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"Spend as little time as possible at the legislature. There are no voters there, so any time spent is wasted."

That is the bitter advice former Nova Scotia Finance Minister Graham Steele gives to aspiring politicians in his new tell-all book What I Learned About Politics.

If Steele's got it right, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been smart in deciding to so frequently stay away from Parliament.

In the 2011 federal campaign, the late NDP Leader Jack Layton landed a fatal blow on then Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff when he pointed to the Liberal's weak attendance record.

But if that blow hurt, maybe it was only because it affirmed the negative view many had of the aloof Ignatieff.

Today's voters -- or at least those whom the pollsters quote -- seem ready to cut Trudeau a lot more slack. In fact, the current Official Opposition Leader, the NDP's Tom Mulcair -- universally praised as  a highly skilled and effective parliamentarian (Brian Mulroney called him the best Opposition Leader since John Diefenbaker) -- now says he will emulate the leader of the third party and spend more time away from the House.

NDPers want Canadians, especially Canadians outside Quebec, to get to know their leader better. When he strays from the Parliamentary precinct, though, Mulcair will not be playing celebrity/personality politics.

The Official Opposition Leader will try to interest Canadians in the substantive policies his party is rolling out well in advance of the next election. In this, the NDP is following the example of the likes of Quebec's Jean Charest and Ontario's Mike Harris, who had great success in detailing their party platforms long before any election.

Indeed, there was a time when the Liberals thought it best to emphasize policy and readiness to govern over leadership. Their successful 1993 campaign was centred not on leader Jean Chrétien but on their strong team and, most of all, their detailed Red Book of policies.

Substance, it seems, does sometimes work in politics.

It does not, however, work too often, says Nova Scotia's Graham Steele. And he has advice for politicians who want to make an effort to talk about policy.

"Keep it simple," Steele counsels. "Policy debates are for losers. Focus on what is most likely to sink in with a distracted electorate: slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures, image. Find whatever works, then repeat it relentlessly."

Harper has some legislative priorities

The federal Parliament is now getting back to work, and the federal members of Parliament will have to deal with at least some serious substantive matters, regardless of the electoral pertinence of such stuff.

At this point, the coming legislative agenda looks pretty thin.The Harper government may be preparing some surprises, but so far it does not have any major new initiatives in the works.

It won't be sitting on its hands, though.

On Saturday, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan listed a few of Harper's key priorities for the CBC's Evan Solomon: a free trade agreement with South Korea, the next budget implementation bill, and the government's Red Tape Reduction Bill, C-21.

The government calls the agreement with Korea "landmark" and says the deal will provide new access for Canadian businesses to the world’s 15th largest economy. This agreement, Conservatives claim, will serve "as a gateway for Canadian businesses and workers into the dynamic Asia-Pacific region as a whole."

More important for achieving that last-named goal, however, is something Conservatives don't want to talk about. That is the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) with China, which the federal Cabinet just quietly ratified.

While the government is anxious to talk about the Korean trade deal, it is very reticent on the China treaty. The Government of Canada's official web site rhapsodizes at length about Korea; but, to date, it is virtually silent on the newly signed agreement with China.

FIPAs are not about trade; they are reciprocal investment agreements. Prior to the one with China, Canada had already signed 20 such deals with countries ranging from Armenia to Bénin to the Russian Federation.

To the extent that supporters of the China investment treaty defend it publicly, they emphasize that it will create a level playing field for Canadian companies that operate in China and protect them from unfair or arbitrary treatment.

The vast majority of the twenty other foreign investment agreements favour Canada and Canadian businesses. That is because Canadian companies invest more in most of the partner countries (many of which are small and poor) than do companies from those countries in Canada.

That is most definitely not true of the China deal.

Critics -- and there are many, including some who sit at Harper's Cabinet table -- worry that China will reap most of the benefit of this deal, to the potential detriment of First Nations' rights and environmental, health and labour protections in Canada.

The Council of Canadians puts it this way: "Chinese corporations will be able to challenge local, provincial and federal policies or laws that interfere with their 'right' to make a profit from, for example, proposed tar sands or fracking projects, pipelines, or mines."

This treaty will not come before Parliament. Cabinet -- and Cabinet alone -- has the right to approve it. But to the extent that she can make her voice heard, the Green Party's Elizabeth May will try to put some of the more troublesome issues associated with the China FIPA before the House.

May worries that the treaty will give Chinese state-owned businesses excessive power over the Canadian economy, especially in the resource sector, and she is encouraging Conservative MPs to rise in revolt against it.

"I am certain no Canadian company will ever benefit from this agreement," May argues, "but Canada will lose -- not once but over and over again. [This treaty] cements our relationship to the Peoples Republic of China as a compliant resource colony. I call on every Conservative MP to block this sell out."

Reducing 'red tape' and another Harper omnibus bill?

As for Van Loan's other two Conservative priorities, one, the Red Tape Bill (C-21) states that, in the future, when governments issue new regulations that create "additional administrative burdens" for businesses they will be obliged to repeal other existing regulations to offset those new burdens.

It may sound innocent enough on the face of it. But this new law could weaken the government’s capacity to assure the safety of Canada's food supply, to cite just one example.

This government has already signalled that it is not averse to cutting resources and powers for agencies that protect health and the environment. It abolished the Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, radically curtailed the federal government's environmental oversight of mega projects such as pipelines, and cut jobs at the Canada Food Inspection Agency. 

Under the guise of reducing "red tape" there is no telling what the Conservatives might try to do, quietly and out of sight.

It is revealing that as part of its multi-year red tape reduction process this government had earlier targeted rules that might make it difficult for employers to hire temporary foreign workers. See this writer's story on that from April, 2013. 

The Conservatives are singing a different tune on "guest workers" now, but that is only because of some bad press. Their intention, at the outset, was to cut back the "red tape" that regulated the use of temporary foreign workers -- and protected the rights of those workers. That should give Canadians an idea of what this Red Tape initiative is all about.

Van Loan's final item, this season's budget implementation bill, could, if it follows previous Harper government implementation bills, be another Trojan Horse. We can reasonably expect the bill to be filled with legislative measures that have nothing whatsoever to do with the budget. Previous implementation bills were monstrous affairs that changed laws in multiple non-finance areas, including the environment, social affairs and immigration, without anything resembling serious consideration by Parliament.

When the government House Leader invites us to stay tuned for this season's version of budget implementation, we would be well advised to do so.

What about growing inequality?

As for the Official Opposition NDP, it used the weekend before the House sits again to begin putting flesh on its policy proposals.

Tom Mulcair announced that an NDP government would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Some business groups argue that such a move would put a damper on hiring and push up unemployment. But as economist and Broadbent Institute Senior Policy Advisor Andrew Jackson has pointed out, that argument is based on outmoded economic theory. The current mainstream economic view, Jackson says, is that "minimum wages set at reasonable levels help reduce the ranks of the working poor and do not have a significant negative impact on jobs."

The minimum wage proposal is one way of attacking the scary phenomenon of growing inequality. When the NDP uses an Opposition Day in the House to get a debate going on this proposal it will be interesting to hear what both of the other main parties have to say. If they disagree, what other measures might they consider?

The Conservatives will almost certainly be opposed, and they will emphasize what they are already doing: reducing corporate taxes and cutting employment insurance premiums for some employers.

As for the Liberals, it was the previous Liberal government that did away with the federal minimum wage. Where do the middle-class-focused Justin Trudeau Liberals stand on that issue now?

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