Speaker sets stage for lengthy battle over omnibus budget bill

OTTAWA — The parliamentary show of protest over the Conservative government’s controversial budget bill can go on, the Speaker of the House of Commons said Monday — a decision opposition critics hailed as the opening act of a great democratic drama.

OTTAWA — The parliamentary show of protest over the Conservative government’s controversial budget bill can go on, the Speaker of the House of Commons said Monday — a decision opposition critics hailed as the opening act of a great democratic drama.

The Tories, however, denounced the spectacle as a political farce.

Speaker Andrew Scheer agreed to allow for debate the majority of more than 800 proposed opposition changes to Bill C-38, the government’s so-called omnibus bill, setting the stage for at least a few late nights this week for members of Parliament.

By grouping the motions together, however, Scheer did restrict the number of votes on the amendments to the bill, which weighs in at more than 400 pages and changes some 70 laws.

“There are few precedents to guide the Speaker in dealing with this type of situation,” Scheer told the House as he spelled out his ruling.

“In my selection of motions, in their grouping and in the organization of the votes, and I have made every effort to respect both the wishes of the House and my responsibility to organize the consideration of report stage motions in a fair and balanced manner.”

The opposition initially proposed more than 1,000 amendments to the bill, which makes major changes to environmental regulation, social programs and tax laws. A vote on every proposed change would have paralyzed the House for weeks.

Scheer’s ruling established that the motions would require no fewer than 67 votes and no more than 159 — a far less onerous workload than it could have been, at a rate of roughly four or five votes an hour, but enough to ensure MPs a few nights away from home.

“The Speaker was put into what I would consider an almost impossible situation,” said NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.

“His ruling will confirm, though, that the opposition still does have some tools to hold government to account, that the government’s not going to get away with this one easily, that they are going to have to pack their jammies as well.”

The structure of Bill C-38 itself falls within the bounds of correct parliamentary procedure, Scheer said in response to a request from Green party Leader Elizabeth May that the bill be ruled out of order.

May called that pronouncement an “unfortunate decision” that does nothing to prevent future omnibus bills from abusing parliamentary procedure — a problem the House is going to need to tackle down the road, said interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae.

“It’s something that clearly means we’re going to have to change the way Parliament does business,” Rae said.

“If we can’t succeed in doing that under this government, we’ll have to succeed in doing it under a government in the future.”

The Conservatives — hopeful that Scheer would throw out the amendments on the grounds they were intended purely to hold up parliamentary proceedings — had no immediate comment on the ruling.

During question period, they defended the budget, pointing to measures like a tax credit for small business as a counterpoint to the opposition’s claim the budget hurts more than it helps.

“That’s a matter that’s in the budget implementation bill, it has direct economic consequences, it means jobs,” said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

“This is the bill that the NDP opposition wants to delay.”

In exchange for dropping some of their amendments, the Liberals asked the government to pull items relating to fisheries, environmental assessment, EI and old age security and introduce them as separate bills.

Not surprisingly, those pleas fell on deaf ears. Voting on the amendments is expected to start later this week, and opposition parties say they’re ready.

“We’re going to be there and we’re going to be there in large numbers to protest what’s going on,” Rae said. “We’ll stay with it as long as its required.”

The extended voting is likely to push back some of the other laws the Tories were hoping to pass before the House adjourns for the summer, such as changes to copyright legislation and a free trade deal with Panama.

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