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This article was originally published on The Globe & Mail.
Plans for studying the Conservative government's latest omnibus budget bill are up in the air as key decisions were put off due to the death of former Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
The House finance committee was scheduled to meet on Thursday, April 10, to decide who they should hear from – and also whether to follow the recent practice of having other committees involved in hearing from witnesses.
However, the House of Commons shut down that day upon learning of Mr. Flaherty's death, and the following Friday was limited to tributes in the House of Commons. All committee meetings were cancelled and the House went on its scheduled two-week recess.
The government wants the bill reported out of committee and passed into law before the House rises in June. That means only seven sitting weeks remain between now and June 20 – which is the last day the House is scheduled to sit before summer – to complete committee study, the report stage and third-reading debates in the House.
The finance committee won't meet again until April 29, meaning there will be a scramble to invite and schedule expert witnesses to comment on the bill. But it is not clear what the government has in mind this time.
Opposition finance critics say the recent practice of having parts of the bill studied by other committees raises its own problems. Those other committees get to study slices of the bill, but only MPs on the finance committee get a vote. "You have MPs voting on things they have no understanding of, because they weren't there [for the hearings]," said NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen.
The NDP will propose that the bill be split in a way that the committees studying the bill can also vote on the relevant sections.
Liberal MP Scott Brison said another problem with the government's approach to omnibus bills is that amendments are never accepted. "It becomes very frustrating going through the process studying these bills when at the end of the day the Conservatives are going to ignore any opinions, regardless of how informed they are, if they run counter to their position," said Mr. Brison.
A spokesperson for Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said the finance committee will decide how the bill will be studied. Senior Conservatives on the committee could not be reached for comment.
The Senate has already announced its plans for a pre-study of the bill and has split up the work among five separate committees: Transport and Communications; Social Affairs, Science and Technology; National Security and Defence; Banking, Trade and Commerce; and Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
The Conservative government has repeatedly been criticized for cramming its budget bills with measures that the opposition say should be presented and debated on their own. One of the most controversial sections in the latest bill involves measures to implement a tax information-sharing agreement with the United States in connection with the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.1
Since the budget bill has been released, several accountants have raised detailed technical questions and concerns about the FATCA provisions, but the budget-bill review process likely means these issues will not be addressed in depth before the bill is passed into law.
The omnibus bill – which has 359 numbered pages, as well as an opening summary – makes a wide range of changes, including legislation to create toll bridges in Montreal and bring in tougher penalties for employers that breach the rules of the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
Another section includes provisions on virtual currencies like Bitcoin, seeking to bring these into the reporting standards of traditional financial markets.
Matthew McGuire, a partner with MNP who will speak to the Senate banking committee about the bill as Chair of the Canadian Anti-Money Laundering Committee of the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, said the section deserves praise for regulating the current "Wild West" environment.
But when it comes to having the issue decided as part of a wide-ranging budget bill, Mr. McGuire suggested he'd like to see the issue receive a more detailed hearing.
"The issue is internationally significant," he said. "I think it deserves more than a day of study."
Bill Curry covers finance in Ottawa.
Categories:Valuation, Forensics and Litigation Support
Related Topics:Government; Legislation; Virtual Currency; Anti-Money Laundering
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