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Omnibus Conservative budget bill passes Commons, heading to Senate

OTTAWA – The House of Commons passed the Conservative government’s sprawling budget implementation bill on Monday following a final evening of debate.

The vote sends the 400-plus page piece of legislation on to the Conservative-dominated Senate, where it will become law before the end of the week.

Dubbed the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act, the bill has been variously described by its detractors as a “Trojan horse” and a “kitchen sink” due to its massive grab-bag of measures.

The bill includes everything from a complete rewrite of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to exempting some federal contractors from employment equity law and changing the rules for political advocacy by charities.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Commons earlier on Monday that swift passage of the legislation is “absolutely key and essential to creating a good economic climate.”

And he maintained there has been “an unprecedented amount of debate in Parliament and committee” for the omnibus implementation bill.

“We saw last week — more than 157 times — the House vote full confidence in the measures brought forward by this minister of finance for job creation and economic growth,” said Baird, a reference to the 22-hour voting marathon on hostile opposition amendments that stalled Parliament for almost two full days.

But opposition MPs say the implementation bill contains dozens of hidden measures that were not part of the 2012 federal budget delivered in March by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

And many of the changes have nothing whatsoever to do with economic performance, such as shutting down the First Nations Statistical Institute or allowing the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to have temporary members for up to three years.

“There’s whole new departments that are being created, there’s whole laws that are being repealed,” said Green party Leader Elizabeth May.

May is challenging her fellow MPs, particularly Conservatives, to a written quiz Tuesday morning to test their knowledge of what’s in the implementation bill. She promises there will be some surprises, even after all the media coverage to date.

Budget implementation bills have traditionally been rather brief, routine technical documents — they averaged 12 pages in length during the 1990s — that implement spending measures previously announced in the budget itself.

During the minority Conservative years, the Harper government began larding them with other legislative changes, a means of forcing the majority opposition to either fall in line or defeat the government and force an election.

But the Conservatives’ use of a massive omnibus bill, now that they have a majority and can pass any bill they choose, is being called an arrogant abuse of power by the opposition and constitutional experts.

“There’s still a vast confusion, even among Conservatives, as to the difference between Mr. Flaherty’s budget and this outrageous budget implementation bill,” said May.

“This thing is a monstrosity and we never have had adequate time to examine even portions of it. And there are still things that will continue to come to light.”