Greg Weston: Harper finds changing channels hard amid bad news

The Senate expenses scandal has left the Harper government understandably desperate to change the channel with new legislation, amendments to old laws, regulatory changes — anything to attract public attention away from so many politically damaging horror stories.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Conservatives will hold policy convention in Calgary this month

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has faced a barrage of questions over the Senate expense claims controversy. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Senate expenses scandal has left the Harper government understandably desperate to change the channel with new legislation, amendments to old laws, regulatory changes — anything to attract public attention away from so many politically damaging horror stories.  

Problem is, there’s nothing much left to change the channel to — the Conservatives have virtually run out of agenda, leaving the Senate mess to dominate media coverage and hold public attention, day after politically punishing day.  

Conservative strategists sound as though they are counting the seconds until the Commons fades to black for Parliament’s summer recess any day now.  

When MPs do finally head home for a summer on the backyard barbeque circuit, Harper and his ministers will be heads-down to come up with a blueprint for the second half of the government’s mandate until the next election in October, 2015.  

In the short term, it will mainly be a plan to try to rescue the Harper administration from arguably its worst crisis in office.

The summer shutdown in parliament will give the Conservatives some immediate relief from the daily pounding in the Commons over the Senate spending fiasco, but the silence will be shortlived.  

First, Harper and his ministers will have to face a potentially hostile party grassroots at a policy convention in Calgary later this month.  

Dark clouds

The Senate scandal has particularly enraged hard-core Conservatives who imagined their government would lead reform of the upper chamber, not be part of a political and possibly criminal fiasco reaching all the way into the Prime Minister’s Office. 

There are more dark clouds on the horizon for the Conservatives.  

Sometime in July, the Senate is expected to release the results of an audit investigation of Senator Pamela Wallin’s travel expenses.  

In the same month, Canadians will be reminded of another political controversy involving Harper’s office when one of the PM’s former close advisors, Bruce Carson, goes on trial for influence peddling.  

The RCMP allege that while Carson was in the PMO, he lobbied the federal government for multi-million-dollar contracts on behalf of two related water-purification companies, with the commissions intended to go to his then fiancée and former escort.  

Also in July, the premiers and territorial leaders gather in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., for their annual confab.  

The agenda is expected to include equalization payments, the billions of dollars the federal government transfers to the country’s so-called have-not provinces every year.  

 The current formula for giving out that money is set to expire in March next year, and renegotiation of the scheme between a cost-cutting federal government and money-hungry provinces is unlikely to go smoothly.  

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are hoping to create at least the illusion of turning the page on so much bad news and starting afresh — otherwise known as hitting the reset button.   Once clear of the Calgary policy convention, the PM is expected to start the process with a major cabinet shuffle.  

Similarly, insiders say the government will probably launch a fresh legislative agenda by proroguing parliament just before the Commons is scheduled to reopen in September.

Wipe the slate

The move likely wouldn’t affect when MPs get back to business, but it would wipe the government’s legislative slate clean, and allow the Conservatives to introduce a new plan for the country in a throne speech.  

By then, the government is hoping to have a new free trade deal between Canada and the European Union, some form of which is expected in the coming weeks, if not days.

The complicated agreement could impact the Canadian economy in everything from beef to banking, and is certain to provide fodder for much heated political debate once the final deal is in place.  

Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister David Cameron held a photo call outside the U.K. Parliament Thursday. Inside, the Canadian prime minister used his address to U.K. MPs and Lords to thank Cameron's government for "robust advocacy" on the Canada-EU trade talks. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

That could still be months away. Insiders say it is not clear whether negotiators will deliver a completed agreement or simply a framework with the small print to follow.  

The throne speech is also certain to put aboriginal issues on the Harper government’s agenda for the next two years, and will likely focus on education and health.  

The Harper government would also like to tackle the longstanding issue of allowing individual aboriginals to own property on reserves, but may not be willing to risk protests  in the lead-up to the next election.

While proponents say the move would open desperately needed economic development opportunities for aboriginal communities, those opposed might well take to the streets.  

The throne speech is also certain to be hot on energy.  

A decision on the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline connecting  the oilsands and the B.C. coast is due in the next year after environmental hearings are concluded in December.  

And no matter whether the project is approved or rejected, it will be a gusher of political trouble for the federal Conservatives.

Similarly, the Harper government’s roadmap for the way ahead includes a major diplomatic and industry push for U.S. approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline between Alberta and the Texas oil refineries.  

The Harper government is adamant the project, so far blocked in the U.S. by the Obama administration under pressure from American environmental groups, is critical to the future of the oilsands and Canada’s economy.  

As part of the Conservatives' lobbying for the new pipelines, strategists say the throne speech is likely to promise tougher controls on greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands and other major industrial emitters.  

New immigration laws are also likely to feature prominently in the Conservatives' agenda for the next two years.  

Specifically, sources say the government will overhaul how foreign skilled workers are allowed into the country.  

Instead of workers being allowed into Canada based on their skills, applicants will qualify from abroad to be in a pool from which employers and provinces can choose, then request immigration approval.  

Finally, under the circumstances, it is hard to imagine a throne speech in the fall that doesn’t promise some kind of Senate reform.  

Rarely has the case for it been made so powerfully — one disgraced senator after another.