Pubdate: Sat, 24 Jan 2015
Source: Edmonton Journal (CN AB)
Copyright: 2015 The Edmonton Journal
Author: Jason Fekete
Pages: B4-B5


As the House of Commons Returns Monday, Jason Fekete of Postmedia 
News outlines the issues expected to dominate this sitting and what 
they'll mean for each party

Budgeting blues:

Oil prices, which have shrunk by more than half since June 2014, are 
gobbling billions in tax revenue from the federal treasury and 
jeopardizing the Conservative government's promise to balance the 
books in 2015. Finance Minister Joe Oliver has delayed the budget 
until at least April so the government can get a better handle on 
what depressed oil prices will mean to the Canadian economy.

Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper still say the government 
will end seven consecutive years of deficits and post a surplus in 
201516, despite warning signs of economic troubles on the horizon.

TD Bank predicted earlier this month that the Conservative 
government's promised surplus could actually turn into a deficit, 
while the Bank of Canada, in dropping its key interest rate to 0.75 
per cent from one per cent, warned this week that the sharp drop in 
oil prices "will be negative for Canadian growth" and is putting the 
country's economic recovery at risk.

The Conference Board of Canada said the plunge in oil prices is 
expected to chop $4.3 billion from federal revenues this year; 
meanwhile, the Tory government's new family tax cuts are expected to 
cost $4.6 billion in 201516.

"The drop in oil prices is unambiguously negative for the Canadian 
economy," Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz said. The problem for 
the Conservatives: The government made a bunch of tax-break promises, 
including income-splitting for couples with kids and an enhanced 
Universal Child Care Benefit. But it's unclear if the government can 
afford these while still balancing the budget. By the time of the 
election, scheduled for October, will Canadians really be "better off 
with Harper," as the Conservative slogan goes? The problem for the 
NDP: Leader Tom Mulcair floated a multibillion-dollar child care plan 
in the fall. How will that be affordable given the havoc oil prices 
have wreaked on the economy?

The problem for the Liberals: None, really. Or at least - none, yet. 
The Liberals and leader Justin Trudeau have released very little 
economic policy, so nobody can criticize it. But eventually, Trudeau 
will face questions on whether he can be trusted to manage the 
Canadian economy.

Getting tough on terrorism:

The federal government has spent months crafting new anti-terrorism 
legislation that Harper says will be introduced "very early" in the 
new sitting of the House. Harper has said the bill will include new 
powers for security agencies to identify and thwart potential terror 
threats, including preventive arrests and detentions.

It's expected the legislation will allow security agencies to more 
easily obtain and share information previously covered under privacy 
laws, and include a strategy to help prevent youths from becoming 
radicalized. The government is also reportedly looking to make it 
easier to obtain information on the movement of controlled goods and 
substances such as weapons or materials that could be used for 
chemical weapons. The problem for the Conservatives: The new 
legislation must balance Canadians' need for security with privacy 
laws and fundamental freedoms. This is tricky: The Tories were widely 
seen as having been too intrusive with their online security 
legislation, and had to retreat. On the other hand, public security 
has been top of mind for Canadians amid attacks on our soil and 
terrorist threats from abroad; the government will enjoy considerable 
support on this file.

The problem for the NDP: Mulcair has hesitated to call the Oct. 22 
shootings in Ottawa a terrorist attack, given the dearth of 
information made public so far. So it's less clear how an NDP-led 
government would act on this file. The Conservatives have happily 
tried to paint the NDP as soft on terror.

The problem for the Liberals: Trudeau, who has said the "root causes" 
of terrorism need to be understood, has also been prey for the 
Tories, who see him as politically vulnerable on security matters.

The veterans file:

In early January, Harper shuffled the less-than-successful Julian 
Fantino out of Veterans Affairs and named rising star Erin O'Toole as minister.

One of O'Toole's first big tests could come Jan. 30, when the 
government is expected to respond to recommendations that the House 
of Commons Veterans Affairs committee issued last June, dealing with 
improvements to the controversial New Veterans Charter, including 
increasing the disability award provided to veterans and improving 
how injured soldiers are handled by the bureaucracy.

Many wonder if the Tory government will introduce new funding for 
veterans in the federal budget, then turn to O'Toole to try to sell 
it to Canada's former soldiers and military personnel. The problem 
for the Conservatives: Where to start? The government closed Veterans 
Affairs offices, the minister got huffy with veterans, the department 
failed to spend more than $1 billion over several years. The file, 
which should have been a no-brainer for the government, has been a 
political headache. The problem for the NDP and the Liberals: With 
Fantino out and the affable O'Toole in, the opposition may not have 
such a big target to aim at.

Assisted suicide debate:

The Supreme Court could rule this spring on the criminal ban on 
doctor-assisted suicide. Indeed, the country's largest doctors' 
group, the Canadian Medical Association, is quietly preparing for 
potential changes to federal laws governing physician-assisted death. 
Some observers believe the Supreme Court could strike down Canada's 
ban on assisted suicide and give Parliament one year to prepare new 
legislation, as it did with prostitution.

Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, a quadriplegic since 1996, has 
introduced two private member's bills that would decriminalize 
physician-assisted death for "competent adults" and make the process 
transparent. While it's not expected his bills will be debated in the 
Commons before the federal election (and therefore die on the order 
paper), Conservative Sen. Nancy Ruth tabled similar legislation in 
the Senate in December, with the bill having support from senators on 
both sides of the upper chamber.

Fletcher hopes that legislation will pass third reading in the Senate 
and be sent to the House of Commons "at the top of the order of 
precedence" so MPs can debate and vote on the bill. The problem for 
the Conservatives: The Tories may be forced to revisit federal laws, 
depending on what the Supreme Court says, and one of Harper's own MPs 
is actively trying to push the issue even as the prime minister says 
his government "has no intention of reopening that debate." The 
problem for all parties: Almost all politicians would prefer to dodge 
this dicey political issue, one that is divisive among MPs in the 
same caucuses.

Iraq mission:

Canada's six-month military mission fighting the Islamic State in 
Iraq is to end in early April, and the government has not said 
whether it will seek an extension. But questions are now emerging 
about so-called mission creep after officials revealed Canadian 
special forces have been on the front lines targeting Islamic State 
fighters for bombing runs and killing attackers via sniper fire.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson says of Canadian troops that the 
federal government "did not put limits on their ability to advise and 
assist the Iraqis" when they were deployed. Chief of Defence Staff 
Gen. Tom Lawson suggests the mission has, indeed, "evolved."

If it is extended, the mission could become a significant political 
issue heading into the federal election. The problem for the 
Conservatives: While the Tories want to look tough on terror, 
political and human risks always go with military deployments. And 
the opposition is now on the offensive, saying Harper did not tell 
Canadians the truth about the mission. The problem for the NDP: No 
problem, in fact. The NDP has opposed the mission from the start, and 
is happy to position itself as unambiguously against the 
Conservatives on military activity, while backing enhanced aid for 
victims. The problem for the Liberals: Their initial stance on Iraq 
was seen as less clear than that of either of the other parties, and 
was not helped by Trudeau's "whip out our CF-18s" gaffe. Trudeau's 
challenge when the Commons again debates Iraq will be to show his 
party has a clear position and that he is a serious man on this topic.

Mike Duffy trial:

The criminal trial of suspended Sen. Mike Duffy is to start April 7 
and last weeks, stretching into June before it's all over. (And in 
the later days of Duffy's trial, Sen. Patrick Brazeau has a pretrial 
hearing for his fraud case.)

With 31 criminal charges, the trial will look at Duffy's spending 
habits in the Senate, allegations that he double-dipped, gave 
contracts to a friend and allegedly used some of the cash for a 
makeup artist and personal trainer. And there are those bribery 
charges over the $90,000 payment from Nigel Wright, Harper's former 
chief of staff.

Meanwhile, the RCMP continues to investigate Sen. Pamela Wallin over 
her travel expense claims. The problem for the Conservatives: The 
Duffy trial will bring what was an unwelcome political headache back 
into the news. The focus on the $90,000 payment in particular will 
open up the backroom dealings of the Prime Minister's Office, and 
weeks of testimony could produce explosive and inconvenient 
headlines. The problems for the NDP and Liberals: Not many. They're 
happy to watch the trial unfold.

Climate change:

Representatives of many countries will gather in Paris in December to 
craft a post-2020 framework for combating climate change, so the 
clock is ticking to update Canada's blueprint.

Under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, Canada agreed to reduce greenhouse 
gas emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. But 
the latest data from Environment Canada show that, at the current 
pace, Canada won't come close.

Moreover, Canada's environment commissioner says there's no overall 
plan for how the country will meet its 2020 targets.

The environment commissioner has also found the Tory government has 
been keeping secret long-promised regulations to limit greenhouse gas 
emissions from the oil and gas sector. Harper said in December, in 
the midst of oil prices tumbling, that it would be "crazy" for Canada 
to implement greenhouse gas regulations for the oil and gas sector 
under current economic conditions. Many economists are saying that 
today's low oil prices make it a perfect time to introduce carbon 
pricing at the federal level. The problem for the Conservatives: The 
government's current climate-change targets appear almost certain to 
fail, and the carbon-intensive oilsands developments could become 
even more of an international environmental target if the country 
doesn't produce a credible post-2020 plan in Paris. The problem for 
the NDP and Liberals: The opposition parties may think they are more 
environment-friendly, but they face political risks if they promise 
more aggressive climate-change policies! , such as a carbon tax or 
carbon pricing, at a time when jobs and the economy are under pressure.

