ANALYSIS | Memo to Mr. Harper: Expect the unexpected

Stephen Harper once confided that what keeps him awake at night is not the business of government so much as the surprises of politics. If the past week is any indication, he could be in for a lot of sleepless nights this fall, writes Greg Weston.

Stephen Harper once confided during an interview that what keeps him awake at night is not the business of government so much as the surprises of politics.

If the past week is any indication, the prime minister could be in for a lot of sleepless nights this fall.

Even as MPs contemplate returning to their desks for Monday's opening of Parliament, a hail of political surprises has been raining on the Harper government’s otherwise meticulously planned legislative agenda for the coming months.

First came the front-page coverage of amorous emails between Harper's parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, Bob Dechert, and a reporter for China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency that doubles as a communist intelligence service.

One can only imagine the joy Dechert’s flirtations with a potential Chinese agent must have brought to the Prime Minister's Office, as officials prepare for Harper’s pivotal diplomatic and trade visit to China this fall.

Then came the protectionist rocket from Washington, a proposal from the White House that would bar Canadian companies from participating in the next $100 billion of U.S. government stimulus projects.

The move is a major embarrassment to the Harper government, particularly landing in the midst of Canada-U.S. negotiations over a proposed North American security perimeter that is supposed to make the border open to more trade, not less.

Finally, Harper's key government-austerity message was suddenly muddied at week's end by revelations that the country's top general, Walter Natynczyk, has run up more than $1 million on federal VIP execu-jets for sporting events, galas and the Calgary Stampede.

Looking ahead, it's the same story — the Harper government has little to fear but the unexpected.

The Conservative majority means the PM and his government can pass virtually any legislation they want, impeded only by adverse public opinion.

With a majority in the House and the Senate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can look forward to passing several pieces of long-promised legislation, while hoping to avoid surprises. Derek Mortensen/Canadian Press
If all goes to plan, the fall session of Parliament will be mainly a clean-up exercise as the Conservatives use their majority to push through a hodge-podge of crime and economic legislation already on the order paper, and other miscellaneous business left over from the spring sitting of the Commons.

All very practical and predictable.

 If all goes to plan.

But if anything is certain about the coming session of Parliament, it is the growing uncertainty of the global economy.

The prime minister has all but admitted the government has no real idea what's coming at the Canadian economy from abroad, referring to the Conservatives' previously iron-clad economic plan as now necessarily "flexible."

Translation: A return to recession in the U.S., a financial meltdown in the European Union — any one of a number of major international economic disasters could play havoc with Canada's recovery.

And if that happens, the Harper government's plans for the fall session are out the window.

Recap: Live chat 

Kady O'Malley, Greg Weston and Rosemary Barton of the CBC Politics bureau answered questions in a live chat leading in to the first question period of the fall sitting.

Read an archive of chat here at CBCNews.ca/politics 

Even potential economic disasters aside, the road ahead for the Harper government is paved in political potholes.

The environment commissioner, for instance, is expected to release two reports in the next few weeks, either of which has the potential to throw the government off message, if not into protracted controversy.

One report will look at the cumulative environmental impacts of the oil sands; the other will detail Canada's broken commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto accord.

Those will be followed by a potentially even more explosive expose — an auditor general's report on how the Harper government spent tens of billions of dollars of stimulus money, and what value, if any, Canadians got from it all.

One question the auditor general likely won't try to answer is how much of federal taxpayers' money has ended up in the pockets of Quebec mobsters.

Instead, that issue could end up embarrassing the Harper government, which provided billions of dollars for roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects to a province where recent investigations have confirmed much of the construction industry is controlled by organized crime.

If all that doesn't keep the prime minister pacing late into the night, majority governments have a history of producing no end of surprises from their own ranks.

In 1984, for instance, Brian Mulroney, led his Progressive Conservative party to the biggest majority in Canadian history.

By the next election, he had been forced to fire almost a dozen of his MPs and ministers for everything from fraud and influence peddling to plain stupidity.

Jean Chrétien led the Liberals to an historic three consecutive majorities — and one of the worst political scandals in modern times, the advertising and sponsorship fiasco that haunts them still.

Sweet dreams, Mr. Harper.