Weston: Government's fall agenda will unfold behind closed doors
As MPs take their Commons seats for the fall sitting of Parliament, Canadian and European Union negotiators will be huddling elsewhere in the capital, trying to hammer out a free-trade deal that could significantly impact this country and its citizens for decades.
But don't ask what's in the deal, or even what Canada wants and is prepared to give up.
Public debate? Forget it. Canadians won't get to see details of the agreement until after the deal is done.
It's the same story for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, a huge trading bloc that Canada has been actively lobbying to join.
Of course, membership has its price — a free-trade deal with some of the fastest growing economies in the world, potentially impacting every sector of the Canadian economy.
Details to follow, likely after the deal has been initialled.
As Parliament reopens this week to consider the pressing affairs of state, the Harper government of promised openness and accountability is operating increasingly as though the nation's business were nobody's business.
It's not just huge trade deals with Europe and the Pacific Rim that are being kept under wraps, and well away from Commons debate.
In fact, most of the contentious issues facing the Conservative government this fall will be decided behind closed doors — explanatory memo to follow.
Foreign takeover 'framework'
For example, the prime minister is promising a new set of rules on foreign takeovers.
The move was prompted by a takeover bid by CNOOC, one of China’s largest energy companies, for Alberta-based Nexen and its significant stake in the oilsands.
This potential political powder keg is not so much the Nexen takeover itself, but the possibility the Chinese could use the deal as a template to go on a shopping spree for other Canadian energy companies and possibly control of the oilsands.
On the other hand, Stephen Harper has been begging the Chinese to invest some of their trillions in Canadian energy development, and now that a cheque is on the table, it would be difficult for the PM to block the sale.
The whole issue of foreign takeovers has been a matter of intense public interest since the Conservatives made up the term "strategic asset" as an excuse to nix the politically unpopular takeover of Saskatchewan's Potash Corp. in 2010.
Similarly, the government's promised new "foreign takeover framework" would be certain to spark heated national debate — if details were actually known by anyone outside the Prime Minister's Office.
Instead, sources say the new takeover rules probably won't be announced much before the government's decision on the Nexen deal.
Omnibus bill, part 2
Government insiders say the one thing most likely to preoccupy parliamentarians over the coming months is the same issue that dominated the spring sitting: implementing the federal budget.
Most of the budget measures were passed in June in a 425-page omnibus bill that also contained dozens of other totally unrelated pieces of legislation, a hodgepodge of everything from Employment Insurance reform to streamlining environmental assessments.
The move all but eliminated meaningful debate on sweeping changes to Canadian law and governance.
This sitting of Parliament is about to get more of the same.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will introduce a second "budget" bill he promises will contain "quite a bit."
The most contentious parts of the actual budgetary measures will be changes to pensions for parliamentarians and public servants to bring them in line with private retirement plans.
True to form, the government isn't saying what other legislative changes it will toss into the mix this time.
One thing is certain: They will be measures the government of openness and accountability would rather not discuss in public.