The House of Commons returns to tackle NAFTA, and other issues

The new NAFTA is at the top of the government’s agenda as the House of Commons returns this week. The debate over the trade deal could be the first test of the dynamics at play in this minority Parliament.

Handling of NAFTA could tell us how Liberals plan to approach the opposition in this minority Parliament

This article is part of CBC News' Minority Report newsletter, which is your weekly tip-sheet to help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority governmentSign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

It's that time of year. You know, the time when you have to will yourself out of bed every morning to face another freezing day, your face whipped by the icy winds and your zest for life covered in salt? To me, this joyous time of year also aligns with the House of Commons coming back. It's a bit of, what I might call, a saving grace.

Not much happened in December, besides the throne speech and a motion to get moving on a promised tax cut - but now the real stuff starts with Parliament's return this week. 

So what can we expect? I have three words for you: NAFTA, NAFTA and NAFTA. Whoops, sorry, I mean USMCA, USMCA and USMCA. 

What's old will be new again.

Just like my last ten pounds, this thing never goes away. Of course, this is supposedly the finish line, which means, in order of importance: A) there could finally be some economic certainty, and B) the Power Panel might never have to talk about the trade deal again.

Exterior of the West Block. The building is now the temporary home for the House of Commons during the 10 years construction project taking place at Centre Block. (Benoit Roussel/CBC )

On Monday the government will begin the legislative process required to enact USMCA by introducing a ways and means motion to the House. A lot of substantive work will ensue; by that I mean, the bill has to make it through study and debate - something all opposition parties say they're demanding. 

I'm going to fight my inclination to zone out on all things NAFTA because I think it's going to actually give us a good idea of how the government will approach its reduced mandate and how the opposition parties will position themselves amid their own internal challenges. 

Last week I wrote about the government's lack of a clear agenda. Some people who work in the upper echelons of said government reached out to me to say Trudeau's agenda won't be cautious, but it will be more careful. They insist the prime minister woke up the day after the election and realized holding elected office can end as quickly as it starts and it's changed the way he makes decisions. For one, I'm told, they say he, himself, makes more of them, decisions that is. He also says no to things more often, and is "grumpy." "Fluff,' such as pledging to give $50 million to a celebrity sponsored charity, is no longer the way; even trips abroad are now being scrutinized in a different way.

What does that have to do with the new NAFTA? I'm getting there, sheesh. 

Those same people say the government will use next week to go on the offensive with the opposition; they think they have a political and pragmatic win in USMCA and they can be expected to frame any delay in ratification as "another potential job lost." They'll utilise Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland for this message, a strategy I imagine, they'll employ often going forward.

That will pretty much put the opposition in a position where they have to decide how much political capital to expend. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits beside Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland before speaking to members of caucus on Parliament Hill. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, in particular, insisted last week that simply rubber-stamping the deal wasn't in anyone's best interest. He says he's read the text but wants further study; so do the Conservatives -- their initial news release on ratifying the deal began by asserting they are THE party of free trade. The Bloc said there are problems with the deal, and it will stand in the way of fast tracking anything. You've also got all the premiers banding together asking everyone not to do that (they wrote a letter to that effect late last week). 

In the end, the parties' calculations won't solely be informed by the merits of the issue at hand, but  will also have to, at least in part, be based on their own viability of running a campaign should their opposition to the bill bring down the government. You may have noticed it was a wild week in the Conservative leadership race and the NDP revealed it's 7 million dollars in debt. It's hard to force an election when you are not ready to run a campaign. 

How much support among Canadians will they find if implementing the USMCA is delayed? I'm not sure. On the other hand, many will see the request to study the bill, as reasonable. There's a fine line the opposition will have to walk - and the Liberals are hoping to make it harder for them to balance. 

The House is back - here we go!

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This is just one part of the Minority Report newsletter. In this week's issue, Éric Grenier looks at where the parties stand in the polls as the House returns. Plus, the Power Panel gives its take on the week ahead. To read all of that and more sign up for the newsletter here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

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