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Mark McCaw ~ twitter's @bigpicguy

Author of "Insights Inside a Mind" ~ blogging the big picture

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Why "Omnibus" is ominous. A horror story.

     Democracy is an intricate thing, let alone the varying systems of democratic government. Historically, in Canada, our democracy has relied on passing legislation on a bill by bill basis. This is in contrast to the US system where much of the legislation is put through using what are referred to as "omnibus" bills. I understand why many Canadians don't see why this kind of legislation should be worrisome, we haven't often seen it used here.

     Like any human endeavour, omnibus legislation has an intended purpose which is good, yet examining how it has been used exposes its flaws, and there are many. Omnibus bills are to legislation what an ultralight plane is to an Airbus A-380. Rather than pass a single peice of legislation, omnibus bills are used, in theory, to group similar types of legislation into a larger bill in order to speed the passage of "needed" laws. This is good, right? Not exactly, and here are some reasons why.

     Omnibus legislation allows less opportunity to examine the relative merits of each peice of legislation. It opens the door to the passage of some very bad legislation by bundling it along with some very good or popular legislation, much as your TV provider will let you have the popular channel you want, but only in a package with 7 others you don't. You don't get to pick and choose, it an all or nothing deal, the bad with the good like it or not. The process, in my opinion, it not a good democratic process. It can stifle very real concerns and put in place legislation that if otherwise introduced would not stand up to scrutiny. By bundling your bad and/or unpopular legislation in an omnibus bill with other, more important, popular or vital legislation, the proponent of the omnibus bill use it to destroy proper validation of legislation by turning any attempt to question bad or dangerous legislation into an attack on the parts of the bill people really want to see introduced. Now you have the Catch 22. You don't get the lollipop if you don't take the needle. The bonus is, you can bundle in some very bad stuff that would never pass on its own merits and make the voice of reason become the enemy of the public if they do block it since they can't block the bad without blocking the good.

     One must make their own judgement. I think omnibus bills are bad just for the reasons above, and that is merely the edge of a very slippery slope. That is how it begins. If you look to the south, the Americans have evolved the omnibus bill into an absolute art form. It went from merely being a convenient vehicle for passing some bad or unpopular bills to yet another way to fill the never-ending pork barrel. I'm not saying the Canadian style omnibus bill will evolve to this level because our system doesn't lend itself to this type of excess, but the possibility it can be exploited in this fashion exists, and in my experience, when the possiblility exists for politicians to reward key supporters, they will find a way to use it.

     The US version has evolved into something similar to the fictional example I am about to give, keeping in mind US style government does not function the same way as a Westminister style parliament, nevertheless, this can still apply in Canada.

     We understand political parties have agendas. It's generally understood we have to compromise our vote since it is rare we could ever agree with every policy any party has, so we choose our party by aligning ourselves with the one with the most policies we agree with and suck up the other stuff we don't. That applies to every democratic country.

     Keep in mind this is a purely fictional account, although it very clearly resembles the reality of why omnibus can be ominous.

     The ruling party has been having some trouble with its base. In order to garner enough support to continue to hold on to the reins of power, they need to appeal to that base. In order to do so they'll have to put in place some rather distasteful legislation. Knowing it would be impossible to get these measures through under any serious scrutiny, they'll bundle these bad or unpopular bills with legislation that will actually do something good for citizens. The better the carrot, the bigger the stick, so very unpalatable legislation can be enacted by making it part of a larger package which includes something that can appeal on an emotional level, the deeper the emotion, the more you're likely to ignore something you otherwise would never support. This is what they count on with omnibus bills. That isn't enough. Agendas are fine, but even the most fierce idealogue wants to ensure their continued personal success. In politics, continued success is paid for in cold, hard cash. Mom and pop may vote you in, but mom and pop will never know who you are if you don't have the kind of money required to finance your campaign. That kind of money comes in the form of donations. Not the hundred dollars mom and pop send you because you're a nice person who works hard for them, but the big corporate donations on a regular basis the will allow you to outspend your opponents.

     No one could accuse most politicians of not being opportunistic. So rather than merely use omnibus bills to enact some bad or unpopular legislation, they up the ante. Influential politicians will withhold their support for the omnibus bill, unless perhaps, 50 Million dollars can be added for corn farmers. Since this would be helpful to the ruling party and garner the support of all the politicians who depend on corn farmers for support, they write it in as an add on. Done. Not. Problem is, the sawmills have been hard done by and without 30 Million dollars they may have to lay off workers which could translate into a negative voting pattern, another add on. Then there's 42 Million for irrigation concerns, 18 million for some sort of unexplainable research and before you know it, the bill that is going to guarantee that grandma is not going to starve to death on a pension that makes food a luxury (which everyone wants for grandma), is yours if you ignore the fact that abortion will then be illegal and gay people will be jailed, and that the incidential cost of getting politicians to support what you support is an additional 300 Million or so in tax dollars directed to their biggest supporters. This is how it has evolved in our southerly neighbour, and before you begin to think it couldn't happen this way here what with our party system and whipped votes where everyone toes the party line, one only need gaze at Quebec, or Alberta, to see how you can easily replace influential politicans with an agenda, to influential regions or groups or provinces with an agenda.

     It's enough to make you dizzy. And broke. And future generations in trouble. That's why omnibus should be ominus.

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