OTTAWA - Opposition parties accuse the Harper government of stooping to a petty, new low in the muzzling of dissent.
They say the government is using its power to minimize the impact of opposition days — the rare occasions when Liberals and New Democrats get to set the parliamentary agenda, debating motions on any subject of their choosing.
They maintain the government is punishing parties that offend the ruling Conservatives by scheduling opposition days for times when they're least likely to be noticed.
A case in point: the Liberals' next opposition day has been scheduled for May 18 — a Friday before a long weekend and a break-week for Parliament, when there will be only two hours for debate and few MPs in the House of Commons.
Liberals say government House leader Peter Van Loan told his Liberal counterpart, Marc Garneau, that the less-than-optimal timing was deliberate, payback for the Liberals using their last opposition day to hammer the government over the impact of budget cuts on food safety.
What apparently sparked Van Loan's ire was that Liberals had compared the cuts to those made by the former Conservative government of Mike Harris in Ontario, which they linked to the deadly E. coli outbreak in Walkerton. Liberals helpfully pointed out that a number of senior ministers in the Harper government were also members of the Harris cabinet, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
"That 'went too far' and so wings had to be clipped," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae wrote Friday in a blog post, recounting Van Loan's explanation for the timing of the Liberals' next opposition day.
Rae cited the incident as one of many examples that Canadians are "now living in a democracy with dictatorial tendencies."
Garneau wouldn't discuss what Van Loan said to him, citing the confidentiality of House leaders' meetings. But he did say he believes the choice of May 18 for the party's next opposition day was deliberate.
"I think there's a message being sent," Garneau said.
And the message is: "Behave yourself. (If not,) they have some ways of making things difficult."
As the NDP discovered this week when it was apparently penalized for tying the Commons in procedural knots in a bid to compel the government to split up its massive, omnibus budget implementation bill into manageable chunks.
The NDP had been scheduled to have an opposition day on Thursday but that was abruptly cancelled and shifted to next Wednesday. Wednesdays, like Fridays, are short parliamentary days that allow for only two hours of debate.
"Did they give us a short day as a punishment? Whatever. You now, they're in the bubble," shrugged NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.
"They can punish away. OK. What were we trying to do? We were trying to be accountable to Canadians. So, who had a good week, who had a bad week is always the question at the end of these kinds of things."
In Cullen's opinion, "punishing us doesn't make them look strong; it makes them look weak," as though the government is afraid of open debate on its own policies.
Scheduling of opposition days has always been open to manipulation, particularly in minority situations when the government wants to avoid potential confidence motions that could force an election.
But being punitive about the timing is a spiteful new low, in opposition parties' view.
"If this is what the government is doing it's completely childish," said Cullen.
Garneau said the Harper government seems to be operating as though it was still a minority, "where it feels it has to carry out guerrilla-style combat against everything they encounter that they don't like."
Van Loan did not directly respond to the opposition allegations that he's using the timing of opposition days to punish the NDP and Liberals. But he made no apologies for the scheduling.
"Our top priority remains implementing our budget and passing the Jobs and Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act," Van Loan said in an email.
"Our government schedules items for debate to allow us to achieve our clear objectives. The rules for allotting opposition days are outlined in the standing orders."
The Conservative election platform in 2011, "Here for Canada," featured many campaign commitments.<br><br>One year into Harper's "strong, stable, majority Conservative government," how much has been accomplished? What still remains to be done?<br><br><em>With files from CBC</em><br><br>(Getty)
The next five slides provide a list of what the Tories have accomplished in their first year.<br><br>(Getty)
Budget 2011 measures (rolled into the election platform after the original March budget did not pass, and all delivered again in the June budget):<br><br> - Hiring credit for small business -- offering a short-term break from EI payments for those who increase payrolls.<br><br> - Extension for: work-sharing program (helping employers avoid layoffs by providing part-time EI benefits); the "targeted initiative for older workers" (programs to help older unemployed workers); temporary accelerated capital cost allowance rate for manufacturing equipment; mineral exploration tax credit; ecoENERGY retrofit program for homes (one more year only.)<br><br>- Funding for: Canadian youth business foundation; Canada student loans program; 30 new industrial research chairs at Canadian colleges and polytechnics and ten new Canada excellence research chairs for universities; northern adult basic education program in territories; student loan forgiveness for medical professionals willing to work in rural/underserviced regions.<br><br>- Funding for: all-season road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk (to complete Dempster highway); two new national parks in Labrador and urban Toronto; snowmobile trails; small-craft harbour repairs; plus support for an agricultural trade commissioner and market access secretariat to "expand international markets for farmers;" as well as funding for an "agriculture innovation initiative."<br><br>- Funding for: Royal Conservatory of Music (to launch a national examination system); Canada periodical (magazines) fund; "youth gang prevention fund" to support projects in high-need communities.<br><br>- Tax credits: children's arts (up to $500/child in qualified arts/culture programs); family caregiver tax credit ($2,000 for those caring for an infirm family member); volunteer firefighters; plus a top-up for guaranteed income supplement for low-income seniors.<br><br>- Phase-out of taxpayer subsidies to federal political parties.<br><br>(CP)
- Government-wide spending review, as reflected in the 2012 budget, implementing over $5 billion in spending and job cuts across all federal departments and agencies, representing some 6.9 per cent of total government spending.<br><br>- Repeal of legislation forcing mandatory retirement at a specified age for workers in federally-regulated industries (effective Dec. 2012).<br><br>- Financial assistance (loans) to help immigrants get foreign credentials recognized (pilot announced Feb. 2012).<br><br>- "One-for-one" rule for business regulations arising from work of "red tape commission," now requiring government to eliminate a regulation for every new regulation implemented (effective April 1).- Successful bidders chosen for shipbuilding procurement strategy (Oct. 2011).<br><br>- "Single desk" monopoly of Canadian Wheat Board dismantled and farmer-elected board dismissed, enabling an open market for Prairie wheat and barley effective 2012 crop year.<br><br>- Pooled retirement pension plans implemented (Nov. 2011).<br><br>- "Helmets to hardhats" program to help military veterans find civillian work after deployments (announced Jan. 2012).<br><br>
- 18 more First Nations signed on to the First Nations land management regime, opting out of land-related sections of the Indian Act (March 2012).<br><br>- Quebec sales tax harmonization agreement (signed in Sept. 2011).<br><br>- Increase health transfers to provinces by six per cent annually until 2017, with the rate tied to economic growth and adjusted for inflation after 2017 (platform pledged to not "cut transfer payments to individuals or to the provinces for essential things like health care, education, and pensions" while working "collaboratively with the provinces and territories to renew the Health Accord and to continue reducing wait times").<br><br>- Loan guarantee for Lower Churchill River hydro project (memorandum with Newfoundland and Labarador signed in Aug. 2011).<br><br>- Legislation to make the "gas tax fund" a permanent form of infrastructure funding to municipalities (passed Dec. 2011).<br><br>- Alberta's elected Senate nominee Betty Unger called to Senate in Jan. 2012 (no other provinces have elected Senate nominees eligible for appointment).<br><br>(Getty)
- <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/omnibus-crime-bill/?" target="_hplink">Omnibus crime legislation (C-10)</a>, which included new mandatory minimum sentences, stiffer penalties for drug crimes, stiffer penalties for child sex offenders, an end to house arrest/conditional sentences for a range of offences, elimination or delay in eligibility for pardons, stiffer sentences for repeat or violent young offenders, new roles for victims of crime in parole decisions, measures to protect vulnerable foreign workers, new criteria for the transfer of Canadians convicted of crimes abroad, and new measures to seek justice for victims of terrorism (received royal assent March 2012, within the "100 sitting days of Parliament" deadline pledged in the platform).<br><br>- "Wanted by the CBSA" web site launched, to help find and facilitate deportations of foreign criminals (July 2012, and ongoing).<br><br>- Employment insurance benefits for parents of murdered or missing children (announced April 13).<br><br>- Legislation to end the long-gun registry (received royal assent April 5, but implementation stalled, subject to court injunction in Quebec).<br><br>
- Office of religious freedom created in department of foreign affairs, to monitor and promote religious freedom as part of Canadian foreign policy.<br><br>- Legislation to reallocate House of Commons seats to "restore fair representation" (C-20 received royal assent Dec. 2011).<br><br>(CP)
The next six slides provide a list of what the Tories didn't get done during their first year.<br><br>(Getty)
- Canada-European free trade deal (pledged for 2012).<br><br>- Canada-India free trade deal (pledged for 2013).<br><br>- New border agreement with the United States encompassing trade, travel and security regulations (negotiations ongoing).<br><br>- Copyright Modernization Act (special committee reviewing C-11 reported back to House on March 15).<br><br>- Maternal and child health initiatives, to be implemented in collaboration with other countries (the "Muskoka Initiative," launched in Nov. 2010 - $82 million for specific Canadian projects announced in Sept. 2011 ).<br><br>- Post-combat efforts in Afghanistan, focused on "the education and health of children and youth; advancing security, the rule of law, and human rights; promoting regional diplomacy; and delivering humanitarian assistance."<br><br>(Getty)
