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Four things to watch while Parliament is on break

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Photo: flickr/Rafael Anderson Gonzales

Parliament is on break until April 20, but the world of Canadian politics is still busy. Many federal issues continue to make the news. Here are four to watch:

1. A Budget that will ignore economic distress

Finance Minister Joe Oliver has finally announced a date for the delayed federal budget: Tuesday April 21.

Oliver also gave away his punch line in advance.

The budget will be balanced, he said.

Budget balancing is more of a fetish than sound economic policy, as almost any economist will tell you.

But both Conservative and Liberal governments have worshipped that fetish. 

Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin slashed spending at an accelerated pace in the 1990s, at great cost to social programs. The main victims were the sick, the poor, First Nations communities, international cooperation programs, cultural agencies such as the CBC, public servants and students. 

News reports say that Oliver recently met with one time Liberal leader and Finance Minister John Turner, who apparently advised Harper's Finance Minister to move the government's bottom line into the black as soon as possible, and damn the torpedoes.

Oliver promised the former Liberal minister he would do so. 

The economic news this year has not been good, to put it mildly. But Harper's Conservatives are betting that the cohort of voters they will need in order to prevail in the next vote are not the ones most hurt by the current slowdown.

The slowdown's victims are predominantly the young, the marginalized and the poor. They don't tend to vote Conservative, so Harper and Oliver see no need for policies that cater to them. 

2. Iraq needs inclusive governance not bombs

Canada's military role in the Middle East has been extended for another year, and expanded from Iraq to Syria. 

As the debate on extension of the mission got under way there was a moment of discomfort for the Conservatives when Foreign Affairs briefing notes to MPs on the situation in Iraq became public. 

Canadian government officials advised the politicians that the real solution to Iraq's woes is not military but political.

The officials explained that the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) feeds on the understandable discontent of Iraq's Sunni minority, who have been systematically excluded from power and influence since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Invading a country, destroying significant chunks of its infrastructure, and killing and maiming thousands of its citizens is no way to implant liberal democracy in a region that went from the Ottoman Empire to British and French colonial domination to dictatorship. 

But bad and ill-advised as the American and allied invasion was, the conquerors of Iraq made matters worse by failing, from the outset, to foster inclusive, just and fair governance arrangements in post-Saddam Iraq.

The focus of the George W. Bush government was mostly on making Iraq safe for U.S. private-sector investment. The Bush administration's interest in governance was largely limited to finding a pliable, friendly face to head up the Iraqi government.

The Americans were solely concerned with a short-term fix. They were largely indifferent to the need to decentralize and federalize a diverse country such as Iraq.

During the post-Saddam (so-called "reconstruction") period, Bush's officials had scant interest in the brave, if tentative (and ultimately futile), efforts to build genuine, democratic institutions in Iraq, from the ground up.

Canadians took part in those efforts. 

We wrote about that in this space a year and a half ago, when Canada first contemplated getting involved in Iraq militarily.

We made the point, then, that the instability and conflict in Iraq arose, in large measure, out of the inadequate and non-inclusive governance arrangement put in place by the Americans and their allies. 

Canadian government officials have now confirmed that observation.

While Conservative politicians were avoiding the political and governance deficiencies at the root of the conflict in Iraq (and Syria), Prime Minister Harper's new Defence Minister, Jason Kenney, even had trouble explaining the military rationale for this government's policy.

Kenney told the House, in justifying the expansion of bombing raids to Syria, that only Canada and the United States had the capacity to use so-called "smart bombs."

That assertion tuned out to be untrue, and Kenney subsequently had to apologize to the House -- while blaming the Department of Defence for giving him wrong information.

3. Small tweaks to C-51 are good enough for the Liberals

Kenney has been one of the most vocal defenders of the Harper government's much-contested so-called "anti-terror" legislation, Bill C-51.

The Bill's sponsors are Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay, but Kenney has been the most outspoken in linking C-51 to the threat of ISIS/ISIL in the Middle East, and Canada's military commitments there. 

Kenney has frequently trotted out the two violent episodes last fall, in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa, as examples of how the Islamic State's murderous tentacles reach right into our own backyard.

Still, the mountain of criticism they have received has moved Harper's Conservatives to make at least a small number of necessary changes to C-51.

Notably, they tightened the definition of terrorist threats to exclude non-violent dissent, although it is not obvious that this new definition will stop the authorities from spying on and interfering with Aboriginal groups, environmentalists, and those who advocate for refugees and migrant workers.

The government also clarified that Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Agency (CSIS) will not have police-like powers to arrest people.

CSIS will still get the new powers assigned it by C-51 to "disrupt," with very little in the way of control or oversight.

Plus, the government has done nothing to address any of the concerns of the Privacy Commissioner over the massive new sharing of personal information contemplated by C-51; nor has it answered the near-universal call for increased oversight, especially Parliamentary oversight.

The Bill is now before the Senate, but will come back to the House for Third Reading debate later this spring.

The NDP and Liberals have been obliged to present their amendments to the House Committee considering the Bill -- all of which were ignored by the Conservative majority on the Committee.

The Green Party does not have a seat on the Committee and so might get to present its many amendments at Third Reading stage. Stay tuned for more on that next week.

The NDP will still vote against C-51. The Official Opposition says the small modifcations offered by the Conservatives are not sufficient.

Despite their notional opposition to C-51 the Liberals have said all along they would vote for it, come what may. Some in Justin Trudeau's party are now taking some comfort from the Conservatives' willingness to make changes, even if none address the Liberal Party's main stated concerns. 

4. Conservative demonization of the Roma influenced IRB decisions

Kenney also received some unfavourable attention on the last day before the April Parliamentary break related to his previous job as Immigration Minister.

In that role Kenney carried out a shameless campaign of vilification against the thousands of Central European Roma (also known as Gypsies) who have sought refuge in Canada over the past two decades. 

We have written much about Kenney's victimization of this much-abused minority over the years, and this writer also helped produce a documentary film on the Roma.

To get an idea of the sort of hatred the Roma have to live with in Europe, just read the comments posted to this video.

A new study by York University law professor and refugee expert Sean Rehaag shows that the nominally independent and arm's length Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has behaved unprofessionally, and perhaps even unethically,  in its treatment of Roma refugee claimants from Hungary.

The study shows an extreme discrepancy in the acceptance rate among IRB 'judges,' with a few accepting most claims, while many have summarily rejected 100 per cent of Hungarian Roma claims. 

The study's authors say the "rejectionists'" written decisions were often boiler-plate, copied and pasted from one decision to the other, and that many Roma claimants had highly inadequate and, in some cases, virtually non-existent legal representation.

The study also found collusion among some IRB members to assure that their negative decisions on the Roma were coordinated.

Plus, Rehaag and the colleagues who worked with him on the study noted the supposedly independent and arm's length IRB's inappropriate sensitivity to political contingencies.

The main source of that implied, if not explicit, political influence was none other than the Minister himself, Jason Kenney, the same Kenney who, more recently, could not get his facts straight on Canada's military engagement in Iraq and Syria. 

The Minister has had less push-back on his demonizing of the Roma, but Kenney -- whom many in the media still consider to be a star performer on Prime Minister Harper's team -- has long had trouble with the facts. 

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