Omnibus Bills in Theory and Practice

By Massicotte, Louis | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Omnibus Bills in Theory and Practice


Massicotte, Louis, Canadian Parliamentary Review


There is no concise definition of what is an Omnibus Bill. O'Brien and Bosc (2009) state that an omnibus bill seeks to amend, repeal or enact several Acts, and is characterized by the fact that it has a number of related but separate "initiatives". The latter word is an improvement over the previous edition, by Marleau and Montpetit, that spoke of separate "parts"-plenty of bills are divided into Parts, without being omnibus bills at all. This article looks at the use of omnibus bills in Canadian provinces, the United States and in the House of Commons, particularly Bill C-38 the Budget Implementation Bill. It argues that the extensive use of omnibus bills is detrimental to the health of our parliamentary institutions.

Anybody looking for a detailed statistical compendium showing how many omnibus bills were introduced and passed in the Canadian Parliament and in provincial legislatures would search in vain. Comparable figures are easily available if you are searching for the number of public bills, private bills, appropriation bills, taxation bills, private members' public bills and the like. They can be found, for example, in the marvellous work of former Senator Stewart, who met the challenge of making parliamentary procedure intelligible for those I would call the "middle-informed", those whose knowledge on the topic is higher than among the public at large without exceeding that of the practitioners of Parliament.

It is time-consuming, but not too difficult, to go through the Journals and the statute books in order to "code" each piece of legislation under the appropriate heading. Private bills, though formally sponsored by an MP or a Senator, are introduced by way of a petition submitted by a physical or moral person outside of Parliament. Appropriation bills are passed under a distinct set of rules that provide for lengthy consideration of estimates by special committees followed by an extremely quick process whereby the three readings are done within a few minutes. Taxation bills necessitate the preliminary passage of ways and means motions, and in the past they had to be studied in Committee of the Whole. Government bills are sponsored by cabinet ministers and bear the Royal Recommendation. Private Members' Public Bills can be sorted through by looking at the party affiliation of their sponsor, etc. No specific procedure is applicable to omnibus bills that would facilitate research on the issue.

The underlying "basic principle or purpose" of an omnibus bill can be anything, ranging from the most innocuous to the most controversial. As an example of hardly objectionable purpose, I can cite the British practice of passing at times, from the 1860s onwards, a Statute Law Revision Act, that repealed legislative enactments that had become spent. Some Commonwealth countries, like Canada and Australia, have emulated this practice. Constitutional scholars are aware that some of those bills repealed provisions of Canadian constitutional documents,

without Canada either requesting or objecting to the measure, because such bills really amounted to cleaning jobs. Hundreds of different statutes could be altered at one stroke by such pieces of legislation, the basic purpose of which was to expunge from the statute book provisions that were either obsolete or spent. Five years ago, Ireland passed a statute of that nature that repealed no less than 3,225 statutes, arguably a world record.

Such bills normally do not raise controversy. But they might. In British Columbia, they are called Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Acts, and are a regular occurrence. In the 2009 edition of this Bill (No. 13), the BC Civil Liberties Associations singled out a provision (s. 77) that amended the province's Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act, by allowing municipal officials in the Vancouver area to remove unauthorized signs during the period of the Olympic Games in 2010.

The Council of Canadians, which intended to post such signs, launched a campaign against the bill. …

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