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Hill Dispatches: Cooler outside, hotter inside as the spectre of another premature prorogation hangs over the House

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Photo: E Wayne/Flickr

The political atmosphere in Ottawa is getting hotter as the weather gets cooler.

- The Tories propose the first unilingual auditor general in more than two decades (prompting Bob Rae's incredulous cry, "Was there no competent bilingual person?"). 

- The Canadian Wheat Board is going to court to stave off its own destruction.

- There is dark talk of time limits on the debate on Bill C-19, the kill-the-long-gun-registry bill.

- And now we're hearing rumours of an early prorogation, once the government cleans up all the "leftover" stuff from the last Parliament.

Don't talk of cuts! Let's have bromides and vague undertakings!

Looming budget cuts are coming more and more to the fore as well, anticipating what many expect will be the thrust of the 2012 version of Canada's newest Conservative government.

And the governing party's strategy when confronted with the consequences of its cuts is becoming clear too.

On Wednesday, the NDP's Jean Crowder asked the Human Resources Minister, Diane Finley, to comment on the fact that in some cities nearly a third of the people who call Service Canada about employment insurance hang up in frustration, without speaking to anyone.

Ms. Finley's response was to talk about "Canada's economic action plan" -- which the NDP had voted against, she pointed out -- and to make vague allusions to her department "streamlining its operations" so that, somehow, service would be better with fewer resources.

Don't talk to us of cuts! We have platitudes!

There are very deep rumoured cuts to Veterans' Affairs, among other areas, and the Commons Veterans' Affairs Committee will meet behind closed doors to, most likely, discuss them.

When the Liberals' Sean Casey tried to address this, and asked for an open meeting, he got, instead, platitudes about how much this government loves veterans.

It loves veterans so much it has even paid for an expensive television advertizing campaigns to tell Canadians we should all treasure and respect our veterans. (Is it possible that some veterans in difficult economic straits might prefer to see some of that advertising money spent on their direct needs?)

A sincere effort to get something passed unanimously is stymied

Still, members make an effort to keep some focus on the serious policy choices before them.

On Wednesday afternoon, the NDP's Jack Harris moved a very modest motion that Bill C-10, the "omnibus" crime bill, be divided in two.

Deal with sex crimes against children separately

Harris moved that the provisions of the omnibus bill dealing with sexual crimes against children be split from the rest and considered in a separate bill. Among those provisions are some to deal with the relatively new criminal activity: "Internet luring." The proposed legislation would create the new crimes of "luring" and "grooming," and give police and courts tools with which to confront child predators who use the Internet. 

Harris told the House there was very widespread agreement on those particular provisions and Parliament could likely deal with them quite quickly.

"I have considerable experience in this area," Harris said, "Let's pass these measures and do something to protect children, now!"

Opposition cannot give most of the omnibus bill's provisions a mere, quick once-over

As for the rest of the multi-part crime bill, Harris echoed the  views of many of the experts who have so far appeared before the Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee. A great many of them say that, over-all, the omnibus bill is flawed and will not deliver the promised results.

"Experts are telling us that many provisions of this bill, such as harsher mandatory sentences, will breed crime, not reduce it," Harris argued. The opposition will not give those contentious measures a bye, without a very through airing of all the issues.

That's why Harris pleaded that the government should take him up on his offer to put the measures on child sexual crimes before the House as soon as possible, and get those passed.

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives are not in the mood for compromise. They did not even allow a vote on Harris' motion, but used a procedural device to bring on second reading of and debate on the long-gun registry abolition bill, C-19.

         *                                                  *                                         *

Public transit gets a bit of time on the floor of the House

NDP member Olivia Chow continues her efforts to get the Government of Canada to take an interest in public transit. She has proposed a private member's bill that would create a National Public Transit Strategy and, on Wednesday, the House debated it for the first time.

Chow's main point is that Canada is nearly alone among developed countries in not having such a strategy. A federal government can take leadership on public transit, Chow believes. She wants it to convene the municipalities and provinces and help establish national standards and goals and see to it that public transit is available to all Canadians who need it.

Need for over-arching strategy collides with the constitution

"Without a strategy," she told the House, "capital funds for transit are driven by politics. At the local level we get into squabbles as to where resources should be invested. Should it be busses, streetcars or metros? A national strategy will establish priorities, and direct the funds available to meet them."

Canada's federal system puts public transit in the municipal, and therefore, provincial domain (since the BNA Act defines municipalities as creatures of the provinces). The federal government takes a role in many areas that are within provincial jurisdiction, of course, notably health care.

But the current government is not too interested in expanding its role into provincial territory.
Conservative Pierre Poilievre noted that Chow is a former Toronto city councillor and thus knows a great deal about the transit issue.

"Maybe that's why she is interested in the federal government getting into the direct management of public transit!" he chided, "We would rather not have the federal government exceed its bounds."

He went on to explain that this government saw a strictly circumscribed role for itself on the question of providing transit for the hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of Canadians who are now inadequately served, or not served at all.

"We invest some infrastructure money into building some transit facilities," Poilievre said, "and we give a portion of the federal gas tax to municipalities, which they can spend on transit, if they wish."

A federal government that 'knows its place' ... ?

Here he echoed what the deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs had earlier told another committee. In that case, the question was about the federal role in higher education for First Nations students.

The federal government sees post-secondary education as a strictly provincial responsibility and does not want to fund institutions of higher learning, the Deputy Minister said. It prefers the more limited role of aiding individual students and assisting with some infrastructure spending.

Unlike patriotism, federalism is not, in the words of Samuel Johnson, the "last refuge of scoundrels." But sometimes federalism can be the ultimate excuse for inaction!

And one could be forgiven for suspecting that a given federal government's desire to strictly adhere to its constitutional role is a highly contingent choice.

There's respecting jursiduction -- and there's also co-operating

After all, the healthy practice of federalism does not merely involve the different levels of government simply sticking to their knitting and keeping out of each others' way. The practice of federalism is also about co-operation, consultation, and accommodation.

In other words, it is about the federal government, the provinces, the territories, the towns, the cities and, maybe someday, the aboriginal governments working together for the common good.

And so, if a provincial government were to ask a federal government for the data the latter had gathered on long-gun owners, what should a respectful, co-operative federal government do?

Tell the province to bugger off?

Tell its provincial colleagues that it would rather burn all of those data in a big public campfire than share any of it?

Maybe that is what being a good federalist, deeply respectful of the constitution, means to some people ...

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