Harassment on the Hill:

The suspension of Liberal MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti over 
unproven allegations of "serious personal misconduct" toward two 
female New Democrat MPs highlighted a disturbing side of Parliament 
Hill and left all parties grappling to deal with the issue of 
harassment. Both Liberal MPs deny any wrongdoing. Two other former 
NDP staffers say they were wrongfully dismissed by the party, with 
one of those cases including allegations of harassment.

The House of Commons announced a new harassment policy in December to 
cover MPs' conduct with their employees, both on Parliament Hill and 
any place where "inappropriate behaviour ... might reasonably be 
perceived" to affect working relationships. The new policy does not 
directly address MP-to-MP accusations.

Questions are mounting over whether there's a toxic work environment on

Parliament Hill, a place often dubbed an old-boys' club. The problem 
for the Liberals: Trudeau has been forced to suspend two of his own 
MPs, and has been attacked by the NDP for putting his political 
interests ahead of the interests of the alleged victims by going 
public with the information. The problem for the NDP: Mulcair and the 
party face questions about whether they adequately addressed concerns 
from the two female MPs, and of staffers in other unrelated 
harassment cases. The problem for the Conservatives: While they would 
be involved in setting new policies to prevent or punish future 
harassment, they haven't been sucked into this political morass so 
far. For now, they can just watch the other two parties hurl 
recriminations at each other.

Moving on marijuana laws:

The government has been examining possible changes to Canada's drug 
laws to allow police officers to issue tickets - rather than lay 
charges - to people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

Canadian police chiefs have called for a ticketing system for people 
possessing 30 grams of pot or less, something Harper has said he 
would consider. Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in March 2014 he 
had tasked his department with looking at possible legislation. RCMP 
Commissioner Bob Paulson said last fall that smoking pot isn't as big 
of a deal as it used to be, a position MacKay said he disagreed with 
because youth are negatively affected by marijuana use.

MacKay and the Conservative government have been quick to point out 
that any policy change will not be decriminalization or legalization 
- - a position favoured by the Liberal leader. Trudeau wants marijuana 
freely sold and taxed, and he believes regulating it would help keep 
it out of the hands of youth. The NDP supports immediate 
decriminalization, where users aren't criminally prosecuted so nobody 
goes to jail for smoking a joint. The NDP is also open to considering 
legalization, but the party is calling for a commission to instruct 
Parliament on how to carefully regulate non-medical use. The problem 
for the Conservatives: The Tories have trumpeted themselves as tough 
on crime, and regularly attack Trudeau for wanting to legalize and 
regulate marijuana. Any softening of marijuana laws could be seen as 
hypocritical and a step down from their aggressive approach. The 
problem for the Liberals: Trudeau still hasn't clearly explained how 
he would move to legalize the drug, and t! he issue threatens to 
overshadow other Liberal policies - whenever they're released. The 
problem for the NDP and Liberals: While many recreational pot users 
favour decriminalization or legalization, the opposition parties also 
risk looking soft on drug use - and hence soft on crime - with their 
respective positions.

Following the rules:

The Conservative-dominated Board of Internal Economy ruled in June 
that the NDP must pay back $1.17 million after using its 
parliamentary mailing privileges for partisan reasons. The BONE also 
ruled in August that the NDP misled House administrators about MPs' 
staff assigned to satellite offices in Quebec. The party has been 
told to pay back salaries and other costs to the House, an expense 
that could run into the millions of dollars.

Both issues ended up in legal action, but the negotiations to settle 
haven't worked so far and the board is expected to demand repayment 
of the House of Commons' costs when MPs return next week. The problem 
for the NDP:

Huge. The party could be forced to pay back millions of dollars just 
months before the election campaign - one in which the NDP expects to 
spend the maximum allowed, likely more than $20 million. The problem 
for the Conservatives and Liberals: None whatsoever.

Election perceptions:

The parties are gearing up for an election scheduled, as per 
fixed-date legislation, on Oct. 19. They've all started rolling out 
promises. And they've also been fundraising. With the publicly funded 
per-vote subsidy being phased out for good on April 1, the parties 
are stockpiling their war chests for the campaign. The problem for 
the Conservatives: The Tories are polling solidly, the war chest is 
overflowing - but the government's biggest challenge on the campaign 
trail may still be trying to persuade voters that, after more than 
nine years in power, Harper hasn't passed his best-before date. The 
problem for the NDP: The NDP faces a large test to show that the 
"Orange Wave" that swept them into official Opposition status in 2011 
can be repeated in Quebec, and exported to other provinces. But 
mostly it has to convince people to choose Mulcair, its politically 
experienced leader, over Trudeau's rock-star personal popularity. The 
problem for the Liberals:

Trudeau and the Liberals hope to capitalize on what they believe is 
voters' desire for change. They also hope to capitalize on Trudeau 
himself. But the party has presented little economic policy to date, 
and Trudeau is still prone to occasional verbal gaffes that feed his 
foes' argument that he isn't quite ready to govern.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom