5 issues that will dominate the fall session of Parliament
Published Sunday, September 16, 2012 7:00AM EDT
As lawmakers prepare to return to the Hill for the next session of the 41st Parliament on Sept. 17, here's a look at five issues expected to dominate the agenda.
Trade is the new stimulus
According to the Prime Minister's Office, the Government of Canada "remains focused on jobs and growth."
The government has moved beyond trying to get Canadians working and businesses growing with "stimulus" spending, and is now focused on encouraging stronger international trade ties.
"Trade is the new stimulus," Minister of International Trade Ed Fast said in May, signalling the importance of burgeoning free trade deals with the EU and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
While Harper and his team push for new trade deals, as the prime minister did with China during the recent APEC Summit, expect the opposition to keep demanding to know what concessions the government is willing to make for a seat at the negotiating table.
Expect political fireworks in the event the government tables another budget implementation bill, too. If the bill follows past precedents, the widely anticipated bill will focus on technical amendments.
But if the outstanding items from the last budget plan do make an appearance -- such as tax reform, public service pension reform, and First Nations education -- it could stir a fierce debate along the lines of the last "omnibus" budget implementation Bill C-38.
Despite concerted opposition efforts that involved nearly 900 amendments and a 24-hour round of voting, the bill passed.
Both the Liberals and NDP have vowed to employ a similarly hard-line strategy if the government takes the "omnibus" approach this time too.
Heated debate is also expected on the proposed purchase of Canadian oil-and-gas producer Nexen by a state-owned Chinese company.
Ottawa launched its review of China National Offshore Oil Co.'s $15.1-billion offer to buy Calgary-based Nexen Inc. in late August.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis said he would take the time needed “to carefully examine CNOOC’s proposed acquisition of Nexen Inc. and determine whether it is likely to be of net benefit to Canada.”
CTV's Question Period host Kevin Newman said the government's position on the takeover will attract a lot of attention, not least because the issue revolves around two pillars of Harper's mandate: exploiting Canada's natural resources and building new markets in the Asia-Pacific region.
"The proposal is increasingly unpopular in Canada, so the degree to which politics is a factor in the review will send a strong signal to foreign markets about the rules of the road in exploiting Canada’s resources sector," Newman said, explaining the importance of Ottawa making its decision-making process appear predictable and fair.
The government has to tread a similarly fine line when it comes to the ongoing debate around the proposed $6-billion twin pipeline project that would take bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to British Columbia's Pacific coast.
The Northern Gateway pipeline has sharply divided public opinion, particularly in B.C. where the Conservatives won 21 of 36 seats in the 2011 election.
Support for the Tories in B.C. has been sliding since then, however, thanks in part to the controversy over the pipeline proposal, but also in the wake of ill-received changes to federal fisheries habitat protection laws and budget cuts that have led to Coast Guard station closures in the province.
Expect the NDP to keep pushing for additional oil refinery capacity in Canada as an alternative to transporting oilsands crude to be processed overseas.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has drawn a line in the sand, however, arguing that the economics aren't right for the government to get behind more refineries in Canada.
"Unless of course the government is willing to subsidize the industry to the tune of many billions of dollars, and that's certainly not our approach," Oliver said in a recent interview.
National unity questions resurrected
Harper's Conservatives must navigate a political tightrope in Quebec too, after the loss of Jean Charest's federalist Liberals to the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois.
Granted, the PQ's minority mandate means leader Pauline Marois will not be able to aggressively pursue her stated goal of Quebec independence. But Harper must also be mindful of his party's flagging fortunes in the province.
Quebecers' support for the federal Conservatives lagged behind the Bloc and NDP in the last general election, leaving the Tories with five seats.
After remaining silent on the issue for the duration of the Quebec election campaign, Harper's congratulatory words to premier-elect Marois were chosen carefully.
"We don't believe Quebecers want to reopen the old constitutional quarrels of the past," Harper said in a statement issued hours after the election was called.
