The MPs are back and there will be lots of noise

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Photo: flickr/Jamie McCaffrey

The House of Commons is back after a two-week recess, and the Harper government will try to make its delayed 2015 budget the focus of attention.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver will deliver his first budget in the House on Tuesday afternoon, and there will be debate on the following days.

But the government will not be concentrating on what happens in Parliament.

It will take its message to the media and to select, friendly audiences across the country, in an intensive pre-election, campaign-style blitz.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already announced his government's main boutique tax measures: income-splitting and increases in the Conservatives' reinvented family allowance.

From the grave some may hear the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty mournfully protesting.

Flaherty was very public in expressing his doubts about tax measures that disproportionately benefit upper income earners.

Much research, including that of the non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Office, has shown that Harper's so-called 'family' tax measures will mostly help those who least need help, while doing little for those who face the greatest economic challenges.

There will be more such measures in the coming budget.

For instance, the government has promised to double the Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) -- a gift to well-off Canadians and the financial services industry, where Oliver served for much of his professional career. 

Most Canadians do not, currently, have the capacity to take full advantage of such existing tax breaks as the Registered Retirement Savings Plan, or the TFSA as it is now constituted.

And while at least some families of modest income will get a whiff of benefit from the Harper government's new 'family' tax measures, almost none will get any benefit from an increase in the TFSA limit.

Increasing an incentive for people with fat bank accounts to salt away their money is also an odd fiscal choice for an economy that is sputtering along and desperately needs more job-creating investment, not more saving by the wealthy.

What about 'pro-growth' policies?

The other side of this, at best useless, at worst monstrously unfair, tax cut coin is that the government will continue to impose an economically dangerous level of austerity on government services, especially on those it does not like such as environmental regulation, and on the public service.

None of these policies are likely to spur job creation and economic growth.

And so, to at least give the impression that the government has some interest in growth -- at a time when the economy is experiencing precious little of it -- Oliver's budget will include some investments both opposition parties have been calling for in infrastructure.

We could see a bit of belated cash for urban transit, which will elicit gratitude from big city mayors, just when the Conservatives need it. 

There will also likely be tax measures to encourage manufacturing and, perhaps, small business as well.

Since the beginning of the year, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has been pushing such moderate, mainstream fiscal measures as lowering the tax on small business from 11 per cent to nine per cent, introducing an innovation tax credit and extending the accelerated capital cost allowance for manufacturing and processing machinery. 

Those are the kind of market-oriented policies the Conservatives can happily live with, and we can expect them to steal the Leader of the Official Opposition's thunder on such measures in the budget.

The main Duffy trial show is yet to come

Of course, Tuesday's budget will not be the only show in town.

The media is making much of the fact that the Mike Duffy trial is giving potent ammunition to the opposition parties.

With the House back, opposition parties may start using some of that ammo.

It is interesting, for instance, that the Crown Prosecutor in the Duffy trial believes that the suspended Senator from Prince Edward Island may have been an unconstitutional appointment in the first instance. That could hardly be pinned on Duffy himself -- it would be entirely the Prime Minister's fault. 

The Liberals have never shown an interest in that constitutional residency issue, perhaps because Liberal Prime Ministers probably made some equally dubious appointments.

NDP Leader Mulcair has asked about the constitutional residency provision on a number of occasions, but the Prime Minister has, for the most part, successfully ducked the question.

Now, Mulcair may want to get Harper to explain exactly what criteria he used to determine that Duffy and Pamela Wallin fulfilled the residency requirement to sit as Senators for PEI and Saskatchewan, despite the fact that their principal residences were in Ontario.

Even if the Prime Minister evades the question, yet again, it may be worth putting it on the record.

At best, both appointments seem like a cynical effort to get some Conservative star power into the Upper House, with scant concern for the rules laid out on the Constitution.   

The residency issue came up at the very beginning of the Duffy proceedings. The current testimony in the trial focuses on other sorts of malfeasance and it is fascinating.

None of what we are hearing looks too good for the suspended Senator, what with his use of what appears to be a kind of money laundering scheme to pay for what might have been inadmissible expenses through his friend's company.

The more significant evidence will come later, however, when we hear from current and former Prime Minister's Office staffers, including former Chief of Staff Nigel Wright, and from Duffy himself. 

Do not forget the Wheat Board and the Correctional Investigator

For now, the Opposition will have other matters than both Duffy and the budget about which they may want to ask the government some tough questions.

There is the bizarre deal, for instance, to sell the Wheat Board to the Americans and believe it or not those great respecters of human rights, the Saudis. 

That seemingly perverse arrangement has not received the attention it deserves.

As well, the government has refused to extend the term of the Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers. 

Sapers fulfills a kind of ombudsman role.

He has systematically criticized overcrowding in federal prisons, the dangerous consequences of the Harper government's policy of mandatory minimum sentences, legislative restrictions on the use of pardons, the treatment of aboriginal prisoners, use of solitary confinement and much else.

The Harper government knew of Sapers' penchant for evidence-based analysis when it, surprisingly, reappointed him in 2012.

Now, it seems, the Conservatives have lost patience with Sapers' independent voice, as it did with that of former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page and so many others.

Sapers' term has officially run out, and the government is keeping him on temporarily without announcing any deadline for naming a new Investigator.

If we did not know it by now, this cavalier attitude toward the essential role of oversight gives a clue to how the government can be expected to deal with the oversight needs arising out of the soon-to-be-passed 'anti-terror' legislation, Bill C-51.

That Bill will be back soon for Third Reading debate.

It should be a busy time in Parliament. 


Photo: flickr/Jamie McCaffrey

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