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What happens in Parliament from now to December matters

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Parliament returns on Monday and the Conservative government will start putting some of its election campaign goodies in the window.

Despite his own fixed election law, which slates the next vote for a year from now in October 2015, Prime Minister Harper could decide to go the polls this coming spring.

He has a handy excuse in the fact that three provinces have elections scheduled for the fall of 2015.

It will all depend on the Conservatives' political calculations.

If they think the political winds are favourable, they might well decide that any storm over ignoring their own fixed date law would be short lived, not very widespread, and worth weathering.

Harper's party might decide that going early beats being forced to face the voters six months later, when conditions -- both political and economic -- might not be as good for them.

That's why what happens in Parliament over the next two months will be important.

Fiscal Update and the next omnibus bill

There are two big government initiatives coming up before Parliament takes its long break at the end of December.

One is the annual Fiscal Update, which has now become a mini-budget, and which Finance Minister Joe Oliver will likely deliver in November.

The Finance Minister has already said this Update will contain some tax cut announcements. We can expect those to be fairly modest and targeted.

The Conservatives telegraphed their approach with their recent announcements of an increase to the children's fitness tax credit and of (much contested) cuts to employment insurance premiums for small business. 

Oliver has not said whether or not he will introduce the income-splitting provision Harper promised during the last election campaign.

Many have pointed out that such a measure would almost exclusively benefit high income Canadians.

A number of mainstream economists have called income-splitting a bad idea, or worse, and even the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did not like it. 

Before Parliament gets to hear Oliver's Update, though, the Conservatives will have to introduce an implementation bill for last spring's budget.

And they will have to do that very soon, if they want to avoid upstaging their big Update show.

Budget implementation bills have not traditionally made news. They only served to flesh out measures already announced in the budget.

Harper changed that.

Since he got his majority in 2011, the Prime Minister has used these normally routine bills as a way to push major legislative measures through Parliament with virtually no serious examination or debate.

That is how Harper got rid of the Navigable Waters Act, radically changed the Fisheries Act and attacked other key pieces of Canada's environmental regulatory system.

If the government had proceeded in a normal, democratic manner, all of those measures would have been introduced as separate pieces of legislation and debated in Parliament.

They would also have been subject to scrutiny by the Transport, Fisheries and Environment Committees, which would have heard from witnesses, and which could have proposed amendments.

Copyright changes and, maybe, something on welfare for refugees?

The coming implementation bill will almost certainly contain some of Harper's trademark hidden measures, entirely unrelated to the fiscal policies announced in the last budget.

The Conservatives have just about admitted that they have one such item up their sleeves: legislative changes to the existing copyright law that would allow political parties to use excerpts from broadcast material in their (attack) ads.

The major broadcasters have been threatening to refuse to carry ads that, without permission, use excerpts from their programming.

The Conservatives call that threat "censorship." At the same time, they argue that the current law allows them (and other political parties) to use broadcast material as they wish, under the so-called 'fair dealing' provisions.

If "further clarity" is needed, however, they promise to provide that through legislation.

Whatever the merits of the Conservative argument, putting previously unannounced copyright law changes into a budget implementation bill would be a flagrant defiance of parliamentary democracy.

If the government wanted to change copyright legislation, the way to do it would be for the Canadian Heritage Minister to propose a stand-alone bill, which would then go before the Heritage Committee, where witnesses of all kinds would have the chance to say publicly what they thought of it.

The only reason for using the sneaky tactic of implementation legislation is to avoid that kind of public scrutiny and discussion.

We don't know yet what else Harper and his team will slip into this fall's implementation bill, but here is one possibility.

Toronto area Conservative MP Corneliu Chisu introduced a private member's bill that seeks to change the requirement that, as a condition of receiving federal transfer funds, provinces must provide social assistance to all their residents, including all asylum seekers.

Chisu's bill would amend the law on federal fiscal transfers to the provinces. It would only require that provinces provide social assistance to a small sub-set of refugees -- those whose claims have been accepted by the Refugee Protection Division and those deemed to be victims of human trafficking.