- F-35 stealth fighter jet purchase (a new secretariat will now oversee the procurement of replacement fighter jets for the CF-18s, following controversy surrounding the disclosed costs of the F-35 program).<br><br>- New air expeditionary wing at CFB Bagotville, including 250 new personnel by end of 2011 and 550 stationed there by 2015 (undisclosed number of personnel added last year to "establish core" of new expeditionary wing, minister's office says, and the government is "committed to adding personnel as the operational tempo permits").<br><br>(AP)
- Long-term plan or program, with municipalities and provinces, for building public infrastructure once the Building Canada plan expires in 2014.<br><br>- National securities regulator (Supreme Court ruled in December a national regulator would infringe on provincial jurisdiction, but federal efforts to negotiate a deal with the provinces continue).<br><br>- Income-splitting for families with children under 18 years of age -- allowing couples to share up to $50,000 in income (to be implemented when/if the federal deficit is eliminated).<br><br>- Children's fitness tax credit to be doubled and made refundable (contingent on eliminating federal deficit).<br><br>- Adult fitness tax credit (up to $500 of eligible activities, contingent on eliminating federal deficit).<br><br>- Tax-free savings accounts to see doubling of annual eligible savings, up to $10,000 (contingent on eliminating federal deficit).<br><br>- Employment insurance benefits for parents of gravely ill children (nothing announced to date).<br><br>- Relocation for the head office for the Canada economic development agency for Quebec regions "to a centre or centres appropriate to all regions of the province" (it's still in Montreal, and the minister's office says "we are at the stage where we are considering all of the options").<br><br>- Legislation to implement the Canada-Quebec accord on offshore resources (brief mention in text of 2012 budget).<br><br>- New national farm and food strategy (no announcement yet).<br><br>(Alamy)
- Anti-terrorism legislation to reinstate powers like preventative arrest and secret investigative hearings, and make it illegal to leave Canada to participate in terrorist-sponsored training or other activities (S-7 currently before Senate committee).<br><br>- Legislation to streamline the process for deporting foreign criminals, including the opportunities for appeal (not introduced yet, expected "in a few short months").<br><br>- Doubling of victim surcharge that convicted criminals must pay (bill C-37 introduced April 24).<br><br>- Legislation to combat elder abuse by adding it as an aggravating factor in sentencing (bill C-36 introduced March 15).<br><br>- Legislation to clarify self-defence and property rights/citizen's arrest provisions (bill C-26 concurred at report stage April 24).<br><br>- Legislation to "give law enforcement and national security agencies up-to-date tools to fight crime in today's high-tech communications environment" (bill C-30 introduced Feb. 14, but stalled after receiving negative feedback). The campaign platform pledged to fulfil this within "100 sitting days of Parliament," which suggests a March deadline, now passed.<br><br>- Measures to combat drug abuse in prisons (no announcement yet).<br><br>- End to sentencing discounts for multiple child sex offences and child pornography charges (no announcement yet).<br><br>- Mandatory jail sentences for those with repeat convictions for contraband tobacco, and a new RCMP anti-contraband force of 50 officers (no announcement yet).<br><br>- National action plan to combat human trafficking (no announcement yet, but private member's bill C-310 to amend the Criminal Code to strengthen measures against human trafficking passed at third reading in the House April 27 and is now before the Senate).<br><br>- New law enforcement mandate for Canada's Coast Guard, to allow them to enforce federal laws on oceans and the Great Lakes, including new armed capabilities on board Coast Guard vessels and armed boarding teams (no annoucement yet).<br><br>- Legislation to allow sentencing courts to order the deportation of convicted criminals upon completion of sentence or parole eligibility, and to remove the requirement of the prisoner's consent for transfer to complete a sentence abroad (no announcement yet).<br><br>(Alamy)
- National conservation plan (consultations currently underway at Commons environment committee).<br><br>- "Social impact bonds" to help raise money for worthwhile community projects (2012 budget said HRDSC was "exploring social finance instruments" for an announcement at a later date).<br><br>- Funding for a "volunteer-matching" service through Volunteer Canada (2012 budget ends federal funding for the national volunteer community service organization Katimavik).<br><br>- Defibrillators for every hockey rink in Canada, and training for using them (no announcement yet).<br><br>- Hunting advisory panel, to consult with environment minister on issues concerning hunting and fishing (no announcement yet).<br><br>- Review of the Species at Risk Act to ensure landowners receive fair compensation when their property is affected (no announcement yet, however the 2012 budget implementation bill does amend the Species at Risk Act).<br><br>(CP)
- Legislation to set term limits for senators and provide a framework for Senate elections (C-7 introduced June 2011 but has not progressed further -- and on May 1, Quebec government announced a constitutional challenge of this Senate reform bill).<br><br>- Legislation to publish the salaries of First Nations chiefs and councillors (C-27 introduced Nov. 2011 but has not progressed further).<br><br>- Measures to implement Canada's commitment to the "open government initiative" (ongoing).<br><br>(CP)