The governing Liberals will focus on their most high-profile election promises in this minority 43rd Parliament when the House returns on Jan. 27 to continue its first session, after nearly a seven-month break from Ottawa, say MPs and insiders.
The special committee on Canada-China relations, a bailout bill for resource workers, a Liberal-style tough-on-crime agenda, and the government’s efforts to live up to its rhetoric on climate change will be worth watching in the weeks ahead.
Liberal MPs told The Hill Times that the CUSMA implementation bill and the party’s campaign promises would shape the government’s agenda when Parliament returns. Making permanent the middle-class tax cut, promoting the sale of electric cars, and boosting the Canada Child Benefit were among some of the specific measures mentioned by members of the caucus.
“I can’t imagine that we’re going to veer from what we said in the campaign,” said three-term Liberal MP Sean Casey (Charlottetown, P.E.I.) in an interview with The Hill Times after the first day of a caucus retreat on Parliament Hill last week.
“During the campaign, we said that we’re going to increase the base personal exemption. We’re going to plant two-billion trees. We’re going to introduce a home retrofit program. We’re going to move forward with ban on assault rifles and give responsibility to cities to deal with handguns. I don’t anticipate any surprises,” said Mr. Casey.
Two-term Liberal MP Greg Fergus (Hull-Aylmer, Que.) also raised implementing the CUSMA trade deal and the forthcoming budget in an interview with The Hill Times, and Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) said a boost to the Canada Child Benefit could be coming.
During the two-day retreat on Thursday and Friday ahead of the start of winter sitting, Liberal caucus members held strategy sessions to plot parliamentary strategy and discuss policy initiatives for the government going forward. They received briefings from a number of cabinet ministers about legislative priorities that the government hopes to accomplish. MPs were asked to hold consultations with their constituents about the government’s priorities, and report back to relevant ministers.
The House adjourned last June and was later dissovled for the October federal election. The new Parliament officially opened last month when MPs and Senators returned for the Throne Speech, but the House only sat for five days.
The Liberal caucus also received briefings from the party headquarters about the party’s performance in the last federal election, and what they are planning on doing to prepare for the next election.
The average age of a minority government in Canada is about 18 months, but it remains to be seen how long this Parliament lasts, as the governing party has a number of options in the House from which to seek support on different pieces of legislation. In the 338 seat Parliament, the Liberals won 157 seats, the Conservatives 121, the Bloc Québécois 32, NDP 24, and the Green Party three. Jody Wilson-Raybould also won her seat in Vancouver Granville, B.C. as an independent. If government MPs vote together, they could pass legislation with support from any of the Conservatives, NDP, or Bloc.
The Hill Times has broken down the top issues on the government’s radar now, based on comments from MPs and cabinet ministers, ministerial mandate letters, election campaign promises, and current events.
Senate schedule could slow NAFTA 2.0 bill
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) promised to introduce legislation to implement the new CUSMA trade agreement with the United States and Mexico as soon as Parliament returns, and told his caucus on Jan. 23 that Canadian jobs depended on passing the legislation quickly.
“If it’s not job one, it’s job one-A to get that through,” said Mr. John McKay.
The Conservatives don’t oppose implementing the trade deal, but have questions about how it would affect the automotive, agricultural, and aluminum sectors, said a Conservative source, speaking on a not for attribution basis. How the Liberals address those questions will be an early test of how the Grits plan to operate in this minority Parliament, the source said.
The CUSMA implementation bill should progress through the Senate without major opposition. ISG Senator Peter Boehm (Ontario) will sponsor the bill in the Senate; he told The Hill Times on Jan. 21 that he expected the bill to go through the Upper Chamber without much trouble.
Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett (Landmark, Man.) told The Hill Times in an emailed statement that his caucus supports free trade, and expects a “fulsome debate” in the Senate on the implementation bill when it arrives.
While it’s almost certain that the bill will pass in the Senate, that may not happen until the week of Feb. 18. The Senate does not reconvene until Feb. 4, with three sitting days scheduled for that week. As of Jan. 24, Senate committees had not yet been struck—the bill would normally go to the Senate Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee for study.
The Senate’s first week back in session is followed by a break week, from which Senators will return on Feb. 18.
It’s possible that Senators could sit as a committee of the whole to study the bill and advance it more quickly than usual, if the Foreign Affairs Committee has not yet been struck.
The Independent Senators Group currently holds 50 of the 99 occupied seats in the Senate. A spokesperson for Sen. Yuen Pau Woo (B.C.), who leads the group, said he wasn’t yet prepared to take a position on the CUSMA implementation bill or how quickly it should pass through the Senate.
Climate change, energy projects, and an oil worker bailout?
The Liberals are expected to make some effort to temper anger towards their government—mostly over their environmental policies—in Alberta and Saskatchewan, in which they didn’t win a single seat during the last election. They have already signalled that they will bring in a bill to send some kind of financial support to those affected by a downturn in the natural resource sector.
Natural Resource Minister Seamus O’Regan (St. John’s South—Mount Pearl, N.L.) has been assigned to work with Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.) and Labour Minster Filomena Tassi (Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas, Ont.) to introduce a bill “to support the future and livelihood of workers and their communities in the transition to a low-carbon global economy,” according to his mandate letter.
Mr. Trudeau has signalled repeatedly that mitigating climate change was a top priority for his government in this Parliament. It’s not yet clear how the Liberals will do so in a minority Parliament; they have so far shied away from suggestions that they would increase the national carbon tax beyond the levels already planned.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson (North Vancouver, B.C.) has been assigned to introduce new measures to reduce greenhouse gases, and strengthen existing ones, according to his mandate letter.
