Parliament’s back after a summer in which almost the only Canadian federal political news was of Conservative government announcements and photo-ops. Many of those were about an event two hundred years ago, the War of 1812.
The conventional wisdom is that having the House in session will be bad for the Conservatives and good for the opposition. Expect plenty of Stürm and Drang this session, we are told, which will shine the light back on a feisty opposition and sully the Conservatives’ image.
Last spring, the combined opposition forces put up a vigorous fight against the government’s Omnibus Budget Implementation Bill (C-38), a fight that seemed to take the Conservatives off-guard.
Cramming all kinds of radical changes into a single bill and pushing it through Parliament with as little debate as possible is a very deliberate tactic.
The idea is to get as much of the government’s controversial agenda in place, as quickly as possible, and with as little public discussion as one can manage in a democracy.
The political theory is that one should do the hard stuff early in one’s mandate so that by the time the next election comes public opinion will have absorbed the shocks.
Ralph Klein followed that theory, as did the Chrétien/Martin government in the 1990s. The current prime minister is on record as having said that even with a majority the government only has a limited window of opportunity to put its program into action before it has to start preparing for another election.
We are now in year two of the current Conservative mandate and we can expect the governing party to act with an increased sense of urgency.
What a majority allowed the Conservatives to do
In the year past, the Conservatives’ approach was, first, to push through the so-called “crime bill” and the repeal of gun control legislation it couldn’t pass in the previous minority Parliament.
With a secure majority, the government went further than its election promises.
For instance, it added a bit to the gun legislation requiring the destruction of previously collected data. A Quebec court has, for now, put a stop to that — at least for Quebec records.
Following passage of the gun legislation, the Conservatives went even further and moved to turn the clock back many decades, by forcing provinces to end the long-established mandatory practice of gun vendors’ keeping records of sales, via so-called “ledgers.”
During the hearings on the bill that ended the long gun registry, many witnesses favourable to the Conservatives pointed to those retailers “ledgers” as a reason for which the registry was not necessary. That, apparently, was just talk to placate the nervous fence sitters, worried about masses of guns in circulation without any records whatsoever attached to them.
Omnibus bill to end all omnibus bills
All of this happened in the fall sitting.
For the winter and spring session, the prime minister decided to set the agenda with a speech in Switzerland, where he telegraphed his government’s plans to raise the age for Old Age Security (and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low income seniors) from 65 to 67.
For weeks after Parliament returned this past winter, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley found herself shadow boxing with the opposition on the question of pensions. She kept assuring her interlocutors that the government would move cautiously and do nothing that would affect current pensioners, adding all the while that she did not presume to forecast what would be in her colleague the finance minister’s budget.
The 2012 Budget was the main show, and just about the only show, for the Conservatives. The only other major initiative in the winter/spring sitting was Jason Kenney’s immigration and refugee reform bill (C-31), which significantly altered legislation that the previous minority had passed with all-party agreement. Kenney introduced the new bill even before the previous one had been implemented.
As for that main show, the budget — there has never been a budget quite like it in Canadian history. The closest, perhaps, was Paul Martin’s watershed 1995 budget, which radically slashed federal government spending and set a course for the reduction of the federal deficit to zero on an almost brutally short timeline.
The cuts in the 1995 budget were so massive that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Bruce Campbell and the Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow wrote a whole book about them: Straight through the Heart (a play on words on Chrétien’s best-selling memoirs Straight from the Heart).
The 1995 budget not only cut deep, it also unilaterally knocked down and rebuilt the carefully constructed edifice of federal-provincial cost-sharing agreements for social programs, including health care. In a stroke of the pen Martin abolished arrangements that had been painstakingly built over decades, such as the Canada Assistance Plan and the Established Programs Funding Arrangements.
In place of this negotiated structure, the Chrétien government imposed a new Canada Health and Social Transfer, which provided much thinner gruel for cash-strapped provinces than what it replaced.
In the years following 1995, it was the poor and most vulnerable who paid the main price for those changes, just as it is poor seniors who will pay the biggest price for raising the age of Old Age Security.
A budget that could have been more than a dozen separate bills
At least the Martin 1995 measures had the merit of being directly related to the federal government’s fiscal position. And, if the federal government was heavy handed in unilaterally re-writing fiscal arrangements with the provinces, it could legitimately argue that transfers to provinces are a big piece of the federal spending pie. There is really no way the federal government could significantly modify its spending patterns without dealing with those transfers.
In the case of the most recent Conservative Omnibus Budget there is no such excuse.
The Conservatives chose to include a huge raft of measures in this Omnibus legislation that are normally entirely outside the purview of fiscal policy.
If the current government were not so anxious to push through all the “tough stuff” in the first two years of its mandate, and followed normal, well-established democratic parliamentary practices, the 2012 budget would have been presented as more than a dozen separate pieces of legislation, shepherded not by the finance minister alone, but by the ministers most concerned — that is, the environment minister, the human resources minister, the revenue minister and the immigration minister.
What will a new Cabinet Committee really do?
The job of getting the implementation legislation for that massive Omnibus Budget through Parliament is not over yet.
There is another implementation bill to come, which will no doubt contain its share of surprises. For the opposition, the challenge will be as much one of communications as of parliamentary strategy. The opposition, especially the NDP, which led the fight last spring, will have to find a way to define and crystallize the issues at stake in such a way that they resonate with voters more worried about their daily economic well-being than with the niceties of parliamentary democracy.
And while all this is happening in the House, the Conservatives will be very active away from the glare of publicity.
Just witness this laconic news release that the prime minister’s office issued last week:
“Prime Minister Stephen Harper today announced the creation of the Priorities and Planning Sub-Committee on Government Administration . . . [T]his Sub-Committee has been mandated to consider proposals on whole-of-government opportunities for improved efficiency and effectiveness.”
With those bland words, the Harper government has telegraphed that its plan to radically reshape government does not end with the current round of public service job (and, more important, service) cuts. It has bigger plans, which it would rather work out in private, not in any public forum.
After all, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has, without success, sought details on the government’s current cutting plans and faced determined (and perhaps illegal) stonewalling. (To get an idea of what the Budget Office is up against, have a look at this recent letter from Parliamentary Budget officer Kevin Page to Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters.)
This isn’t 1812 and there won’t be any heroic scenes of General Brock dying at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 2012, but the political battle lines are forming, again, on Parliament Hill.
However, while there will be lots of noise from the Green Chamber over the coming months, a lot of the action will be elsewhere, behind closed doors, and far from view.
Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Donate to support his efforts today. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.