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PoliticsWatch's Big 10 issues for the fall

[PoliticsWatch Updated 6:05 p.m. August 24, 2006]

Iran's nuclear ambition, gay marriage, softwood lumber and Canada's role in Afghanistan are among the issues that will dominate Canadian politics this fall. 

The return of Parliament is less than a month away. 

World events and the minority Conservative government's busy agenda are already creating an outline of what will be a an exciting fall in federal politics. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already committed to announcing new priorities before the House returns. 

But nothing ever goes as planned and other events could overshadow those priorities. 

PoliticsWatch goes beyond the five new priorities and looks at what will be the Big 10 issues that are likely to dominate federal politics this fall. 

1. Iran

As was witnessed this summer, sometimes world events can overtake the national agenda. 

The Conservative government finds itself in power during a period when the world has become dangerous and unstable. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper focused his election campaign on five priorities, all of them domestic issues.  With the exception of former prime minister Paul Martin's deliberate anti-American attacks, foreign policy was pretty much glossed over during the election campaign.

But another potential international crisis looms on the horizon. 

The UN Security Council has set an August 31 deadline for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program or risk sanctions. 

Iran has already given its response in a 21-page document that agrees to further talks, but rules out halting the uranium enrichment as a precondition for those talks. 

The U.S. State Department said this week that Iran's response falls short of the Security Council demand. 

The question for the international community now is what's next?

If Iran is open to further talks, Iranian Security Council allies Russia and China may force the Security Council to comply while Iran's centrifuges continue to turn. 

The other options are sanctions and military action. 

As a USA Today editorial this week put it, "Ultimately, the United States and its allies might have to decide which is worse: allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons or a military strike aimed at preventing it from doing so."

Both U.S. President George W. Bush and Harper have made their overall positions clear. 

"I think our allies have a completely legitimate case in being concerned about a regime like that gaining access to nuclear weapons," Harper said in April. 
"So Canada will work with our allies to try to bring about a peaceful solution that does not leave the government of Iran in possession of nuclear armaments."

Bush has said he wants to resolve the issue through diplomacy but won't rule out the use of force, saying "all options are on the table." There is a belief in Washington that Bush will not leave the Iranian issue to his successor and will take action before he leaves office in January 2009.  

However, with the Congress holding mid-term elections this fall, any increased pressure by the U.S. won't come until at least early mid-November. 

But when the time comes and Bush and Blair again find themselves on the other side of the Security Council opinion, Harper could be under pressure domestically if he sides with the U.S. and UK. 

2. Softwood lumber

The prime minister guaranteed this week that there will be a softwood lumber showdown in the House this fall. 

A ways and means motion must be passed before the agreement can be put in effect. 

The PM confirmed to reporters this week that the lumber vote will be a matter of confidence, meaning its defeat will trigger an election. 

All three oppositions parties have been vocal critics of the deal since the original framework was unveiled in late April. 

But after Harper gained "substantial support" for the agreement from industry this week, only the NDP has said they will vote against the deal. 

The other two opposition parties have since become non-committal. 

Both Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe and Interim Liberal leader Bill Graham are now in the wait and see category. 

"First I want to meet and listen to business and labour and then I will take a decision," Duceppe said after his party's caucus retreat in Quebec. 

The problem for the Bloc is it may be difficult for them to oppose the deal when Quebec's lumber industry has largely approved it. 

For the Liberals, it is no secret that despite the bravado of some, the party would prefer not to force an election until after their new leader is selected in December. 

The Tories only need the support of one of the two parties and the smart money will be on the deal passing in the House. 

Nonetheless, the international trade committee plans to hold cross-country hearings on the deal. 

And the media will pump up the confidence vote angle until either the Bloc or the Grits blink and announce their intentions to back the deal. 

A vote on the ways and means motion is expected within the first two weeks of Parliament's return. 

Passage of the deal will be a relief to a number of Hill reporters who have been following the complex and intricate ups and downs of the trade dispute for almost four years. 

