Senators debate removing infrastructure bank from budget bill

A Senate report concludes the government hasn’t done enough to protect the proposed Canada Infrastructure Bank from political interference and a motion is in the works to remove the bank from Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget bill.

Senators are debating whether to amend or even remove the budget bill’s provisions that would create a $35-billion federal bank designed to attract private investment in infrastructure. In a new development, Senators are also expressing concern with another federal corporation that would be created in the budget bill: a $218-million entity called the Invest in Canada Hub.

The House of Commons is scheduled to approve C-44, the budget bill, this week. The Senate will begin its official study of the legislation on Tuesday, though Senate committees have already held “prestudy” meetings on the bill. Independent Senator André Pratte told The Globe and Mail that he will be moving a motion Tuesday to split the bill so that the infrastructure provisions are removed for further study in the fall.

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Mr. Pratte said he expects to receive “substantial support” for his motion to split the bill, but he is not certain whether he has enough senators onside to win a vote. He also expects his motion may be challenged on procedural grounds. While senators have a range of concerns with the bill, he said many are opposed to the fact that the government is attempting to create a major new financial institution through a more than 300-page omnibus budget bill, rather than as standalone legislation that would allow for a more in-depth review.

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“As far as omnibus bills are concerned, I think the Senate has to draw a line in the sand and I think a $35-billion institution is certainly a good place to draw a line in the sand,” he said.

With Parliament expected to break for summer at some point in June, a motion to split the bill would likely mean that debate on the Infrastructure Bank would continue into the fall. That would throw a wrench in the government’s plans to launch the bank before the end of the year. The deadline for applications to chair the board of the new bank closed on May 23. Applications for CEO and director positions are being accepted until June 30.

In an interview, the federal Finance Minister said the legislation strikes the right balance between government input and bank independence. He also cautioned against delaying the legislation and defended the decision to include the bank as part of that bill.

“Everything in our budget bill is related to our budget,” Mr. Morneau said. “The importance of getting going on the Canada Infrastructure Bank is that we know it will create great jobs today for Canadians … Clearly, there are projects that will not get done in this country if we don’t introduce the Canada Infrastructure Bank. There will be opportunities missed if we don’t move forward rapidly.”

The Senate banking committee held a prestudy of some sections of the bill, including the Infrastructure Bank, and issued a report Wednesday. The report describes the positive and negative comments expressed by witnesses and then raises concerns with the Infrastructure Bank and the investment hub.

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“The committee is not convinced that the right balance between the need for the proposed bank’s decision making to be free from political interference and the need for the federal government to maintain adequate oversight of the use of public funds has been achieved,” the report states.

The Senators also question the need for an Invest in Canada Hub.

“The Committee remains uncertain about the need to establish a new agency to promote foreign investment in Canada,” the report states.

“The Invest in Canada Hub is intended to assure that we have an effective development of business opportunities for Canada and for Canadians from around the world,” Mr. Morneau said. “We’ve been witness to countries that have been highly effective in this activity and we know that we can do better.”

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