Canada’s Omnibudget

There has been much comment in Canada that the Conservative government has introduced a Budget Implementation Bill that has many, many provisions completely unrelated to budgets and arguably should have been delegated to other bills for passage.

In explaining this, Kady O’Malley described how in Canada the budget implementation bill is just a bill like any other. And that’s right; in Canada it is. But you won’t see such a variety of disparate subjects in the budget of the United Kingdom, the New Zealand Parliament, nor in the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. The reasons for this are different in each case and each arises from a different problem, or at least different stages of a problem.

In the United Kingdom, there is a special type of bill known as a money bill and it is defined in the Parliament Act 1911 as solely containing provisions which deal with:

the imposition, repeal, remission, alteration, or regulation of taxation; the imposition for the payment of debt or other financial purposes of charges on the Consolidated Fund, the National Loans Fund or on money provided by Parliament, or the variation or repeal of any such charges; supply; the appropriation, receipt, custody, issue or audit of accounts of public money; the raising or guarantee of any loan or the repayment thereof; or subordinate matters incidental to those subjects or any of them. In this subsection the expressions “taxation,” “public money,” and “loan” respectively do not include any taxation, money, or loan raised by local authorities or bodies for local purposes.

The Speaker must certify that the bill, which must be introduced in the House of Commons, does only contain those provisions before it is one. The benefit of doing this is that the government essentially tells the House of Lords that they can’t delay the bill and that one month after it goes to the House of Lords it will be presented to Royal Assent whether they have passed it or not. This is a strong incentive not to create omnibus finance bills*.

This is a legacy of the battles between the Commons and Lords from 1906 to 1911, when the Lords sought, against convention, to alter the content of finance bills. As a necessary safeguard, these new ‘money bills’ couldn’t be allowed to contain just anything because that would open the system up to potentially widespread abuse – and the UK had a history of omnibus finance bills before this, with the Lords complaining of the Commons tacking on irrelevant issues as early as 1701.

In New Zealand, Standing Orders dictate that bills must relate only to their subject matter; hence appropriation bills must only relate to allocating funds to departments. They do allow omnibus taxation bills, but these themselves are usually split into their component amendment bills for committee stage. This was in response to a tendency of governments from the late 1970s onwards to package many bills into one omnibus Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which could contain any number of provisions relating to any number of things. The Standing Orders committee rectified this problem in 1995, regulating omnibus measures.

In Australia, the constitution itself proclaims that:

53. Proposed laws appropriating revenue or moneys, or imposing taxation, shall not originate in the Senate. But a proposed law shall not be taken to appropriate revenue or moneys, or to impose taxation, by reason of it only containing provisions for the imposition or appropriation of fines or other
pecuniary penalties, or for the demand or payment or appropriation of fees for licences, or fees for services under the proposed law.

The Senate may not amend proposed laws imposing taxation, or appropriating revenue or moneys for the ordinary annual services of the Government.

The Senate may not amend any proposed law so as to increase any proposed charge or burden on the people.

The Senate may at any stage return to the House of Representatives any proposed law which the Senate may not amend, requesting, by message, the omission or amendment of any items or provisions there in. And the House of Representatives may, if it thinks fit, make any of such omissions or amendments, with or without modifications.

Except as provided in this section, the Senate shall have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws.

54. The proposed law which appropriates revenue or moneys for the ordinary annual services of the Government shall deal only with such appropriation.

55. Laws imposing taxation shall deal only with the imposition of taxation, and any provision therein dealing with any other matter shall be of no effect.

Laws imposing taxation except laws imposing duties of customs or of excise, shall deal with one subject of taxation only; but laws imposing duties of customs shall deal with duties of customs only, and laws imposing duties of excise shall deal with duties of excise only.

This is a very effective way of ensuring the tacking on of additional measures doesn’t happen – indeed, as a principle this has been extended to all bills in the Australian parliament. This was important for the framers of the Australian constitution because they had pre-emptively restricted the Senate’s powers of amendment on financial measures to match the constitutional conventions that existed in the UK.

Notably, the Senate’s strength as an upper chamber means that in effect they still can amend financial measures by refusing to pass them until a satisfactory amendment has been made – something the Lords could never do because of the time limit.

This particular constitutional provision was put in precisely because historically the British colonies which had imposed restrictions on upper houses about money bills had suffered extensively from governments ‘tacking’ on unrelated but unpalatable measures. It was precisely because some states had taken similar power to the Parliament Act 1911 without the safeguards necessary.

Historically, it was a convention that budget bills didn’t have other measures ‘tacked’ on – even in 1982, the opposition walked out of parliament and refused to vote when the government did this to a budget bill, forcing the government to capitulate. That convention seems to have broken down. Certainly it’s near impossible that the constitution will be amended to fix this: Canada’s restrictive amending procedures are legendary. The government has no cause to legislate for money bills unless the Senate tries a 1906-1911 style manoeuvre. Again, very unlikely. The government could, if it wanted, restart the convention that budget bills are not omnibus bills but this would require significant political pressure and such a convention can be discarded without even a single vote in the Commons and as such isn’t very effective.

A middle gound would be the weak but flexible New Zealand solution: for the House of Commons to define tax, appropriation or money bills and prevent the tacking in standing orders. That way, you’d at least require one controversial vote to suspend standing orders to introduce such a bill. It’s not as effective if a government’s determined to go ahead but it’s a damn sight more likely to happen, even if it probably isn’t going to happen under this government.

*The British government has a tendency to create omnibus bills on other topics – not quite so extensively or obviously as this one though!
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