Library of Parliament Paper on Omnibus Bills

So-called omnibus bills have been in the news a lot this year. The 2012 federal budget that amended dozens of pieces of legislation was referred to by many commentators as an omnibus bill.

What is this legislative creature?

The Library of Parliament recently published a paper entitled Omnibus Bills: Frequently Asked Questions that tries to get to the bottom of the issue:

Omnibus bills have been used for decades by governments of various political stripes as a vehicle to propose certain kinds of legislation to Parliament. While their use is well entrenched in Canadian parliamentary practice, it is nonetheless often seen as an exception to the usual legislative process. Whenever omnibus bills are introduced, similar questions arise about their nature, admissibility, appropriateness, and other matters. Yet few, if any, studies have attempted to answer those recurring questions.

The purpose of this paper is to provide answers to some of the most frequently raised questions about omnibus bills.

The paper:

  • defines what is an omnibus bill
  • examines its historical origins
  • asks whether it is procedurally admissible
  • provides a few examples of “famous” omnibus bills
  • goes over the arguments pro and con their use

Earlier posts by Slawyers on the question of omnibus bills include:

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Comments

  1. David Collier-Brown

    Interestingly, the definition adopted by the Library of Parliament is a very narrow one, defining as “omnibus” bills only ones which “has one basic principle or purpose which ties together all the proposed enactments and thereby renders the bill intelligible for parliamentary purposes”.

    This is not what the public see, and arguably is not a valid characterization of the 2012 Bill C-38, the “Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act” which was “was aimed at implementing the government budgetary policy for 2012″.

    IMHO, this is a strawman counter-argument. The critics attack the budget bill for being a random collection of unrelated matters shoved into a budget bill, and characterize it as an “omnibus”, a vehicle that carries all manners of unrelated people over a fixed route (;-)

    The counter-argument is that omnibus bills are defined as contain all closely-related material, and this is an omnibus, therefor the bill is not a random collection of unrelated matters.

    In fact, the counter-argument fails because the critic argued one thing, and the reply proposed to change their argument in a way taht they did not consent to, and that rendered it invalid.

    –dave (a philosopher, not a lawyer) c-b

  2. David Collier-Brown

    And, just in case it isn’t obvious, I think this reflects badly upon the Library of Parliament. Shame on them!

    –dave

  3. I offer one small quibble with the basically sound and thoughtful Library of Parliament research paper on omnibus bills. Actually, it is not a quibble since I pick up on a quotation in the paper from Mr. Speaker Lamoreux who said that while he could not rule against the omnibus bill then before the House he did think that the practice of omnibus bills could go to such lengths as to be absurd (my word, not his). I think that that is exactly what this present omnibus bill does. There are two parts of the bill obliging First Nations councils to do certain things, one requires that they post on the internet not only the salaries or other earnings of all employees and councillors and employees of First Nations owned businesses but also all the expenses incurred, a requirement not applied to Senators, MPs, MPPs or city councillors. The Bill basically contains all the legislative amendments to all existing legislation the government might wish to make as well as a vast swath of new legislation. The whole bill was sent to one committee which then referred pertinent sections to other committees, e.g., “Indian” legislation, such as C-27 to the Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development where it faced a time limit and the committee held severely truncated hearings.

    An interesting question whether the Courts would ever strike down legislation because it was snuck through Parliament rather than being available for public debate. In the case of legislation affecting First Nations governments, there is not only the arbitrariness of legislation that can not be properly studied, but also the repeated rulings of the Court that the Crown has “a duty to consult” First Nations on anything affecting their s. 35(1) rights. Usually this has applied to projects threatening their lands. Will it be applied to legislation? Dunno. Listen in again for another exciting episode.

  4. I would agree that the salaries and other earnings and expenses of MPs, MPPs, Senators, and city councillors should be made public. Or, even go so far as to say all publicly funded enterprises and individuals should be made to publicize how and where the funds are allocated and spent. IMHO, I don’t think any one group has a monopoly on irresponsibility in terms of spending public funds.

  5. Besides the point raised above about whether there is any ‘common principle, theme or purpose’ to the current bill or the earlier one this year – a point that the Library’s document does not even attempt to answer – one may also ask whether the time allowed for consideration of the bill is sufficient.

    The second-last para of the quite short document here says that ‘it may also be argued that the legislative process offers various opportunities for parliamentarians to express their views and vote on different measures of each bill…’. However, if the government insists on pushing such bills through in very limited time, then those ‘various opportunities’ do not exist.

    The Harris government loved bills like this, with the ‘common theme’ and title of red tape reduction or government efficiency – but often gave committees little time to study them. I recall one very long bill where the committee was given 30 minutes to consider it. About 50 public servants were crowded along the end of the room in case anyone had a question about their part of the bill, but of course no one had time to get into that level of detail. (The central position of former Harris ministers in the Harper Cabinet is notable.)

    The Library’s paper mentions the ‘Miscellaneous Statute Law Amendment Program’ which operated in Ottawa from 1975 to 2001. This one made sense, as an open process for minor matters that would not justify their own free-standing statute. Many, but not all, of the Ontario versons of government efficiency, or under the Liberals ‘good government’, bills would qualify for this treatment. They are in my view a good idea, allowing for a lot of useful improvements that are not controversial. But they should be developed with a lot of openness and flexiblity and enough time given to review them so the opposition can see that there are no hidden tricks.

    Ontario under its current government has done few such comprehensive bills, but has used budget measures bills for similar purposes, sometimes with matters of substance that are not obviously related to provincial finances. However, I don’t think the province has ever rivalled the federal government in the number or scope of measures crammed into a budget bill.

  6. Although the discussion on the nature of the “omnibus” is interesting, the Library of Parliament very clearly laid in a disinterested manner the formal issue. The political issue which has not been tackled is the real issue. Remember this statement: – July 25 1969: During a Commons debate, Mr. Trudeau says of opposition MPs: “When they get home, when they get out of Parliament, when they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are no longer honourable members – they are just nobodies.”

    Harper has transcended that statement of fact and updated it for contemporary MPs: they are now nobodies within Parliament. Through the use of “omnibus” bills, and other such devices the political parties in Canada for the most part have become pure electoral machines. They hardly even generate political solutions.