3. Afghanistan

Canadians aren't protesting in the streets yet and public support hasn't completely plunged, but the Canadian role in Afghanistan is coming under more and more scrutiny. 

Increased Taliban activity has resulted in a mounting death toll for Canadians this year, with eight Canadians killed this month alone. 

This year, two of the opposition parties have dropped support of the mission -- the Bloc and the NDP -- and even though they were the ones that sent the troops there and agreed to a Canadian counterinsurgency role about three quarters of the Liberal caucus voted against extending the mission this past spring. 

NDP defence critic Dawn Black told the Canadian Press this week that Afghanistan will be "front and centre when the House reconvenes."

But those who question Canada's role in Afghanistan are bound to be greeted by the wrath of the prime minister who accuses those not supportive of the mission as being against the troops and in favour of a policy of cutting and running. 

The PM has invested a lot in Afghanistan, probably more than he has in the government's No. 1 election priority, the Federal Accountability Act. 

Afghanistan is such a priority for Harper that he made it his first foreign visit after the election. 

The Afghanistan mission is also one of the more interesting aspects of the Liberal leadership race, where the two assumed frontrunners -- Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff -- are on opposite sides of the debate. 

Rae, like the NDP, believes Canada's involvement in a primarily military counterinsurgency hurts Canada's reputation as a peacekeeper and its ability to make contributions in other parts of the world wearing the blue helmet. 

But potentially more problematic for the government will be how Afghanistan's democracy evolves. 

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is often called a moderate force by Western leaders, his cabinet recently approved the creation of a department of vice and virtue. 

The department has a name similar to an old Taliban department that had a police force in charge of beating women in the streets for going outside without a male chaperone and beating men for keeping beards too short. 

Although Karzai's department won't be as strict -- focusing instead on drugs, alcohol and crime -- it is somewhat of a concession to pressure from hardliners who would prefer to see a less moderate Islamic state in Afghanistan. 

But if Afghanistan's democracy evolves into something Canadians cannot comprehend, then public questions about Canadians troops shedding blood for the cause will be raised. 

4. Gay Marriage Vote

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is going ahead with an election promise to hold a free vote in the House of Commons on gay marriage. 

"A vote will be in the fall," Harper said in June. "It will be a free vote. We committed to that in our platform." 

In its election platform, the Conservatives committed to "hold a truly free vote on the definition of marriage in the next session of Parliament. If the resolution is passed, the government will introduce legislation to restore the traditional definition of marriage while respecting existing same-sex marriages."

Last summer, the Senate gave Royal Assent to Bill C-38, which was the Martin government's same-sex marriage legislation. 

That vote appeared to bring to an end a divisive debate in federal politics that had been going on for more than two years after an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling in favour of same-sex marriages. 

Former prime minister Paul Martin made the vote free for his backbench MPs, but not for his cabinet ministers. Many of those cabinet ministers had voted for the traditional definition of marriage in previous votes in the House of Commons.

This included key Martin allies, such as Joe Volpe and Tony Valeri, who reversed their position once in cabinet.

One cabinet minister, Joe Comuzzi, resigned from cabinet shortly before the vote because it would have violated an election promise he made to constituents. 

Harper is promising a free vote for all MPs and says he will not whip his cabinet. 

The vote will likely be close, but groups who support gay marriages said they are confident they have the numbers to defeat a motion to reopen the marriage law. 

Nonetheless, the free vote will begin with another emotional debate in the House of Commons and will be closely followed by the media and stakeholders. 

5. Environment

So far the environment is the only new priority for the fall that the prime minister has specifically referenced in interviews. 

A number of reporters on Parliament Hill believe that the government's green plan will be the big issue when Parliament returns 

And why not? 

In this Parliament, the three opposition parties have focused much of their question period time to the Harper government's positions on Kyoto and climate change. 

The opposition parties are expected not to like what the government will unveil. 

Since being sworn in, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has criticized the previous Liberal government for agreeing to extremely ambitious Kyoto targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

She has even gone as far as to admit that Canada cannot meet its Kyoto targets. 

