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Conservatives rush to pass legislation threatening environmental protection and trade unions

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The House is back after a week off and the Conservative Government will be pushing through massive cartloads of legislation with record speed.

It may all seem like inside baseball and of relevance only to diehard fans of parliamentary process. But the use of a budget implementation bill to pass fundamental legislation on the environment, pensions, immigration, fisheries and transport (among many other matters) is unprecedented in Canada.

Historically, the Progressive Conservatives of such leaders as John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark were the defenders of Parliament, resisting the executive-dominated style of the Liberals, especially under Trudeau.

In the early 1980s, Joe Clark's PCs managed to use a parliamentary tactic to close down the House for about two weeks in order to force the Liberals to break up an omnibus energy bill. 

That bill was child's play compared to the current budget implementation bill, C-45 (and C-38 that preceded it).

Committees get a glance as C-45 rushes by

 The Liberals' 1980s omnibus legislation was only about energy. 

C-45 touches a broad range of policy areas not normally captured in a budget bill. Indeed, even the Government recognized that fact when it allowed a number of different committees to consider specific clauses of C-45.

That was considered a compromise with the opposition; but it was a compromise with severe limits.  The committees do not have the power to propose amendments and MPs had an extremely limited time in which to call witnesses. Plus, they all have to wrap up and report by end of business, Tuesday, November 20.

On Monday afternoon and evening until 11:00p.m., the Environment Committee wraps up its hearings on the second wave of changes to environmental assessment rules. The first round came in the previous omnibus bill that Parliament passed in the spring. On Monday, the Committee hears from Environment Minister Peter Kent, pipeline industry executives and officials of the federal government. 

Significant accomplishments of federal assessment

The federal government's virtual withdrawal from a role in determining the impact of mega-projects on water, air, earth, wildlife -- and people -- will, in effect, close a chapter that began in the 1970s with such groundbreaking initiatives as the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry headed by British Columbia Justice Tom Berger.

That Inquiry was novel for its time, in that it heard from Dene, Inuvialuit and Inuit communities throughout the Western Arctic. 

Berger gave a voice to Aboriginal communities that they had never had previously. 

Those communities told the Judge -- and Canadians in general -- that they still harvested fish, caribou, moose and sea mammals as their people had for many generations, and wanted their children and grand-children to be able to carry on that tradition.

And scores of Aboriginal witnesses testified, as well, that they were fearful not only of the likely environmental damage to their homeland and livelihoods a pipeline would wreak, but of the massive social dislocations major resource-industry projects tend to leave in their wake. 

That early form of environmental and social assessment delayed any pipeline through the Mackenzie River corridor by decades. 

It also acted as a catalyst to land claims and self-government negotiations with the aboriginal communities -- and to far greater political autonomy for the Northwest Territories.

Berger wanted a 10-year moratorium on pipeline projects, in 1976; but there is still no pipeline. 

That may be why the Harper government wants to curtail the statutory federal assessment process that Berger helped spawn.

Natural resources or human capital?

 This government has put a lot of its economic eggs in the natural resource basket, something it might regret when the United States, for instance, starts to seriously develop its own oil and gas resources in such previously untapped places as Montana and North Dakota. 

Harper's government seems strangely uninterested in investing in the value-added, high-skill knowledge economy, and has allowed manufacturing to precipitously decline on its watch.

That choice is already starting to bite. 

Germany, a world class manufacturer of machinery, cars and other high-value added goods, has now surpassed Canada as an economic high performer. The status of energy superpower may not turn out to be worth all that much in a world where human capital could count for more than raw natural resources. 

Sneak attack on unions through a Private Member's Bill

 Meanwhile, back on Parliament Hill, the government will push through its environmental changes, which include changes to Navigable Waters and Fisheries laws, as well as environmental assessments. 

The government also seems anxious to move ahead with Conservative MP Russ Hiebert's Private Member's Bill, C-377, which will place draconian and costly reporting requirements on unions --requirements that would not apply to other groups such as business associations. 

Global News' Amy Minsky has reported  that organizations hostile to unions have been lobbying the PMO and government offices furiously on C-377, even though it is not, formally, a government Bill. 

Hiebert's Bill has already passed second reading and gone to committee. 

Some Conservatives have expressed reservations about the ill-thought-out and potentially dangerous nature of this Bill. It would, for instance, require disclosure of union-negotiated health insurance or disability payments of as little as $5,000, something to which the Privacy Commissioner has objected.

When the time comes, however, will those Government MPs vote their conscience or will they hew to the (understood) official Party line?


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Donate to support his efforts todayKarl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

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