PARLIAMENT HILL—The government tabled its omnibus budget bill Thursday, highlighting an overhaul of MP pensions that will see major reductions in what have been described as “gold-plated” pensions.
But the opposition is complaining that the 443-page bill contains a mass of changes to other legislation that should be broken up and debated separately. Meanwhile, Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the bill will gut one of the last pieces of federal environmental protection.
Maintaining Jobs and Growth
At a photo-op announcing the bill, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty touted the government’s relative success maintaining job growth amidst a turbulent global economy.
Speaking from a bike store in Ottawa Thursday, Flaherty pointed to the critical role small business play in the Canadian economy.
Our overall concern with this bill is that it is just such a large bill and once again they’ve thrown so much into it.
— NDP finance critic Peggy Nash
“Their contributions are especially important these days when the global recovery remains stubbornly fragile, especially in Europe and the United States.”
Flaherty said that tough economic situation meant Canada could not become complacent and the government must work to keep the economy growing.
Minutes later, Treasury Board President Tony Clement stood before reporters to talk about “sweeping changes to public sector and MP pension contributions.”
The changes will see MPs and public servants contribute more to their pensions and wait longer to receive them.
For opposition parties, the sheer size of the bill and volume of legislative changes inside it are a problem. The NDP say the scale of the budget implementation bill makes it virtually impossible to study it in detail and know the impact of legislative changes before having to vote for or against it.
“While we are still combing through all the fine details, we certainly have seen some things we think are positive measures, [and] some things that we are very concerned about,” said NDP finance critic Peggy Nash.
“Our overall concern with this bill is that it is just such a large bill and once again they’ve thrown so much into it.”
NDP house leader Nathan Cullen joked the 443-page tome was good for weight-lifting, but complained there was little notice or explanation of what was in the bill.
“They have rammed together so many issues and topics that it is impossible for Parliament to do what Parliament is meant to do: hold government to account, understand exactly what it is we are voting for or voting against.”
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair rose during question period to demand the government split the bill. Harper deflected the demand by saying the government was focusing on creating jobs before taking a side-swipe at an NDP-proposed cap-and-trade system similar to what the Tories previously advocated for. Flaherty made similar comments during his announcement for the bill
The new budget plan extends the Hiring Credit for Small Business, which was used by 534,000 employers last year. Nash said the NDP approves of the measure but wanted conditions put on the credits.
“It is something we have consistently proposed, but always linking tax credits and tax cuts to job creation, which this budget implementation act does not. It is yet again an across-the-board cut for small business.”
The bill also implements the Pooled Registered Pension Plans system and improves the Registered Disability Savings Plans. The government said the bill would improve environmental protections by strengthening the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, promoting clean energy and phasing out tax preferences for the mining and oil and gas sectors.
Environmental Protections Shrunk
Despite those improvements, the bill’s overall impact on environmental protection was called into question by Green MP and party leader Elizabeth May. She said the budget bill’s changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act effectively gut one of the last pieces of federal legislation aimed at protecting the environment.
May says the bill continues a process seen in the previous omnibus budget bill whereby the government winnows down the number of times it has to issue permits for projects to proceed.
That winnowing effectively removes the federal government from the environmental review process. With the current budget bill, that withdrawal of federal responsibility has been extended to the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
“You wouldn’t need any permits from the Minister of Transport to destroy waterways or block waterways under at least this new navigation protection act, unless it was one of the 62 named rivers, or 100 lakes or oceans,” May said.
We are paying our fair share. We believe public servants should pay their fair share. This is doing the right thing.
— Treasure Board President Tony Clement
Thousands of lakes and rivers will no longer be under the purview of the federal government if the bill passes, but provincial environmental regulations will still apply, said May.
Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the Navigatable Waters Protection Act had grown beyond its intended purpose over several decades and now prompts permits for everything from docks to bridges over small streams.
“Fish habitat will continue to be protected by the Fisheries Act and the environment through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Species at Risk Act, as well as various provincial statutes,” he said.
Changes to pensions outlined in the budget were included in the new budget implementation bill.
Contribution rates will move to equal, or 50/50, contributions with government-matching MP and public servant contributions phased in by 2017. Public servants currently enjoy a 30/70 contribution ratio while MPs contributions are difficult to calculate because taxpayers also pay the interest on those uninvested contributions.
Some estimates put MP contributions at $1 to $24, with taxpayers covering the vast majority of the payouts in lucrative MP pensions.
Clement says the changes will see MP pension contributions climb from just over $11,000 a year to just under $39,000 by 2017.
The retirement age will be raised from 55 to 65 for MPs and from 60 to 65 for public servants.
“We are paying our fair share. We believe public servants should pay their fair share. This is doing the right thing,” said Clement.
The changes will save $2.6 billion over five years, he said.
The Liberals want the pension provisions extracted from the budget and passed immediately, while the NDP still want the issue studied by an independent expert panel.
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