7 storylines to watch as MPs return to work

MPs return to work Monday after a six-week break to face a new year and, in many ways, a new political landscape. Here is a look at some of the storylines expected to emerge.

Members of Parliament return to Ottawa Monday after a six-week break. It's a brand new year and, in some ways, a new political landscape lies ahead.

A major cost-cutting budget is on its way, and a new Official Opposition leader will take his or her place in the House of Commons before the MPs rise again in the summer.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae summed things up this way on Sunday: "If a week is a long time in politics, imagine what three months is all about." 
With Parliament Hill in the background, joggers run across the Interprovincial bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau, Sunday. The House of Commons is set to resume Monday after a six-week break. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Here’s a look at some of the storylines and hot-button issues expected to set the tone for Parliament over the coming months.

1. The axe will fall, how deep will it cut?

The next budget will be unlike any other delivered by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. For one, it's the first time the Conservatives have a majority and don't need to consider opposition demands in order to pass the budget.


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They have freer rein to put in — and, more importantly this time — take out what they want.

Which brings us to the second reason this budget is one for the record books: it will contain plans to cut billions of dollars from Ottawa's spending, the results of the government-wide spending review announced in the last budget.

Departments were asked to find savings of between five and 10 per cent to ultimately reach $4 billion in annual savings. Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the minister in charge of the review, hinted in a speech last week the cuts could be deeper than originally anticipated.

Public servants are bracing for the axe to fall, Canadians are wondering what services will be affected and labour unions and the opposition parties are readying their battle lines, promising to fight the cuts.

And, while it may not come in this budget, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week that his government will also be taking a close look at retirement costs in Canada, including Old Age Security.

The date for the budget has not yet been announced.

2. Follow the leaders

The NDP leadership race has moved into high gear, as the eight candidates face off in debates about every two weeks until the party's leadership convention March 24.

Interim leader Nycole Turmel has two months left sitting across from Harper in the House of Commons, and the choice of person to take her seat will affect the dynamics of the place.

Will it be political veteran Thomas Mulcair or 29-year-old Niki Ashton? An MP such as Nathan Cullen, Peggy Nash, Romeo Saganash or Paul Dewar — or will the party elect a leader without a seat in the Commons, such as Brian Topp or Martin Singh?

And on the other interim leadership front, the Liberals' Bob Rae is sure to keep facing questions about his intentions. The Liberals held a well-attended policy convention in January and leadership was a hot topic there.

3. Crown-First Nations relations

First Nations chiefs from across Canada came to Ottawa Jan. 24 to meet with Harper and other government officials. There was no big deal, no major announcement at the end of the day, but there were declarations about renewing the relationship, removing barriers to self-governance and working together to improve education and economic development.

People will be watching to see if there’s anything significant in the budget for aboriginal Canadians and what, if anything, will be announced in the coming months to follow through on the meeting.

Attawapiskat in northern Ontario, meanwhile, continues to battle the federal government over the third-party management issue that developed late last year, something that MPs will be dealing with in the coming weeks.

4. Laying down the laws of the land

There is some high-profile leftover legislation that has yet to be passed into law. Namely, C-10, the omnibus crime bill known as the safe streets and communities act.

"The crime bill is already in the Senate, we expect that they should deal with it relatively soon," Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan told CBC News. "There might be amendments that come back to the House, we'll take care of them. "

The back story on the amendments is that Liberal Irwin Cotler tried to introduce them at the committee stage in the fall, the Conservatives rejected them — and then tried to introduce virtually the same ones at the bill’s next stage. The attempt was denied on a technicality, so it is expected the government will try to make the changes in the Senate.

Meanwhile other priority bills are still making their way through the Commons, including the bill to end the long-gun registry and a copyright reform bill, which has been languishing at first reading for some time.

The first piece of legislation on the agenda Monday is a bill to create a pooled registered pension plan.

5. Ottawa and the provinces: Can’t they all just get along?

Two big issues — health-care funding and the cost of crime legislation — are getting in the way of harmonious federal-provincial relations these days. Quebec has flatly said it won’t pay for extra costs associated with the expected increase in prisoners due to the omnibus crime bill and it wants everyone to sit down to hash out the dollar details.

"If anyone thinks that this debate is somehow over even when [Bill C-10 is] approved by Parliament, they are sadly mistaken," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae told CBC News on Sunday.

On the health file, the provinces were dealt a blow when the government made it clear in December that negotiating a new post-2014 funding deal was not in the cards and they would have to take what the federal government offered, or leave it. Again, the provinces are asking to sit down and talk.

The federal government has shown little interest, however, in doing any talking on either file. Can you say "stalemate"?

6. Rooting out the 'radicals'

The U.S. government rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project while MPs were on their break, but hearings into the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings are going on … and on … and on — or so says the government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver have made no secret of the fact they plan to change the environmental assessment process so projects can get approved faster. Oliver has referred to groups that oppose oilsands development as "radicals," a term that will probably be thrown around a lot in the coming months, as Harper's team takes a more aggressive approach on projects deemed economically significant.

7. Talking up trade

The trade agenda is expected to be a rather busy one in the coming months.

The Canada-EU trade deal is still unfinished business. The original goal to have it signed, sealed and delivered in 2011 was not met, but both sides say they are committed to wrapping up negotiations in 2012.

Harper has also made it clear he intends to be a salesman for Canada’s oil and energy sector, particularly in Asia. He’s openly talked about finding alternative customers to the United States and to that end, he’s heading to China next month for his second visit.

Trade-watchers will also be looking to see if there is any movement on Canada’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Harper said in November he wants in on the talks toward a new Pacific-Rim trade pact, but there hasn’t been much talk about it since.