Over the past several weeks, Canada has been gripped by an increasingly divisive and loud parliamentary debate over Bill C-38, which is ostensibly a budget bill.
However, this is a very unusual budget bill. It is called an omnibus bill which means it deals with changes in multiple laws. It is over 400 pages long. It goes far beyond the tasks of a budget of setting plans for raising government revenues and authorizing expenses for the coming fiscal year.
It commits to change, amend, repeal or introduce 60 laws dealing with environmental regulations, immigration and refugees, fisheries, old age financial supports, oversight of government spies, employment insurance, charities, food safety, and rules governing approval of pipelines and natural resource projects.
More than 100 pages of Bill C-38 address environmental regulations. In virtually every case, the proposed changes in C-38 weaken existing environmental rules.
The federal government would have the right to exclude specific proposed resource projects from public environmental assessments. Only certain fish species and water bodies would be protected in the proposed legislation. Natural resource projects being examined by the National Energy Board would be exempted from the "species at risk" legislation.
Environmental assessment hearings for pipelines and natural resource projects would limit the time available to complete their work, and who can speak at the public hearings. The federal cabinet would to be free to ignore and overturn the decisions of the National Energy Board.
Bill C-38 repeals the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act which requires the Canadian government to publish annual reports on its progress (or lack of progress) in addressing climate change by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
Opposition politicians have focused on the far reach of this omnibus bill which addresses so many issues that it makes adequate parliamentary debate on the different parts of the bill impossible in the limited time available to debate and approve a budget bill.
They insist that Bill C-38 be broken up into several bills where each can receive adequate examination and debate. This criticism has been taken up by many media commentators, even those normally supportive of the Conservative government.
Andrew Coyne of the National Post insists that Bill 38 "is not remotely a budget bill, despite its name." Faith and community groups have added their voices opposing Bill C-38. Citizens for Pubic Justice, led by WCR columnist Joe Gunn, calls C-38 in its present form "an affront to the democratic process."
Denis Drainville, the Anglican bishop of Quebec, issues a sharp warning that this bill minimizes the role of Parliament. He calls for the people of Canada to speak out and react, lest they "find themselves not only slaves to a corporate and political domination that they never chose" and "experience the extinguishing of the hopes and dreams that they once had for a nation firmly based upon the foundations of compassion, justice and peace."
Environmental groups, seeing Bill C-38 presenting a great threat to the environment for present and future generations, organized the "Black Out, Speak Out Campaign" with national newspaper ads and a public protest action where over 13,000 websites were darkened on June 4.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has defended Bill C-38 as an urgent forward-looking financial program in tough economic times. In fact, he has called it the "jobs, growth, and long term prosperity act." He argues that "streamlined" environmental reviews and reduced government regulation in different social sectors will lead to increased economic growth.
While so far Catholic leaders have not spoken out officially in this debate, I think that important ethical principles from Catholic social teaching are being challenged.
The principle of "participation" is especially relevant here. People, individually and in community, do have a right (and responsibility) to speak out and participate in important decisions that affect their lives. Citizens for Public Justice gets it right when it affirms that a just approach to public governance should be "transparent and accountable."
Bill C-38 sees the environment as a peripheral issue to be subordinated under the overarching concern of short-term economic growth. Increasingly, both scientists and theologians are telling us this is a backwards approach. In fact, the economy can only be successful over time within a healthy and sustainable environment.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)