Massive budget bill clears first legislative hurdle

OTTAWA — The Harper government’s massive budget implementation bill cleared its first major legislative hurdle Monday without further attempts by the NDP to delay the vote.

OTTAWA — The Harper government’s massive budget implementation bill cleared its first major legislative hurdle Monday without further attempts by the NDP to delay the vote.

The Conservatives used their majority to give the bill approval in principle by a vote of 149 to 132. It will now be sent to the Commons finance committee for more detailed examination.

New Democrats tied the House of Commons in procedural knots last Wednesday in a bid to put off the vote and pressure the government to split up the 425-page bill into more manageable chunks.

But NDP House leader Nathan Cullen conceded there was little the official Opposition could do to block Monday’s second-reading vote — barring extreme tactics like pulling the fire alarms, which the NDP didn’t want to employ.

Still, he said there will be more procedural ploys in the days ahead as the bill wends its way through committee and, eventually, back to the Commons.

Cullen said the objective is to buy as much time as possible to rally public opinion against the bill, which is stuffed with a host of non-budgetary measures including controversial overhauls of environmental assessment, immigration and Employment Insurance laws.

“There’s a certain inevitability about today,” Cullen said in an interview before the vote.

“There are some very, very extreme tactics available but we’re not taking them. We made our point last week, got some more hours in the day to debate this and increased awareness across the country.”

Once the bill returns to the Commons from the finance committee, the NDP, the Liberals and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May are all vowing to introduce potentially hundreds of amendments that could tie up the bill for days or weeks.

In the meantime, Cullen said the NDP will unveil Tuesday “novel” ways to engage the public in the debate.

“We think knowledge is power on this one. The more people understand, the more people want to resist.”

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said his party is also trying to mobilize public opinion, hoping to “shame the government” into ensuring that affected groups have a chance to be heard during finance committee hearings on the bill. So far, he said, it appears the government is determined to exclude many people.

The Conservatives and even the Liberals criticized the NDP last week for creating a parliamentary circus that would do little to delay today’s vote to give the bill approval in principle. Although they agree with splitting up the bill and are equally opposed to its contents, the Liberals complained that the NDP tactics prevented eight MPs from speaking during debate on the bill last Wednesday.

The criticism continued Monday with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird saying the government is “focused like a laser on the economy.” By contrast, he said the NDP is “making a mockery of Parliament” with its “partisan games.”

“Shame on the New Democratic Party,” Baird told the Commons, standing in for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

However, Cullen said the NDP’s tactics have been responsible and actually gained a full day of budget debate.

“We’ve been blamed for a lot of theatrics that haven’t been there,” he said.

“It’d be a pretty boring circus if this were the circus. I mean, what did we do? We had a couple of votes and we got a few more hours of debate on the bill. That’s what everyone’s setting their hair on fire about. My goodness.”

Given economic turbulence in Europe that could yet tip the world into another recession, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty argued that speedy passage of the bill is essential for Canada’s economic well-being.

“It is important to pass this bill and continue with our work, particularly in the light of what is happening in the eurozone,” he told reporters shortly before the vote.

“We see the results of delay and inaction in Europe today. So I encourage the opposition to be wary of counter-productive political theatre at this serious and fragile time.”

However, Rae said there’s no plausible reason why non-budgetary measures included in the bill need be rushed through. He pointed out that one major element — raising the age of eligibility for Old Age Security to 67 from 65 — isn’t to go into effect until 2023.

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