Saturday January 23, 2016

5 things to watch as Parliament returns

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc's attempt to kickstart two priority committees was thwarted Thursday when Bloc Québécois MPs used one of the few means at their disposal to protest their lack of official party status.

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc's attempt to kickstart two priority committees was thwarted Thursday when Bloc Québécois MPs used one of the few means at their disposal to protest their lack of official party status. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Listen 11:44

Parliament returns on Monday after a lengthy Christmas break and the government will get down to business implementing its ambitious legislative agenda — and helping the troubled economy is at the top of the list. 

Before the House rose in December, the Liberals passed a ways and means motion to implement their first order of business: the so-called "middle class" tax cut, and a tax hike for the richest Canadians.

Now that that's off the agenda, the focus will shift to some of their other promises: getting infrastructure money out the door, appointing new senators, moving forward with electoral reform and crafting new doctor-assisted dying legislation.

The Government House Leader, Dominic LeBlanc, spoke to CBC Radio's The House about what Canadians can expect from this session of Parliament, and to offer a rough timeline.

1. Boost a struggling economy

Timeline: Right away

The price of oil has taken a nosedive, the Canadian dollar is hitting lows not seen in more than a decade and tens of thousands of people have already lost their jobs in the resource-rich areas of our country. 

LeBlanc says that the government is seized by the worsening economic conditions, and will move to fast track infrastructure spending to get Canadians back to work.

"I think everybody recognizes an increased urgency to implement what we think were the key elements of our last election campaign platform: elements that will create economic growth and jobs," he said.

"We're looking at ways that the $10 billion New Building Canada Fund can be accelerated, or the money can be put out as quickly as possible," LeBlanc said of the Harper government-created fund. Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi will be tasked with getting the money out the door.

Additional funds for infrastructure are coming in the budget, which can be expected in either late February or March, LeBlanc said. 

"I hope, and don't believe, we're going to do as [former Conservative Finance Minister] Mr. Oliver did last time and wait many months into the next fiscal year to introduce the budget. But I don't think there's been a date or a decision made in a final way."

2. Senate appointments

Timeline: Mid-February

This week, Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef announced the members of the Senate advisory committee — the group of people who will help the prime minister pick his appointments for the upper chamber. 

And LeBlanc says Canadians can expect Trudeau to have the names of those Senate picks in his hands early in the parliamentary session.

"We're urging [the advisory committee] to give the prime minister some options, hopefully not too far into the month of February," LeBlanc said. "We would like to have these senators in place — including the government representative in the Senate — before a lot of government legislation arrives."

Senate 20151203

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, left, will take the lead on two important files for the government: appointing five new Senators and pushing ahead with electoral reform. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The normal parliamentary calendar tells us that government legislation will start arriving in the Senate in the latter part of February, so we're sort of aiming to do that but we want to give the advisory group the chance, frankly, to develop an important and robust list of qualified people," LeBlanc said.

The committee will give Trudeau five picks for each for the five vacancies that will be filled right away from Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.

3. The mission against ISIS

Timeline: Before the end of March

The Liberals are not backing down from their campaign commitment to pull back the CF-18 fighter jets taking on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

And yet LeBlanc said recent attacks in Africa, and in Indonesia — which claimed the lives of some seven Canadians — are stark reminders that Canada must continue to work with its international partners to defeat the scourge of terrorism. 

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is finalizing the details of Canada's new mission against ISIS, and the plan will be presented to parliament for a vote, LeBlanc said.

Sajjan: "meetings happen all the time"2:14

"I don't think there's any magic moment about waiting until the end of March, which will be the conclusion of the mission that the previous parliament voted on. We are going to offer a different mission, with a different focus than simply the combat aircraft.

"I'm hoping once the minister of defence finalizes our new contribution, a different contribution, he'll bring that to parliament as quickly as possible," LeBlanc said. 

4. Electoral reform

Timeline: To be determined

The Conservative opposition is deeply concerned that the government's push to ditch the first-past-the-post electoral system — and replace it with a preferential ballot — could cement Liberal rule in this country for many years to come.

The Liberals insist that they haven't decided on any voting system in particular and they'll leave it up to a parliamentary committee to hash out the details.

So far, however, a referendum on electoral reform seems to be off the agenda. "[Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef] is working with respect to an initial parliamentary — or House of Commons — special committee that would have a very broad mandate to consult with Canadians ... and develop options for some future legislation." 

"Let's not pre-judge what that committee concludes or hears. Some of our opponents are immediately rushing to a certain conclusion either around options or a certain process ... don't assume that the government has to impose something with its majority [on the committee]," LeBlanc said. 

5. Doctor-assisted dying

Timeline: End of February, early March committee will report

The Supreme Court of Canada has granted the government a four-month reprieve — beyond the initial February, 2016 deadline — to craft legislation to deal with the issue of doctor-assisted dying.

That means the politically sensitive file has now been punted to a special joint committee of parliament, which will hold hearings, listen to the various stakeholders and write a bill that will comply with the Supreme Court's finding that Canadians with irremediable medical conditions have the right to end their lives with a doctor's assistance.

The committee will resume hearings on Monday, and sit all day for two weeks straight, according to Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who is the chair of the special body studying this issue.

LeBlanc said that the committee will report back to the government by end of February, early March to get something in place before the court-mandated June deadline.