Democracy as we know it has evolved over thousands of years. The Canadian version stems from Britain’s Westminster system, which provides the foundation for our Parliamentary structure and procedures. That’s what’s under attack in the omnibus budget bill now under debate in Ottawa.
Breaking with tradition, the Harper government has funneled its budget into an omnibus bill, joining it to a range of measures, including gutting the environmental assessment process, in an all-or-nothing format. As it’s done many time before, the Conservatives are limiting debate and attempting to do an end-run around Parliament and its committees.
More than 70 different acts are to be amended, largely without public input or political debate. It’s Stephen Harper’s way or the highway.
Omnibus bills are not unheard of, having been employed by past governments, but typically link legislation with a common thread – see, for instance, this government’s ill-considered crime bills. In this case, however, there is no common ground, only the government’s intent to push through sweeping changes while stifling debate. That’s hardly democratic.
Much of the focus has been on the environmental provisions, which take up some 150 of the bill’s 420 pages. Critics say the changes will destroy five decades of environmental oversight. The impetus, it appears, is streamlining the environmental assessment process for tar sands projects, especially pipelines that would carry raw bitumen for processing in U.S. or overseas markets. It’s a hewers-of-wood-and-drawers-of-water, resources-first strategy, which has thus far proven detrimental to Canada’s long-term economic health.
Harper argues the changes are needed to keep “foreign-controlled” environmental groups, natives and others from holding up megaprojects that are, ironically, typically carried out by foreign-owned companies.
Environmentalists, not surprisingly, have been critical of the move. This week, they launched a counterattack in the form of a national campaign.
Known as Black Out Speak Out, the campaign invites organizations, businesses and citizens from across Canada to darken their websites on June 4, and speak out against changes introduced in the federal government’s budget act (C-38).
“These changes – hidden in a budget bill in the hopes that Canadians wouldn’t notice – are threatening the core values all Canadians hold dear: nature and democracy,” says Sidney Ribaux, executive director of Equiterre. “We are compelled to speak out and we’re inviting Canadians from all walks of life to join us.”
Opposition to the gutting of oversight provisions has brought together a variety of organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Equiterre, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace, Nature Canada, Pembina Institute, Sierra Club Canada, West Coast Environmental Law and WWF Canada.
The groups argue the government is putting the future of our land, water and climate at risk with its budget implementation bill. More than a third of the budget is dedicated to weakening Canada’s most important environmental laws, including measures to make it more difficult for environmental charities to participate in the public policy process. The groups are asking Canadians to join them in speaking out and letting the government know that silence is not an option for those who care about what could be lost.
“The attacks on environmental charities and gutting of environmental review processes aim to silence Canadians of all sectors and many backgrounds who participate in decision-making about large-scale industrial developments,” says Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation. “This is not only undemocratic – it will undermine the government’s ability to make sound policy decisions and to protect the environment.”
“Powerful oil interests aren’t just changing the rules, they’re disqualifying any player not on their team,” argues Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence. “We’re going black for a day, but we’ll be speaking out for as long as it takes.”
The budget bill, C-38, replaces the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, empowers the federal government to crack down on charities, including environmental groups, that advocate for better laws and policies, overrides National Energy Board decisions, rushes projects through a weakened environmental review process to speed up approvals, and shuts citizen groups out of environmental reviews for pipelines.
While the circumventing of environmental checks and balances warrants action, the omnibus bill is more troubling for its attempt to bypass our Parliamentary system. This is no anomaly, as the Harper government has shown itself willing to use chicanery, bullying and, when all else fails, prorogation to avoid debate in the House of Commons. The government’s disregard for our system of democracy led to the leveling of contempt of Parliament charges against the Conservatives, a first in the long history of the Westminster system.
The circumstances that caused the charges, including the withholding of budgetary information such as the cost of the F-35 fighter acquisition and the full price of the government’s law-and-order program, were also identified as problems by the Parliamentary Budget Officer and later upheld by the Auditor General.
The omnibus bill shows contempt for Parliament yet again, and extends that sentiment to all Canadians.