Harper's real agenda visible in budget bill

A year after the country last went to the polls, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has assumed the near-dictatorial powers of a majority government, apparently with no grand plan for using them, Greg Weston reports.

Catch-all legislation contains government's plan for the spring and perhaps beyond

A senior Conservative adviser opines the prime minister would have a throne speech this fall to set out a fresh legislative agenda — if only the government could find some new initiatives to announce.

A year after the country last went to the polls, Stephen Harper has assumed the near-dictatorial powers of a majority government, apparently with no grand plan for using them.

Instead, the government's way ahead for the coming months was quietly slipped into Parliament one morning last week in an innocuous-sounding legislative bill presented by one of the Conservatives' least prominent ministers.

Officially, Bill C-38 is called the jobs, growth and long-term prosperity act, and implements some of the provisions in the recent federal budget — "and other measures."

Those "other measures" happen to include repealing or replacing a number of federal statutes in their entirety, and amending more than 50 other acts of Parliament.

In effect, this is the government’s agenda for the spring and perhaps beyond.

Conservative insiders say Prime Minister Stephen Harper will almost certainly use the summer hiatus to shuffle his cabinet. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Needless to say, the economy will continue to dominate the Harper agenda going forward as the government implements spending cuts and moves towards balancing the books.

All eyes are on the possibility of a bursting bubble of soaring housing prices, or rising interest rates — or both — that could quickly sideswipe the  government's plans.

Otherwise, insiders say Bill C-38 is the government's short-term roadmap.

Many of the changes lumped into the budget implementation bill have nothing to do with the government’s finances.

The most contentious change replaces the entire Environmental Assessment Act, giving the federal cabinet a virtual override in approving major oil and gas pipelines.

It imposes time limits on public hearings and reviews involving the environment, nuclear safety and major energy projects.

The bill includes proposed changes to the Immigration Act that would effectively throw out the applications of more than 300,000 foreign workers waiting to get into Canada for more than four years.

It eliminates the key watchdog of the country’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

And it proposes significant changes to the Fisheries Act, a move already making waves in that industry.

Good news: The budget bill cancels Harper's utterly failed Public Appointments Commission that cost taxpayers over $4 million without ever making a single appointment to anything.

Created confusion minimizes debate

In short, the single catch-all bill slipped into the Commons last week includes at least a dozen major pieces of legislation that could have been — and should have been — introduced in Parliament, debated, reviewed by the appropriate committees and passed separately.

Instead, the government has intentionally created a confusing legislative hodge-podge designed to minimize debate.

First, it will be reviewed by a Commons finance committee ill-equipped to deal with environmental, immigration and other non-fiscal matters.

Second, lumping it all into a bill needed to implement budget measures has the effect of guaranteeing everything will be passed next month before MPs leave for their summer holidays.

Then what?

Conservative insiders say the prime minister will almost certainly use the summer hiatus to shuffle his cabinet, promoting some fresh faces and benching a few problem politicians a la International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda of $16-orange-juice fame.

Most of the Conservatives' election promises will have been passed before the summer break. But that doesn't mean clear sailing ahead for the Harper government. Far from it.

Fall session could bring fireworks

Even if the fall session begins with a throne speech and a new agenda, the Conservatives will continue to be haunted by some familiar challenges — many of their own making.

Will mandatory minimum sentences and other contentious provisions of the recently passed omnibus crime legislation create prison overcrowding, clogged courts and increased justice costs for the provinces?

How is the federal government going to deal with the increasingly botched purchase of those F-35 fighter jets?

The pending changes to environmental assessment rules may make it easier for Harper and his ministers to meddle in the ultimate approval of the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline several years away.

But nothing is likely to diminish the ugly showdown looming in the meantime between government and the aboriginal and environmental groups opposed to the pipeline.

Brown envelope season?

Sometime very soon, the Harper government is going to have to begin dealing with the inevitable fallout from cutting almost 20,000 jobs in the public service.

The government claims it is making cuts in areas least likely to affect the delivery of service to ordinary Canadians, but public opinion will ultimately be the judge of that.

History also suggests that thousands of public servants being showered in pink slips risks the government's being buried in a hail of brown envelopes, all those politically embarrassing secrets in bureaucrats' filing cabinets magically transferred to the desks of the national media.

Despite all the potentially headline-making headaches facing the prime minister and his government, much of the year ahead in politics will be focused on the opposition parties.

Can Tom Mulcair continue to exceed expectations and consolidate the NDP's grip on the Official Opposition?

Will the Liberal Party rebound or continue its slide into obscurity? So far, it doesn’t look promising.

In the absence of a compelling alternative to Bob Rae, the Liberal leadership contest over the next year will have trouble gaining traction with the media and attracting the attention of Canadian voters.

And in the likely event Rae quits as interim leader to run for the permanent head of the party, the Liberals risk becoming virtually invisible for an entire year.

Rae’s winning the leadership, of course, may not be the best news for the Liberals, either — unless you consider the alternatives.

One thing for certain: The next 12 months in national politics won't be dull.