Omnibus Bills: Constitutional Constraints and Legislative Liberations
42 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 2016 Last revised: 8 Mar 2017
Date Written: December 24, 2016
Over the past decade, the use of omnibus bills has become routine in the Parliament of Canada. Omnibus budget implementation bills have grown in size to several hundred pages and acquired their own political term with a decidedly negative connotation: “omnibudget bills”. These omnibus and omnibudget bills have been a source of controversy and, at times, political protest. In its 2015 election platform, the Liberal Party of Canada promised to change the House of Commons’ Standing Orders to end the “undemocratic practice” of using omnibus bills. This article analyses the understanding, use, and history of omnibus bills in the Parliament of Canada. It argues that such bills undermine parliamentarians’ ability to responsibly and effectively carry out their duties to examine and debate legislation. Omnibus bills reveal a tension between the doctrine of the separation of powers and the principle of democracy. Excessive deference to the doctrine of the separation of powers has allowed omnibus bills to become a threat to parliamentary democracy in Canada, and the balance needs to be recalibrated. This paper considers various ways in which omnibus bills might be restrained and the constitutional challenges that such options present. It considers the role of the House of Commons, the Senate, the Governor General, and the courts. Ultimately, this paper concludes that in the absence of action by Parliament itself, the courts may be forced to find a way to restrict the most abusive uses of omnibus bills.
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