A Trojan horse, built on a bubble

Blasting out of the bubble is often not easy. It requires a strategy that is simple, if mind-numbing. It involves repeating a message over and over again and when no one in this town can stand to hear it repeated one more time, repeat it. Repeat it in the House, in the foyer, on television, on Twitter and in your home riding.

Blasting out of the bubble is often not easy. It requires a strategy that is simple, if mind-numbing.

It involves repeating a message over and over again and when no one in this town can stand to hear it repeated one more time, repeat it. Repeat it in the House, in the foyer, on television, on Twitter and in your home riding.

If you shout it out often enough, the bubble bursts and people start listening.

In the case of the omnibus budget bill seizing the capital this week, the opposition parties have made headway by repeating their mantra about the arrogant Conservatives and their abuse of Parliament.

They call it The Trojan Horse bill because of what is hidden in it. Or the Kitchen Sink bill because it covers everything but. Or the Bully Bill because of the government’s “my way or the highway” attitude.

On the government side, you keep repeating that this bill has been subject to more debate than any budget bill in 20 years, and “probably ever,’’ according to House leader Peter Van Loan. You keep telling Canadians there is an urgency to passing the bill because it means “jobs” and “prosperity.”

In fact, if you are the Conservatives, just go ahead and name C-38 the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act.

But this week, in the midst of this battle of the bumper sticker messages, New Democrats introduced a new one, one that has had difficulty piercing the capital bubble. NDP House leader Nathan Cullen raised the C-word.

He asked Speaker Andrew Scheer to find the Conservatives in contempt of Parliament for withholding information about the scope of public service cuts in the omnibus bill. Cullen is tilling the same ground plowed by the opposition in 2011, but he may have to shout this one long and loud.

In Ottawa, contempt is a sexy charge, but it doesn’t seem to travel well.

Last year, former speaker Peter Milliken ruled the Conservatives had withheld information on the costs of its crime bill and F-35 fighter jets, a finding that led to the government being found in contempt.

In the ensuing election, Canadians collectively shrugged and handed Stephen Harper his majority.

But it has become a Conservative pattern and, in this case, there is no discernible reason why the information would not be released, leaving, as Cullen puts it, MPs to vote “blindly” on the bill.

The information was requested by the independent parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page.

He quite logically believed he had an obligation to report to parliamentarians which departments will be affected by the $5.2 billion in budget cuts, and what services could be affected.

He was told to go away.

The government has never said it does not have the information, but instead cited collective bargaining agreements that prevent it from providing the data until all the employees were notified.

But the unions told the government to go ahead, they welcomed the release of the information.

“If the House cannot hold the government of the day to account, then why have the House at all?’’ Cullen asked.

“If Members of Parliament cannot do their jobs and cannot go back to their constituents with a clear conscience and understanding of the legislation that has been brought before us and its implications, then why are Members of Parliament in the service of Canadians at all? They are not.’’

Page, appointed by Harper in 2006 as part of the Federal Accountability Act, is now placed in the position of mulling a court challenge as a last resort to obtain information to which he is legally entitled.

He is expected to release a legal opinion on the government’s refusal to release the requested information in a timely manner before parliamentarians depart for their summer break next week.

However Scheer rules, the government’s stonewalling on this matter is just another piece of the subterfuge that is the hallmark of this bill.

Around-the-clock voting began Wednesday night on the budget bill and tourists have been alerted that the late sittings have cancelled the outdoor sound and light show.

In this case, the tourists should know the sound-and-light show has merely moved inside to the Commons chamber.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.

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