During the campaign, Marois had promised to bend Harper's ear on the subject of transferring more federal powers to Quebec -- principally in the areas of employment insurance, language and immigration, but in his words, Harper is only interested in working together on “common objectives” involving jobs and the economy.
Contract controversies and ‘judicial activism’
Canadians who share Harper’s unwillingness to reopen the constitutional debate have shown no such reluctance when it comes to arguing the merits of the government's handling of non-competitive contracting.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson blasted the Tories last Spring, in a scathing report that accused the government of hiding the true costs of its now-stalled efforts to buy a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets.
And, just weeks before the return to Parliament, the contracting watchdog at Public Works released a report highlighting even more widespread problems.
According to Procurement Ombudsman Frank Brunetta's report, of the 442 sole-source deals analyzed, slightly less than half met the standards for advanced notification. The report concluded that moer than 100 of the so-called advance contract award notifications, or ACANs, appeared to be genuine attempts to fulfill market test requirements.
Despite the criticism, the government has stood firmly behind its handling of the procurement process.
Nevertheless the government is widely expected to release, sometime this fall, a revision of its military shopping list -- the $490-billion, 20-year Canada First Defence Strategy that had been hailed as the plan to bring the country's military capabilities into the 21st century.
Expect the opposition to hold up Ferguson and Brunetta's reports, and point to the government’s history of procurement complaints, if they do.
Unfortunately for the opposition, given his majority mandate the prime minister isn't forced to heed their criticism on any file. But that doesn’t mean his more controversial policies are being implemented without challenge.
Rather than the opposition benches, some of Harper’s biggest political setbacks have come, of late, from the courts.
In July, for instance, Ontario Court Justice Paul Bellefontaine ruled that a crack dealer who offered to sell an undercover police officer a gun should not have to face the mandatory minimum sentence of three years in jail for firearms trafficking.
Ruling the mandatory penalty disproportionate, given that the accused didn't even own a gun to sell, Justice Bellefontaine's ruling essentially struck down a key plank of the Conservative's tough-on-crime platform.
That case followed a ruling just three months earlier in which Ontario Superior Court Judge Anne Molloy struck down a three-year minimum sentence for a first offence of illegally possessing a loaded gun.
And most recently, Quebec Superior Court Judge Marc-Andre Blanchard ordered the government to hand the province data from its now-defunct federal long-gun registry.
All those cases are expected to be appealed, and eventually wind up before the Supreme Court where others of Harper's policies have not fared well in recent years. Among the decisions that have gone against the government’s own policies: a ruling that addicts can inject at a Vancouver heroin clinic; another that killed efforts to establish a national securities regulator and the 2010 decision that found Omar Khadr's rights had been violated.
The prime minister has a rare chance now, however, to potentially change the tenure of the Supreme Court.
A new justice will likely be appointed before the court resumes sitting in October, with the appointment of as many as three more due to retirements between now and the federal election expected in the fall of 2015.
"With several vacancies pending, it’s an opportunity for the prime minister to influence how the Court settles issues of rights and freedoms for the next decade," Newman told CTVNews.ca
The opposition benches will be setting a new tone in the coming session too, as the NDP seize their first chance in 15 months to focus exclusively on their role as Official Opposition.
Beyond defining their place in Parliament, Newman expects the NDP's newly elected leader Thomas Mulcair to make some headway in establishing his national identity.
"Mulcair is still an unknown leader in much of the country," Newman said. "The Tories haven’t tried to frame him as viciously as they did previous Opposition leaders, but the NDP hasn’t moved to define him in English Canada either. The race is on to establish who he is in the minds of voters."
The Liberals, on the other hand, are heading into their own leadership hunt.
Under interim Leader Bob Rae, the Liberals had benefited from the NDP's search for someone to replace the late Jack Layton.
With a crowded field of candidates potentially joining the contest – as many as a dozen candidates are rumoured to be considering a bid to lead the party’s 35-MP caucus -- the Liberals will inevitably face distraction between now and the end of the process slated for April 14, 2013.