The government will also likely continue to press ahead with the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and is labouring over a decision to approve or reject a huge new bitumen mine proposed for Alberta by Teck Resources, The Tyee reported Jan. 21.
Putting together the spring budget will no doubt be one of the top priorities for the government over the coming weeks. MPs will likely use speaking time in the House to preview some of their parties’ “shopping lists” for the budget, said Mr. McKay.
For the Liberals, that could include a beefier Canada Child Benefit, said Mr. McKay.
“It does seem to actually work, and it seems to have a more positive effect on the reduction of income equality and the increase in opportunity for less advantaged people,” he said. “So I think that this would be looked at very carefully.”
The Liberals promised in their campaign platform to boost the Canada Child Benefit 15 per cent for children under the age of one.
The budget will likely include new spending on items related to key themes in the government’s Throne Speech: climate change, reconciliation with First Nations, helping the “middle class,” and keeping Canadians safe and healthy, said Don Moors, a lobbyist at Temple Scott Associates, and a former Liberal staffer.
Those same themes are highlighted on the government’s pre-budget consultation website.
More tax changes are on the way as well. The government still has to pass legislation—possibly via a budget implementation bill—to make permanent the raise to the basic personal amount that they touted as their new “middle class tax cut” during the summer election campaign. Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) has also been assigned to deliver on campaign promises to bring in new taxes on luxury goods, big, multinational technology companies, and foreign speculation in the housing market.
Iran air attack
Iran’s attack on a Ukrainian International Airlines flight that killed 57 Canadians earlier this month is one of the toughest tests Mr. Trudeau has faced on the international stage. He has called on Iran to cooperate in an international investigation into the crash, to repatriate the bodies of Canadians who were killed, to respect the burial wishes of their families, and for the Iranian state to compensate those families. Canada has very little leverage over Iran, and no diplomatic presence in the country. It could be some time before Canada’s government is able to put this issue to rest.
Canada’s ongoing feud with China will doubtless be a top priority for the government as well. The Canada-China parliamentary committee will provide the opposition with a chance to make themselves heard on the issue, and call the government to account, said John Delacourt, a vice-president at Hill and Knowlton Strategies and former Liberal Research Bureau communications director.
“There will be a lot of activity there,” said Mr. Delacourt. “From the very inception of this committee, it has been clear that there are wedge issues that the opposition would seek to drive [through] this as effectively as possible.”
Canada’s relationship with China will likely be a topic of discussion for MPs on and outside of the parliamentary committee, said Mr. McKay, who served as chair of the Public Safety and National Security Committee in the last Parliament
“The committee will face a choice. Do they want to be a serious, useful contribution to the debate, or do they want to chase every political rabbit down the rabbit hole?” said Mr. McKay, who does not sit on the Canada-China parliamentary committee.
Preparing for the U.S. election
Canada’s most important ally and biggest trading partner will hold a presidential election in November, and Canada will be affected, regardless of who wins.
President Donald Trump took aim at the original NAFTA trade deal with Canada and Mexico during his election campaign in 2016, and embroiled the three countries in a miniature trade war after he took office. Canada’s economy is still feeling the effects. It’s almost impossible to predict what Mr. Trump, or his still unknown Democratic challenger, will do or say about relations with Canada in the coming campaign and beyond.
Mr. Trudeau reorganized his government at the highest levels in 2016 in response to Mr. Trump’s victory, an effort to minimize the potential fallout for Canada. The government may be forced to renew those efforts at the end of 2020 if Mr. Trump or an unfriendly Democrat wins November’s election.
Crime, assisted dying, and gun control
Getting tough on crime, Liberal-style, is also likely to be among the government’s priorities. Mr. Trudeau told Public Safety Minister Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) and Justice Minister David Lametti (LaSalle-Émard-Verdun, Que.) to bring in a handful of changes to criminal law and justice in this Parliament, which could be made through one or more pieces of legislation. They include moves to crack down on money laundering and organized crime; ban “conversion therapy”—programs that try to turn gay people straight—and stiffen penalties for elder abuse; create “legal remedies” for victims of hate speech; make drug treatment courts the default penalty for first-time, non-violent offenders charged with drug possession; and to require that judges be trained in sexual assault law.
Mr. Lametti must also introduce changes to the assisted dying legislation the Liberals passed during the last Parliament. The Quebec Superior Court ordered the government to change the law in September, ruling that restricting medically-assisted dying to those whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Blair will also be bringing in new gun control laws to ban the sale of “assault”-style rifles, “strengthen” gun storage requirements, and make it possible for municipalities to ban handguns. Toronto Mayor John Tory and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart are among those who have called on the government to grant cities that power over the past few years. Mr. Blair is also working through a plan to buy back assault rifles already owned by Canadians.
Pharmacare and dental care
A CBC report on Jan. 22 highlighted the overwhelming demand straining many of Ontario’s hospitals. Health care falls under provincial jurisdiction, but pressure is building on the Liberals to play a role in solving some of the shortfalls in the system. Any major changes would likely require negotiating with the provinces; the Liberals will have to get started soon if they want a health overhaul in place before the next election.
The NDP made a promise of universal pharmacare and dental care one of the key planks of its election platform, and Leader Jagmeet Singh (Burnaby South, B.C.) will be under pressure from his party members and supporters to use his leverage in a minority Parliament to force the government to shore up its healthcare offering. An advisory panel struck by the Liberals in the last Parliament, led by former Ontario health minister Dr. Eric Hoskins, also called for a single-payer, universal pharmacare system. The Liberals, however, have promised more patchwork improvements to the health care system, including improvements to home care and palliative care and new standards for mental health services.