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:: PoliticsWatch Legislative Update

Harper's Parliamentary agenda 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 11:25 a.m. April 7, 2006]

 

OTTAWA —  MPs are expected to be back in Ottawa as the 39th session of Parliament is in full swing. 

This again will be a minority Parliament with the Conservatives holding 125 seats, 30 fewer needed to pass legislation in the House of Commons. 

The Liberals have 102 seats, the Bloc 51 and the NDP 29. There is one independent MP, Andre Arthur, a popular and controversial Quebec talk radio host.

How Long Will Parliament Last?

Conservatives

The Conservatives have one major card they will play. None of the opposition parties want to force an election any time soon. 

Canada has had two elections in the past 19 month. And voters would, in all probability, punish anyone who tried to force another one. 

Not only that, but the opposition parties are in difficult positions. 

Liberals

The Liberal party -- as has been widely reported -- is in debt. How much are they debt is unclear. But the range of estimates has been placed from as low as $2 million to as high as $20 million. 

Also the Liberal party is leaderless after former prime minister Paul Martin resigned on March 18.

There is no heir apparent to Martin and a full leadership contest will take place with some interesting names. The Liberals will not select their leader until their party's convention in Montreal in December. That will give the Conservatives a lot of breathing room. 

NDP

After 12 years with less than 20 seats, NDP Leader Jack Layton has brought his party back to its traditional seat level in the high twenties. The NDP was the most reluctant of all the opposition parties in the last parliament to defeat the government and will likely be again. 

Bloc

With the Liberals now an opposition party, the Bloc Quebecois has lost its parliamentary pinata. The Bloc looked on the brink of extinction before the sponsorship scandal erupted in early 2004. There will be new Conservative scandals, but will any capture the imagination of Quebecers like Adscam? 

With all of that in mind, most observers are giving the Conservatives at least one year -- maybe two -- to run the country. 

Setting up Shop

Harper has already created his cabinet and has created controversy, by appointing Liberal David Emerson as Trade Minister and party organizer Michael Fortier to the cabinet via the Senate. 

He has also created some tension in his caucus by leaving out a number of veteran MPs who were hoping they would be in cabinet, including Diane Ablonczy, James Rajotte, Jason Kenney and James Moore. 

> Harper's cabinet

Harper has started staffing his PMO and ministerial staff has to be hired. Harper has kept the nucleus of his opposition leaders office in tact. The low-profile Ian Brodie is his chief of staff, Sandra Buckler replaced William Stairs as Harper's communications director, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen is his very influential press secretary and Ray Novak remains his executive assistant. 

Others working in the PMO include Patrick Muttart, deputy chief of staff, Mark Cameron, manager of policy, and Dave Penner director of appointments. 

Finding ministerial staff may be more difficult because Harper has already made changes to the code of conduct putting in place a five-year ban on lobbying for ministerial staffers. The normal crop of talent that would jump at the opportunity to work in government are having second thoughts. 

Harper has also named Kevin Lynch as the new Clerk of the Privy Council, replacing Alex Himelfarb.

April 

Return of Parliament: Parliament opened on April 3, featuring 67 new MPs on Parliament Hill. 

Electing a Speaker: Liberal MP Peter Milliken was re-elected Speaker of the House on the first ballot on April 3. 

Throne Speech:
MPs are currently debating the throne speech in the House of Commons. Debate is expected to last for the first six sitting days of the session. The Bloc and the Liberals have proposed amendments to the speech. The government has said they do not believe the amendments are confidence matters. The throne speech mainly focused on the government's five priorities.  

Budget: Since departments' fiscal years come to an end in March, the Conservatives will have to move quickly to come up with a budget that can gain enough votes to be passed in the House. The government did not pass its estimates in the fall and currently it is being kept afloat by special warrants being issued by the Governor General. 

Committees: In the first weeks after the House reopens, MPs will vote on who chairs the committees. Conservative MPs will chair all committees with the exception of public accounts and government operations. The senior MPs who did not land cabinet posts will likely get to be chairs. 

Because this is a minority Parliament, the assignment of seats on the committees will give the opposition parties a majority. 

June 9: Final scheduled sitting day before the summer recess.

September 18: First scheduled sitting day of the fall session.

Legislative Agenda

Harper has five priorities -- clean up government, cut taxes, get tough on crime, decrease health-care wait times and address the fiscal imbalance. 

