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COLUMN: Omnibus Bills can often backfire

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 11/29/2019 1:14:00 PM

Review and elimination of unnecessary red tape sounds like a laudable goal for governments, but implementation of red tape review is often through an Omnibus Bill that changes laws in a way that substitutes a new set of problems for the old ones. 

Omnibus Bills are large pieces of legislation that make changes to numerous and often unrelated pieces of legislation. In addition to being used for red tape review, they are often used for implementation of government budgets and sometimes for making changes to social welfare structures. 

They present several problems. They are usually so large that virtually no one, not even the legislators who are responsible for passing them into law, reads the whole thing. Cabinets often squeeze in pet legislative projects that have nothing to do with the stated objective of the Bill. The media pays very little attention to an Omnibus Bill because it is so huge. Even industry and non-governmental organization lobbyists read and respond only to the parts of the Bill that may have direct impact on their areas of interest, so the Bill gets passed into law with very little study. As a result, some laws get changed without those who are affected being aware of the change until it is too late to point out the flaws. 

One example of an Omnibus Bill to do with red tape reduction is Ontario’s Bill 132, the Better for People, Smarter for Business Act, 2019, that has already begun its journey into law. There has been very little media coverage, and organizations are swamped by the Bill’s 100 pages and 17 schedules that make changes to 14 different environmental laws. The government is rushing this Bill through the Legislature with very little time for analysis of its consequences for business, society, and the environment. 

It is easy to accuse governments of using Omnibus Bills to deliberately obscure controversial legislation, favour specific interest groups, or minimize public backlash against potentially unpopular measures, but the fact that all parties now use the omnibus format suggests that there may be so much governments are trying to accomplish that the omnibus format may be the only way for parliamentarians to get all the work done. But nagging doubts remain. 

There are significant risks to business associated with legislative changes that are snuck in through an Omnibus Bill. In today’s information society, the public will eventually find out about these changes even if they are not reported in the daily paper. If the public does not like the change, the blowback may be against the industries that lobbied for the change rather than against the government that introduced it. If the public thinks that lowered environmental penalties and simplified approvals are inadequate to control polluters, there may be more class action suits and private prosecutions, which could cost the alleged offenders much more than the original system of environmental controls. 

If senior levels of government withdraw from certain environmental approval programs, municipal governments may exercise their powers to control or exclude business activities that they see as harmful to the environment. Currently, environmental protests sometimes take place outside government buildings. If governments reduce their role in environmental approvals, these protests may well move to the gates of facilities identified as being the source of polluting and environmentally harmful activities. 

Just as it is important to assess properly the environmental, health and social impacts of projects and activities, so it is important to assess properly the environmental and social impacts of legislative changes that impact industry, even when these changes superficially appear to be good for business. 

For example, the Ontario Liberal government’s Green Energy Act, 2009 was an Omnibus Bill that intended to quickly remove barriers and provide incentives to renewable energy development in Ontario. The public backlash was so great that the government that brought in the Green Energy Act, 2009 was replaced in an election by a government that promised to end the opportunity for most new wind and photovoltaic electricity in the province. 

Today, the wind and solar power technology industries in the province have all but collapsed. The world of Omnibus Bills in Canada is peppered with the wreckage caused by their unintended consequences.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).



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