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ANALYSIS | Parliament returns — with a lot of ‘unfinished business’ on its plate | CBC

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This is an excerpt from Minority Report, a weekly newsletter on federal politics. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

When I spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December, he said “there’s a lot of unfinished business.” He was speaking about his decision to stay on as leader of the Liberal Party. But that statement also describes the parliamentary year that begins on Monday when MPs convene for the first time in 2023.

Last year was a reasonably productive one for Parliament. But those 12 months also left behind a sizeable pile of work that remains to be completed. And while the Liberal government has much left to do if it hopes to be re-elected, the major opposition parties can’t quite claim yet that they’ve done all they can to make their own pitches to voters.

For those reasons, an election in 2023 seems unlikely. But it should still be a consequential year — and it will start with the legislation that was still in progress when MPs and senators broke for the holidays.

What’s old is new again

Before the break, the government’s newest firearms legislation (C-21) was stuck at the public safety committee as critics accused it of overreach. In the face of that criticism, Liberals said they were willing to consider feedback; it remains to be seen what kind of changes will be necessary to move the bill forward.

Bill C-11, the government’s contested attempt to bring major Internet platforms under Canadian broadcast regulations, was still in the Senate in December. The upper chamber seems poised to send it back to the House with amendments — the Senate committee that studied the bill recommended a dozen changes.

Two men in suits sit alongside each other at a conference table.
Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez prepares to appear before the Senate committee on transport and communications to discuss Bill C-11 on Nov. 22, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

If senators agree to some or all of those amendments, C-11 would become the 24th government bill the Senate has amended since Justin Trudeau began appointing independent members to the chamber in 2016.

Legislation to create a new disability benefit, meanwhile, is nearly through the House and there are three other pieces of government legislation before House committees — bills that would enact new environmental protections, reform the Official Languages Act and create a new public complaints and review commission to oversee the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The Senate, meanwhile, is in possession of bills to create a new national council on reconciliation (which would report to Parliament on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples) and establish the Online News Act, which would facilitate payments from major Internet platforms for the use of content from Canadian media outlets.

What’s new is significant

Another dozen government bills are at second reading in the House — but perhaps the most interesting of those items was only just tabled in December.

Bill C-35 sets out how and under what conditions the federal government would fund child care and early learning programs at the provincial level. In effect, it would put into law what the Liberal government started when it negotiated a series of bilateral child-care funding agreements with each province. If C-35 passes Parliament, it will make it much harder for some future government to abandon the program.

But if C-35 isn’t the most closely watched legislation of the spring, it will be because of what Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is expected to table in the next several weeks: the government’s “just transition” (or “sustainable jobs”) legislation.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks behind a lectern bearing the provincial logo.
The phrase ‘just transition’ signals that the Trudeau government intends to phase out oil and gas jobs, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith claimed in a Jan. 10 news conference. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Nothing the Trudeau government does on the question of energy and the future of the oil and gas industry in Canada is ever allowed to pass quietly. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has tried to start a fight with the federal government already over the mere name of the bill. But beyond the partisan politics, Wilkinson’s bill should serve as a jumping-off point for a very real discussion about where the Canadian and global economies are headed and how Canada will get there.

The opposition agenda

With each of these bills, the Liberals will be putting some pressure on Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to either support the government’s agenda or explain what he would do differently. But the Conservatives will have their own moves to make, particularly at various House committees.

The government operations committee was already investigating the creation of the government’s ArriveCan app and it will begin hearings Monday on the federal government’s use of private contractors and consultants like McKinsey. Conservative members of the ethics committee are also pushing for hearings into Trade Minister Mary Ng’s breach of conflict-of-interest rules.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh needs to demonstrate that his party got something out of its deal with the Trudeau Liberals. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The NDP has shown little, if any, reluctance to go along with such investigations — and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has rivalled Poilievre lately in his willingness to denounce the Liberal government. But the New Democrats also have other things to play for lately — namely, that confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals.

Singh surely wants to be seen holding the government to account. He also no doubt wants to show that the NDP was able to achieve something with that deal. And he may need at least another year to do that.

The new dental benefit the government promised the NDP is still a work in progress and New Democrats have given the government until the end of this year to table pharmacare legislation, which would at least set out broad parameters for what eventually could be a national program.

Beyond Parliament Hill

And then there is merely everything else on the agenda. 

Justice Paul Rouleau has until February 6 to present cabinet with a final report from the public commission probing the government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the convoy protests that snarled downtown Ottawa and multiple border crossings a year ago. (Cabinet will then have until February 20 to release that report.) On Feb. 7, the prime minister is scheduled to meet the premiers to discuss a grand bargain on health-care funding.

Even if Trudeau and the premiers broadly agree on what to do with health care, the prime minister is signalling an increasing willingness to engage in the fight over the notwithstanding clause. And even when Trudeau’s not looking for a fight, Danielle Smith will be trying to start one ahead of what could be a very consequential election in Alberta sometime this spring.

Even if that’s the biggest election in Canada this year (Manitoba and Prince Edward Island are also due to go to the polls), the next 12 months will be full of the sorts of debates and challenges that leave a mark and will shape the next national vote.





Read More: ANALYSIS | Parliament returns — with a lot of ‘unfinished business’ on its plate | CBC

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