All five priorities appear to be designed in advance to be popular in a minority Parliament. 

Here is how he will tackle them. 

1. Federal Accountability Act

Harper has promised the first bill he will table will be an act to clean up government. 

This is a wide-ranging bill that deals with a number of key areas in politics and makes 52 specific changes.

Fundraising

> Limit individual donations to parties or candidates to a maximum of $1,000.
> Prohibit all corporate, union, and organization donations to political parties, ridings, and candidates.
> Ban cash donations to political parties or candidates of more than $20.
> Extend to ten years period for which Elections Act violations can be investigated and prosecuted.

> Prohibit nominated candidates or MPs seeking re-election from accepting large personal gifts.
> Ban the use of trust funds to finance candidates’ campaigns.
> Require that all sitting or elected MPs report the existence of any trust funds or secret accounts, and that such accounts be wound up.

Lobbying

> Extend to five years the period for which ministers, ministerial staffers, and senior public servants cannot lobby government. 
> Ban success or contingency fee arrangements. 
> Require ministers and senior government officials to record their contacts with lobbyists. 
> Make the Registrar of Lobbyists an independent Officer of Parliament. 
> Give the Registrar of Lobbyists the mandate and resources to investigate violations. 
> Extend to 10 years the period for which violations can be investigated and prosecuted.

Polling

> Ensure that all government public opinion research is automatically published within six months of the completion of the project, and prohibit verbal-only reports.
> Ensure that an independent review is conducted of government public opinion research practices discussed in Chapter 5 of the Auditor General’s November, 2003 report to determine whether further action, such as an extension of the Gomery inquiry, is required.
> Open up the bidding process for government advertising and public opinion contracts to prevent insider firms from monopolizing government business.

Contracts

> Review and amend all contracting rules to make the government’s procurement process free from political interference.
> Appoint a Procurement Auditor to ensure that all procurements are fair and transparent, and to address complaints from vendors.
> Permit smaller vendors and vendors outside of the National Capital Region to receive due consideration for government contracts.

Whistleblowers

> Give the Public Service Integrity Commissioner the power to enforce compliance with the Act. 
> Ensure that all Canadians who report government wrongdoing are protected, not just public servants. 
> Remove the government’s ability to exempt Crown corporations and other bodies from the Act. 
> Require the prompt public disclosure of information revealed by whistleblowers, except where national security or the security of individuals is affected. 
> Ensure that whistleblowers have access to the courts and that they are provided with adequate legal counsel. 
> Establish monetary rewards for whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing or save taxpayers dollars.

Auditor General

> Ask the Auditor General to conduct, on an expedited basis, an audit of all federal grant, contribution and contracting policies, and will commit to following her recommendations. 
> Increase funding for the Office of the Auditor General to ensure she has the necessary resources to conduct a complete audit of grants and contributions programs and of any such departments, agencies and Crown corporations as she deems necessary. 
> Allow the Auditor General to “follow the money” to end recipients by providing her with the statutory authority to conduct audits of the records, documents and accounts of any individual, institution or company that receives grants, contribution or transfers under an agreement with the Government of Canada. 
> Ensure that all granting programs are reviewed every five years. 
> Strengthen enforcement of government financial guidelines, and introduce new Criminal Code penalties for fraud involving the misuse of taxpayers’ money.

Ethics Commissioner

> Give the Ethics Commissioner the power to fine violators. 
> Prevent the Prime Minister from overruling the Ethics Commissioner on whether the Prime Minister, a minister, or an official is in violation of the Conflict of Interest Code. 
> Enshrine the Conflict of Interest Code into law. 
> Close the loopholes that allow ministers to vote on matters connected with their business interests. 
> End “venetian blind” trusts that allow ministers to remain informed about their business interests, and require all ministerial assets to be placed in truly blind trusts. 
> Allow members of the public – not just politicians – to make complaints to the Ethics Commissioner. 
> Make part-time or non-remunerated ministerial advisers subject to the Ethics Code.

