Repeat after me, folks: This is what a majority government does

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The Gazette, Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The budget omnibus bill, at 425 pages, has everything including the kitchen sink in it. The environment and energy. Trans-border security arrangements with the United States. New rules for employment insurance benefits. Entitlement reform in raising the threshold for Old Age Security from age 65 to 67.

You name it, it’s in there. The opposition parties want the budget implementation bill broken up into its parts, especially on streamlining environmental reviews. The Harper government has moved the bill through second reading and it’s now before the House Finance Committee pending third and final reading in the House.

As a concession to the opposition complaints about ramming the bill through, the Conservatives set up a subcommittee of the Finance Committee to hear out the environmental and other issues that normally wouldn’t be part of a budget implementation bill.

In addition to eight days of debate on second reading, the government has allocated another six days before the final vote. Before that, Green Party leader Elizabeth May plans a one-member filibuster, and will propose an unlimited number of amendments to get the environmental stuff out of the budget. Once she rises, she can’t yield the floor or she will lose it. “They can take me out of the House on a stretcher,” she says.

Remember James Stewart on the Senate floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Same thing.

The opposition understandably holds that the government is limiting debate, and stifling democracy, through time allocation. The Conservatives reply that they are simply using their majority to pass the budget bill, and other major legislation, before the House rises for the summer in four weeks.

Welcome to majority government, the new normal in Ottawa. Or as Stephen Harper put in his campaign refrain: “A strong, stable, national, Conservative majority government.” He ran on it, and he won on it, in a realignment election. Get used to it.

In addition to the budget bill, the Conservatives are also going to pass new copyright legislation, and an immigration bill, before the summer.

And this week, there’s back-to-work legislation to end the railway strike at Canadian Pacific. This isn’t the first time the Tories have intervened to end strikes, and it inevitably raises questions about interfering with the collective bargaining process. But both sides to the CP dispute admit they were getting nowhere on the issue of pension funding. The NDP, as the champions of organized labour, are obvious champions of that banner. But at the end of the day, they’re on the wrong side of the issue.

In a country whose economy is built on transportation, the railways are an essential service. Half of container shipments to the Port of Montreal, for example, go on by rail to the United States.

The back-to-work bill will be law by Thursday. Lisa Raitt, who stumbled badly in her first cabinet post at Natural Resources, has stepped up her game as labour minister, and has emerged as one of the government’s rising stars. Similarly Rona Ambrose, who was badly roughed up as environment minister, has come into her own at Public Works, usually a graveyard of political careers. And Diane Finley, over at Human Resources and Skills Development, rolled out last week’s complex EI changes without serious incident.

How the EI changes play out over the summer remains to be seen, especially in Atlantic Canada, famously dependent on EI for seasonal workers, especially in the fishery. When processing plants are importing guest workers, there’s an incentive problem in the local labour force. The Conservatives have eight out of 10 seats in New Brunswick, and they may catch some flack. It was Harper, as opposition leader, who once lamented a culture “of dependency” in that province. He wasn’t wrong about that.

With a majority House, Harper is able to move on entitlement reform, such as EI and OAS, in a way he couldn’t have in the two previous minority governments. Come to that, he announced the OAS changes in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, so that by the time of the budget in late March, the change from age 65 to 67 was already old news.

When there was a question of renewing the health accord with the provinces when it expires in 2014, Harper didn’t call a federal-provincial conference, he simply had Finance Minister Jim Flaherty inform his provincial colleagues that Ottawa was refunding health care transfers at the current growth rate of six per cent for three years and three per cent beyond that. Take it or leave it. They took it. And the whole health-care consulting industry went out of business.

There’s nothing unusual in what’s going on in Ottawa this spring. It’s called majority government.

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