media concentration and fewer and fewer journalists dedicated to this kind of enterprise, their task as part of the democratic enterprise is more and more compromised by the practice of omnibus bills.