Access to Information

The Canadian Press recently reported the government plans to waterdown its campaign promises on Access to Information. The campaign promises were as follows:

> Implement Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act. 
> Give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information. 
> Expand the coverage of the act to all Crown corporations, Officers of Parliament, foundations and organizations that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions. 
> Subject the exclusion of Cabinet confidences to review by the Information Commissioner 
> Oblige public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions. 
> Provide a general public interest override for all exemptions, so that the public interest is put before the secrecy of the government. 
> Ensure that all exemptions from the disclosure of government information are justified only on the basis of the harm or injury that would result from disclosure, not blanket exemption rules. 
> Ensure that the disclosure requirements of the Access to Information Act cannot be circumvented by secrecy provisions in other federal acts.

Departmental Auditing

> Give the Comptroller General the overall authority for the internal audit function in each government department. 
> Designate the deputy minister of each government department or agency as the Accounting Officer for that department. The deputy will be responsible to Parliament for the departmental spending and administrative practices of his or her department.
> Require that, in the event of a disagreement between a minister and deputy minister on a matter of administration, the minister must provide written instruction to the deputy minister and notify the Auditor General and Comptroller General of the disagreement.


Will it Pass?

A number of these changes do not require legislative adjustments and were changed in a new code of conduct Harper released the day the cabinet was sworn in. This includes the five-year ban on lobbying. 

The Conservatives should gain the support of the Bloc and the NDP in passing legislation. The NDP has made similar proposals to the ones the Tories have made. What may be contentious is the polling portion of the act, which proposes an "independent review" of Chapter 5 of the Auditor General's report. 

In that report, the AG noted that the government was unable to explain the results of research projects for the Department of Finance because it had only received verbal reports and had no written reports. 

Auditor General Sheila Fraser later told a Commons committee that the firm involved was Earnscliffe, which had close ties to Paul Martin. During the period covered by her audit there were eight research projects in which Earnscliffe was involved. Five of them were verbal reports. 

It appears the Conservatives are willing to go ahead with potentially opening up old wounds with key supporters of the former government. 

2. GST

The Conservatives are promising to reduce the GST from seven per cent to five per cent over the course of their mandate. 

They have promised an immediate one per cent cut. 

That cut will likely be part of a budget bill and would be a confidence vote. 

Will it pass?

Although it was not in their platforms, in the past the NDP has proposed cutting the GST on family essentials and the Bloc Quebecois is opposed to having the GST on books. It would be hard for a political party to reject cutting the much-hated tax.

3. Crackdown on Crime

The Conservatives have promised the following

> 1,000 more RCMP positions 
> work with provinces and municipalities to hire 2,500 more police officers,
> crackdown firearm smuggling 
> strengthen border security
> impose mandatory minimum sentences for firearms crimes

Will it pass?

The Bloc Quebecois may not go along with this bill, but NDP Leader Jack Layton has talked about mandatory minimum sentences for people who use guns in crimes. As well, a number of backbench Liberals could also support some of these measures. 

4. Choice in Childcare Allowance

The Conservatives are proposing giving families a new $1200 per year Choice in Child Care Allowance for each child under six and have already made changes that will see cheques flowing to families beginning on July 1. 

However, they plan to cancel Liberal child-care commitments at the end of this year and that is being met by resistance from the opposition parties and the provinces. 

Will it pass? 

This will be the biggest fight the Tories will have to take on of their five priorities, the Liberals, the Bloc and the NDP are all expected to battle against this plan.

5. Patient Wait Times Guarantee

The Conservatives are proposing a plan to: 

> Work with the provinces to develop a Patient Wait Times Guarantee to ensure that all Canadians receive essential medical treatment within clinically acceptable waiting times. 

Will it pass? 

This is the one item where Harper will not have deal with the other parties until a final agreement has been reached. 

Harper said this week he plans to meet with the premiers to discuss this.

Other priorities 

Fiscal imbalance
Harper also plans to meet the premiers to deal with what is known as the fiscal imbalance. Harper's promise to address this issue helped his campaign gain strength in Quebec. It is not clear he will be able to make any serious changes before the summer break, but if he does the Bloc has already said they would support the Tories on this.

Gay Marriage
Harper said he will deal soon with the gay marriage issue. He has promised to introduce a motion in the House to revisit  the government's bill legalizing gay marriage. That will be a free vote. Most of the 124 Tories are opposed to gay marriage and 26 of the Liberals who voted against the government in the summer were re-elected. The vote will be closee but many expect it will not pass. 

: Related Links

> Read last week's legislative update

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