Omnibus budget bill misses the mark

A measure that was briefly mentioned in last month’s budget bill is going to take a big bite out of Canadian’s wallets when the government hikes fees for federal services like camp grounds, passports and fishing licenses . Those are just a part of the government’s new omnibus budget bill that will change almost 30 pieces of legislation at a rapid pace. The bill will also gut the power of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, create a bank to fund private, for-profit infrastructure, and make life easier for foreign investors who want to buy up more of Canada.

Part of what makes the bill surprising is the way the Liberals took issue with Stephen Harper’s use of omnibus budgets while they were in opposition. They argued the Conservatives were using bloated budgets to their advantage by stuffing them with measures important enough to be brought before parliament one at a time.  While moving to adopt omnibus budget bills may sound out of character, the government is doing it at the same time that they are proposing rule changes for the House of Commons - incredibly, one of these would end the use of omnibus budgets. If it sounds a bit crazy, it may well be, but the government doesn’t require new rules if they really want to follow their own advice.

In the meantime parliament will be dealing with a bill in excess of 300 pages that includes user fee increases, significant public investments, rule changes and omissions, all of which will be whisked through parliament in a matter of weeks but will resonate for years.

Canadians will be on the hook for the money the government is planning to stock it’s new infrastructure bank with.  Up to 35 billion tax payer’s dollars will be made available for this venture that will fund infrastructure projects which will then turn a private profit in the form of tolls and user fees. The inclusion of profitability as a criteria for infrastructure spending limits the kind of projects that will be considered. That could amount to a tough sell for rural and northern projects that don’t promise big returns.

The costs might spiral for Canadians, but it could be more difficult to get information that shows this because of changes coming for the Parliamentary Budget Officer. While provisions in the bill will make the PBO an official officer of parliament, which carries broad support, they will also hamper the office’s ability to conduct its business independently. New rules will force the PBO to submit their annual work plan for review by the Speakers of the House of Commons and Senate.  In addition to that, the Speakers will also receive advance copies of any PBO reports. Currently, the PBO delivers its reports without this kind of oversight.  The government may not always like the outcome, but the transparency allows parliamentarians to perform their jobs better.

The theme of reduced oversight carries into changes that are coming for foreign investors who will find it easier to take over Canadian companies.  This is because the government is raising the threshold amount that will spark a review to a billion dollars.  That’s almost double the current level and it allows bigger takeovers to escape the kind of oversight that can protect jobs in Canada and limits the ability of the government to step forward in the name of the public interest.

While the government is claiming all these changes are just natural extensions of last month’s budget one item from that speech that failed to make it into the omnibus bill is anything related to a crack-down on off shore tax cheats.  It’s estimated that reeling those big fish in could net the government $8 billion dollar a year.  At the same time, we are hearing that the cost of serving the Canadian public has increased and the shortfall is being pulled from our pockets as we pay for things like tent sites, fishing licenses, and passport fees.