Conservatives' fall priorities add up to one: winning re-election

With MPs returning to the House on Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has one overarching priority in mind: winning next year's election. That means the fall will be about agenda-clearing, not agenda-setting, as the government clears the decks to campaign on a balanced budget.

Fall sitting of the House shaping up as more housekeeping than roof-raising

With MPs returning to the House on Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has one overarching priority in mind: winning next year's election. That means a concise to-do list for the fall -- and a focus on a now-balanced budget. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives under Stephen Harper are great adherents to the credo that having too many priorities is the same as having none at all.

In official Ottawa — those six-or-so blocks around Parliament Hill where politicians work, live and play — the important priority since the 2011 election has been to do whatever it takes to get rid of the deficit in time for the next election in 2015.

It's a goal this government has pursued with such single-minded devotion that it's on track to deliver a bit too early.

The books are all but balanced now. The bite of austerity was deep.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver is looking at a sizable surplus in next year's budget, and on Thursday started making use of it, announcing a 15 per cent cut in EI premiums for small business. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Joe Oliver is already boldly forecasting a $6.4-billion surplus, and on Thursday he rolled out the first goodie that comes with that by reducing Employment Insurance premiums for small business.

Oliver's made it clear the 2015 budget will also lower taxes for middle-class Canadians. He might even introduce a few targeted spending programs, say, to assist young Canadians who can't find work in a country which, as the Conservatives never tire of reminding voters, emerged from the recession in relatively better shape than other G7 nations.

The question, really, is how the government intends to fill the months between now and the spring budget, what it will do starting Monday when MPs return to Ottawa for the fall sitting of the House.

The answer is: not much.

The orders already went out from the Prime Minister's Office to clear away the few items remaining on the legislative agenda. That means no new plans. No new priorities. No change in direction.

Ministers and deputy ministers have been told to push ahead with those items that can be finalized by December. For MPs on both sides of the House, the message is to expect a lot of late nights as the government pushes bills through.

Fall checklist

The list includes a handful of law and order bills, including a new prostitution law after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the previous one and gave Parliament until the end of year to enact a replacement.

The list also includes formally ratifying trade deals with South Korea and the European Union later this month. The government has invited South Korea's president, Park Geun-Hye, to visit Ottawa for the occasion. EU President Jose Manuel Barroso is already coming as part of the Canada-EU summit.

Conservatives believe ratifying agreements with South Korea and European Union are significant accomplishments, both economically and politically, as they head into an election year. And it may not end there. Sources suggest a tentative trade deal is within reach with Japan, already Canada's second-largest trading partner in Asia.

And it means an intense focus on bills to implement consumer measures first promised in the 2013 throne speech to:

  • Give cable TV viewers more say over the channels they pay to watch.
  • Provide more choice in banking services.
  • Close the price gap with the United States.
  • Prevent companies from charging customers who still want to get a paper copy of their bills.

Much of that consumer agenda remains a work in progress, making it a potential liability for a governing party that wants to look ahead next year.

Oliver is also expected to present the annual fall economic update in October, a kind of prequel to the 2015 budget, when the Conservatives will set out their new, overarching priority: getting re-elected with another majority.

Opposition to press for national inquiry

All in all, the fall sitting is shaping up as more housekeeping than roof-raising. More agenda-clearing than agenda-setting.

The opposition parties, of course, have priorities of their own.

They are demanding a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. Harper rejected the call last month, but since then some of his ministers have indicated a willingness to hold some kind of roundtable discussion with members of First Nations groups to discuss what can and should be done.

The other is the deployment of military advisers to Iraq to assist Kurdish fighters in the battle against the Islamic extremist group ISIS.

Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, who has been meeting with his NDP caucus this week in Edmonton, wants more debate on Canada's deployment of advisers in Iraq. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The prime minister says the commitment will be re-evaluated in 30 days, but no one in government is saying what the criteria for the re-evaluation will be, or under what conditions the commitment should or could be extended.

The opposition is already raising the spectre of “mission creep” that would see those advisers become part of an active combat role.

Both the New Democrats and Liberals are demanding a debate in Parliament over how long the advisers should stay, and whether it's the first step toward another prolonged military engagement similar to the one in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of nearly 160 Canadian Forces personnel.

The answer this week from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is the only way they'll get a debate is by using one of their own so-called opposition days.

This is a government that sticks to its own priorities. And as Canadians found out Thursday, the government is focused on the most important one: getting re-elected.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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