Ambrose has been meeting with environmental stakeholders over the summer months to discuss the government's environmental plan. 

The government is expected to create a clean air act and detail other efforts to reduce pollution. 

Bloomberg News reported this week that two lobbyists who recently met with Ambrose said the government is considering pushing back greenhouse gas target dates from 2012 to 2025 or even as late as 2050. 

Other reports suggest the government could unveil its green plan before the House returns. 

6. Liberal Leadership Race

With 10 candidates in the field, the Liberal leadership race still has a bigger cast than a daytime soap opera .

But the plot is not as compelling. 

The leadership forums have been a snoozefest. Candidates admit having difficulty raising interest and funds. 

In fact the only people paying close attention to the race are a couple of reporters at the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star and some Liberal bloggers. 

Hopefully that will change when the leadership race enters its final three months in September. 

At the very least, the horse trading expected on the convention floor in December will make for some dramatic television. 

In the meantime, anyone who watches the scheduled fall debates will have to listen to the opinions of 10 candidates, most of whom have no serious chance of winning. 

After a good summer, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae appears to have the money and the momentum in this race. 

And his opinions and those of Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff appear to be the only ones reporters actively seek out, setting the stage for a two-man finale. 

The election of a new Liberal leader will be a much-needed turning point for the Official Opposition, which has been adrift and lacking in discipline under an interim leader who admits having a difficult time controlling caucus. 

7. Conservative Law and Order Agenda

There are five criminal justice bills that are part of the Tories' efforts to get tough on crime that have been tabled in the House.

This includes Bill C-10 which imposes mandatory minimum sentences for the use of firearms in a crime, Bill C-19 which creates tougher penalties for street racing and Bill C-22 which raises the age of consent to 16 from 14. 

It is uncertain whether these bills will make it through the House, but the Tories were able to get the mandatory minimum sentence legislation to committee with the help of some Liberals. 

8. Democratic Reform

The Conservatives have one piece of legislation concerning democratic reform already tabled in the House. 

Bill C-16 was tabled in late May and is expected to be debated in the fall.

Canadians would go to the polls every four years under the legislation, with a fixed election date for the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year after the last voting day.

The exception being in the case of a minority government where a government can fall on a confidence vote. 

Similar fixed dates are in use in Ontario and B.C.

The prime minister has also said he wants legislation that would limit the terms of Senators to eight years. 

The PM's broader agenda is to have senators elected in elections run by provincial governments. He believes this can be done without amending the Constitution. 

9. Health Care

The No. 1 priority in most polls comes in at No. 9 on PoliticsWatch's list. 

Expect the issue of the government's election promise of creating health care wait times guarantees to be raised frequently by the opposition parties. 

Maclean's columnist Paul Wells was the first to notice that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stopped mentioning that campaign priority in speeches in the spring. 

The wait times guarantee promise was filed in the memory hole until Wells noticed that it was gone. 

Also Health Minister Tony Clement will have to deal with brewing animosity between brand name and generic drug companies, including his plan to hold a legislative review of a bill that was designed to make it easier for generic companies to send low cost patented medicines to developing countries. 

"Exhibit A is the fact that not a single pill has flowed through the system and got to the people who need it," Clement said. "It's time to review whether there is something that is not working."
10. Aboriginal Issues

This actually encompasses a large number of Conservative government policies that have angered Aboriginal groups in recent months. 

The opposition parties are largely in the corner of the Aboriginals on most of the files, especially in their criticism of the government for not including the $5 billion Kelowna Accord in their first budget. 

Also, the PM ignited a debate in the Aboriginal community earlier this summer when he penned a letter to the Calgary Herald vowing to end what he called "racially divided fisheries programs." 

In 1992, the federal government introduced its Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy in response to an earlier Supreme Court ruling known as the Sparrow decision that said First Nations' rights to fish take priority in the fishery. 

Harper's decision to announce a major policy change in a letter to the editor without consulting Aboriginal groups caused concern for the Assembly of First Nations. 

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