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From 'terror' to taxes to refugee-bashing to Del Mastro: A fast-moving political week

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The federal political train, in the days following Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's attacks in Ottawa, seems to be moving at breakneck speed.

The minute you catch a glimpse of one car it has pulled through the station and there's another, sitting only briefly on the platform.

Here's a list:

1. A legislative change to discourage provinces from giving social assistance to refugees

While everyone was still thinking about the shooter and his victim, the Conservatives were busy tabling another of their patented omnibus budget implementation bills.

This time the omnibus bill's most contentious provision is a blandly named change in the federal-provincial fiscal transfers law.

Or, at least, that's what the Conservatives want you to think -- that it is a mere technical, fiscal change, designed to give provinces more latitude in how they spend their money.

In fact, however, the change is part of an ongoing Conservative effort to actively dissuade provinces from providing any assistance to most of the folks who arrive in Canada claiming refugee status under the Geneva Convention.

Provinces, of course, could still decide to continue to assist all residents, including refugee claimants.

However, if any of the provinces -- say, Ontario, or Quebec or British Columbia -- were to have the hubris to consider that course, the federal government would almost certainly make an effort to discourage them.

When he was Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney volubly complained that provinces providing welfare (and health care) to all legally-resident asylum seekers encouraged that oxymoronic category of Conservative bête noirs, "bogus refugees" (about which nonsensical argument we have written much in this space).

2. Next -- the politics and semantics of the Ottawa attacks

Then there was the welter of rhetoric over what word to use to describe the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa attacks. Should it be terrorism, as the Prime Minister and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau would have it, or criminality, as Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair would have it?

That might seem mostly a matter of semantics. More important are the policy implications of that semantic choice.

If you plump for "terrorism" you are more likely to accept increasing the intrusive powers of the spy service and the police, which Public Security Minister Steven Blaney has hinted the government intends to do.

If you say "criminality" (especially yoked with mental illness) you are more likely to advocate healing measures than coercive ones. You will be particularly skeptical about excessive new police and spy powers, which might serve to deprive us all of some of our civil liberties.

The debate has been joined by many, including all of Canada's privacy commissioners. They have very publicly worried about the potential impact of increased surveillance powers.

But even the members of Prime Minister Harper's cabinet do not all seem to be on the same page.

Blaney pointedly said that while the government will "not over-react" it must not "under-react," coining a new phrase. On the other hand, the Justice Minister, Peter MacKay, seemed to be moved by the cautionary concerns he'd been hearing.

MacKay said the government would move deliberately and without undue haste, and made a point of admitting that, as it stands now, the spies and police have plenty of powers to combat threats to the Canadian State.

3. A campaign style announcement on income splitting and 'family' benefits

Before we could get too engaged in the security versus civil liberties debate, however, here was the Prime Minister upstaging his government's own Economic and Fiscal Update to do a campaign-style announcement of the Conservatives' long-promised income splitting provision.

Even though Stephen Harper's version of that tax give-away to the prosperous and comfortable now has a $2,000 cap, it will still only benefit somewhere around 12 per cent of Canadians.

If income splitting creates any "equality," as some economists want to claim, it is only among high income families. With this new measure, a single income family with a total income well into six figures will have their taxes brought down a bit, so that they are closer to those of a double income family with the same total six figure income.

Bringing wealthy taxpayers somewhat more in line with each other does not in any way attack growing inequality. It appeals, however, to a key demographic whose votes the Conservatives will need next time.

Harper tried to sweeten this retrograde tax deal, that even the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty thought was bad, by raising the Child Care Tax Credit and adding a new benefit of $60 per month for children over the age of six. Those two measures will put at least some money into the pockets of a great many more families than will income splitting.

Still, the latter is an ironic move, essentially a reinvention of the old family allowance. That "baby bonus" was introduced by the Liberals shortly after World War II, in an effort to head off the growing popularity of the party to their left, the CCF -- a growing popularity which mirrored that of social democratic (and communist) parties in postwar Western Europe.

In the early 1990s, the last Conservative majority government, the Brian Mulroney government, abolished the family allowance, which it considered to be an archaic relic of another era.

It seems that what is archaic for one Conservative is good electoral strategy for another.

4. Linda Duncan re-introduces a bill to create an Environmental Bill of Rights

Here's one item of political news that did not get the attention it deserved.

The only non-Conservative in the House from Alberta, Edmonton NDP MP Linda Duncan, reintroduced a measure she had originally brought to the House in 2009, a private member's bill that would create an Environmental Bill of Rights.  

Such a bill of rights would have more than symbolic importance. It would allow Canadians to take the government to court if it failed to enforce its own environmental laws. And it would enshrine the right to a safe, clean environment in federal law. That would have an impact on all federal legislation, and even on the governemnt's administrative decisions and those of such federal bodies as the National Energy Board.

Duncan's Bill passed second reading in the pre-2011 election minority Parliament, but did not get through the full legislative process before the 2011 election.

With a Conservative majority, it would be too much to hope that this Parliament would adopt it. But it will still be worth something, in this pre-election period, to get the governing party to openly state its objections to guaranteeing basic environmental rights to Canadians.

As Duncan's Bill starts its journey through Parliament, the Conservatives are pushing their own measure to make it easier for oil companies to use dangerous toxic materials -- "dispersants" -- to help clean up potential oil spills.

With all the increased tanker activity the oil and gas industry is planning for the west coast, and despite assurances and slick advertising campaigns that such activity will pose no danger, industry wants to be ready for the next big Exxon Valdez-type disaster.

Dispersants appear to make oil-spill clean-up easier and faster, by breaking up the surface oil into smaller bundles that then sink to the bottom of the ocean.  

But environmentalists say those dispersants are highly toxic and actually exacerbate the negative environmental impacts of oil spills.

If that Environmental Bill of Rights which Duncan proposes were now in place, it might make it more difficult for government and industry to conspire in this way to endanger Canadian oceans.

5. Dean Del Mastro is found guilty -- get ready for a byelection

Before we get too serious about the environment, or any other policy area, here comes Dean Del Mastro -- and it is not your neighbourhood jokester in a Hallowe'en costume.

The now nominally-independent Peterborough MP was, for a time, a Conservative, and, more than that, the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Secretary, the lucky backbench MP who gets to play attack-dog for the PM and the party in the House.

Del Mastro has just been found guilty of exceeding federal election spending limits, not reporting some spending and knowingly falsifying a document.  

The Peterborough MP is defiant, and will almost certainly attempt an appeal. What ultimately happens to him personally is important to him of course. It is also important to the people who are close to him, and -- maybe -- to the cause of justice.

For the Prime Minister and his party, however, what is of key importance is that one of the sanctions for what Del Mastro did is that his seat be vacated, creating the need for a byelection. That should be an interesting race.

And Harper was just trying to bask in the glow of his family-friendly policies.

 

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