The rest, including the thousands whose claims have not been finally resolved, would be out of luck.

When the time came to debate the bill late in September, Chisu did not turn up, so that debate never happened.

It was bizarre and entirely unprecedented, in any case, for changes in federal-provincial fiscal arrangements to come through a private member's initiative of this sort.

Can we now expect the government to put those changes into the budget implementation bill?

As we have written in this space frequently, and most recently on September 23, discouraging refugees seems to be a theme for the Harper government.

It is all part of the politics of division, fear and resentment.

Appealing to the rod and gun people

On that note, while they prepare tax-based goodies for targeted groups of voters, the Conservatives are busy targeting another group: much abused rural folk, who don't like it when their gun rights are threatened by 'urban elites.'

On Friday, the Prime Minister travels to Sault St. Marie to take part in a question-and-answer session with hunters and anglers. Just ten days earlier, Public Security Minister Steven Blaney took time out from preparing expanded powers for Canada's spy agency, CSIS, to introduce amendments to Canada's firearms legislation that will "reduce red tape" for gun owners.

If there is any lobby that has this government's ear, it is the gun lobby. The Conservatives even refused to go along with an international small arms treaty for fear of offending the gun lobby.

Those who hunt and fish -- for food or recreationally -- have other interests than their guns, however. They have an interest, for instance, in maintaining ecosystems and protecting forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers from pollution.

The government has shown a certain measure of sensitivity to those concerns with small bore, low cost programs such as the Recreational Fisheries Conservation Partnerships Program. That federal program provides grants to local angling and conservation groups to restore habitat and enhance conditions for game fish.

In the slew of federal funding announcements this week, there was one for a small project that would help conserve fish habitat around the Toronto Islands. It is for a tiny amount of money, less than $40,000. But it is all part of an effort to show that this government cares about hunters and anglers, even those who fish for bass and sunfish in sight of the skyscrapers of Canada's biggest city.

In the Sault, Harper will likely have a chance to boast about this sort of conservation measure.

But Harper might pray that he does not get any questions about the government's plans to allow a number of valuable fishing lakes and rivers across Canada to be turned into mining tailings ponds -- as reported by the CBC's Terry Milewski earlier this week. 

This is where the Conservatives' pro-rural people agenda runs into its pro-extractive industries bias.

Harper will have to hope the folks he meets in the Sault, and elsewhere in rural and small town Canada, care more about protecting their gun rights than protecting those of Canada's waterways that are still pristine from industrial pollution.

NDP getting lots of ink for child care; Liberal leader poses in his pool

While the Conservatives are shoring up their core support, the Official Opposition Leader, the NDP's Tom Mulcair, is busy selling his party's national child care plan.

That plan is getting a lot of attention, not all of it positive.

One big criticism is that subsidized day care (like all universal programs) benefits high income folks as much as those on low income.

Elsewhere on rabble.ca, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Trish Hennessy answers that argument.

Others point out that, notwithstanding the NDP's quite convincing claim that affordable child care yields economic benefits, what stands out in the NDP's proposal is the multi-billion dollar cost.

No doubt Mulcair will be modifying his pitch over time to establish that day care that is affordable for parents is also more than affordable for a federal government that is now running a big surplus.

In the weeks and months to come, we can expect to hear the Official Opposition say a lot more about the fact that a national child care program is a far better way of investing the coming surplus than the sort of (dubiously effective) boutique tax measures the Conservatives favour.

The Liberals, for their part, continue to focus on their leader's personal qualities, most recently via a cloying and silly profile in Chatelaine magazine.

The Liberal party did not control what Chatelaine chose to publish, of course.

But in mugging for the camera, holding his baby aloft in one hand, and posing with the family, fully clothed, in their (elegant, chic) Rockliffe swimming pool, the Liberal leader was definitely enabling a certain kind of coverage.

It was not coverage based on any serious policy proposals.


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