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Lots of action as we count the days to Parliament resuming

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The drums are beating in anticipation of next week’s Throne Speech and Parliament coming back.

The Conservatives are making more than their fair share of announcements in which their MPs get to hand over cheques.

So far this week they have touted everything from dollars for Acadian culture, to funds for a community centre in science-phobic Science Minister Greg Rickford’s northern Ontario riding, to networking opportunities for defence contractors in Saskatchewan.

Nothing wrong with any of that, in principle -- but it is oddly profligate, coming from a party that claims to eschew government spending and wants its trademark to be prudence and frugality.

The NDP Official Opposition has been busy too.

While Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have kept a low profile and, for the most part, restricted their announcements to campaign-style appearances by the leader, the NDP has set down a number of major policy markers.

In this, the NDP is playing the Official Opposition’s classic role: telling the voters what it would do if it were in power.

Earlier this week, the Official Opposition party put out a series of Senate reform proposals (assuming its favoured option of abolition is not in the cards in the near future).

Then on Wednesday morning, the NDP’s caucus Chair Peter Julian rolled out suggestions for improving the accountability of both houses of Parliament.

Those suggestions include prohibiting parliamentarians from sitting on the boards of big corporations, transforming the current ethics "rules" into laws, and empowering the Ethics Commissioner to impose serious sanctions on parliamentarians who breach those laws.

$90,000 cheque is getting closer to the PM; plus those federal health cuts

This discussion of accountability happens against the backdrop of new revelations about Senator Mike Duffy, who, it is alleged, used 65,000 public dollars to pay a friend to do virtually nothing.

At the same time, the RCMP investigation of Nigel Wright's $90,000 payment to Duffy is getting closer and closer to the Prime Minister himself.

In the lead up to Parliament's return, the NDP has also taken issue with the planned changes to the federal contribution to health care.

The Official Opposition points out that the post-2014 funding Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unilaterally offered to the provinces will be far below actual requirements.

The NDP is not alone in saying this. The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) has said much the same thing. In a recent report, the PBO noted that the federal government will be, in effect, reaching its deficit target on the backs of the provinces and the health care system.

As NDP Health critic and Deputy Leader Libby Davies put it:

"They are slashing budgets, unloading health care costs onto the provinces and turning a blind eye to accountability for health care dollars."

The bitter fruit of Conservative omnibus legislation

Environmentalists are also pushing their message, as the National Energy Board starts hearings in Montreal on a proposed west-east pipeline (in part, the reversal of a current east-west line) to carry tar sands bitumen to ports in Quebec.

A coalition of groups that includes the Suzuki Foundation, Climate Justice, Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians and the Sierra Club has denounced the hearing as an undemocratic sham.

In 2012 the Conservative government slipped changes to the way the National Energy Board (NEB) operates into one of its trademark massive omnibus budget bills.

The new rules mean that the Board can only hear from those "directly affected" by a project. Issues such as the significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions that would be caused by the importation of dirty tar sands oil into Quebec are not part of the NEB's newly restricted mandate.

The environmental groups are protesting in Montreal now. We can expect those and similar groups to bring their case to Parliament Hill once the House resumes sitting.

An evidence-based idea for Canada Post from the CCPA

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has also been working hard during this run-up to the Throne Speech.

This week the CCPA issued a scathing report on youth unemployment in Ontario (scandalously high) that got much mainstream media attention.

Less noticed was a cogently argued CCPA report by the former head of policy for the NDP, John Anderson, proposing that Canada Post should get into the banking business.

The report points out that nearly a million Canadians have inadequate banking service. Either there is no competition where they live or no bank at all.

Anderson also explains that many other countries, such as Japan and Switzerland, offer banking services through their post offices, and that Canada Post would be in a good position to do so, either alone, or in a variety of possible partnerships with the private sector.

This report provides a sound, detailed, common sense proposal -- even if it swims upstream of the contemporary policy tilt in favour of an ever-increasing role for the private corporate sector.

It might be interesting to have a discussion in Parliament on the merits of such a proposal, based on facts and evidence, rather than free market theology.

Big Brother is watching environmentalists

Then -- not exactly planned but unavoidable -- there are all those revelations to the effect that the Canadian intelligence establishment has been working with Canadian mining and energy companies and spying on the Brazilians.

This story has come out in stages -- starting with the part about the efforts to penetrate the Brazilian Ministry of Energy and continuing with the news that our federal government intelligence agencies meet regularly with executives of Canadian mining and energy companies.

When asked about such meetings, former senior Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day had a glib but chilling response.

Day said we can assume that some Canadian "activists" might be very willing to engage in acts of violence and sabotage against pipelines and other energy targets, and that the industry-security agency meetings are necessary to head off dangerous "activists," whoever they might be (or if they even exist, to quote Toronto Mayor Rob Ford).

To date, Canadian First Nations, environmental and community groups have not shown any interest in anything beyond peaceful protest.

We do know, of course, that the changes the Conservatives have wrought in environmental review and oversight have made it much harder for the environmental and sustainability point of view to get a fair hearing (see above).

In addition, for a couple of years now, the Conservatives have been making great efforts to cast the entire environmental movement in the role of "enemy" of economic progress and development in Canada.

In that context, meetings between the Canadian security establishment and corporate leaders would seem to have more of a political than true security purpose.

The message is: if you are engaged in any way in environmental advocacy Canada's security agency Big Brother is watching you, and they're sharing what they know with key players in the private sector.

That sort of surveillance is pretty scary, so much so that even Canada's provincial and federal privacy commissioners have spoken up.

This week, the commissioners signed a joint resolution that said, in part:

Canada’s access to information and privacy laws should be modernized in order to protect these important rights in the face of dramatic technological change and the demands of engaged citizens...recent revelations about government surveillance programs have heightened Canadians' concerns about the erosion of their privacy rights and have prompted calls for increased transparency and greater oversight.

And so, there a lot of big issues about which we have a right to expect the opposition parties to be asking tough questions of the government, once all the Members of Parliament are back at work next week.

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