POLITICS
09/19/2011 08:40 EDT | Updated 11/19/2011 05:12 EST

Conservative Agenda: As Parliament Resumes, Tories Go Full Throttle On Measures Likely To Divide The House

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The Conservative government is bracing for a showdown with the opposition over its budget implementation bill, massive omnibus crime legislation and a handful of other bills this fall that might test the patience of the NDP and Liberals who don't have the seat count required to challenge the Tories' agenda.

Despite plans to introduce legislation the Tories know the opposition won't support, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan told The Huffington Post he doesn't think the atmosphere in the Commons will become divisive or poisonous.

If anything, Van Loan suggested, debate in the House of Commons will be more respectful now that the Tories have a strong majority with which they can easily pass their agenda.

"I actually think that results in a better tone in the House. I think that is one of the reasons we had a better tone in the spring too," Van Loan said. "A majority government means that people aren't playing for short term gain in an anticipation of an election in the next few weeks. So you can have a much longer focus. (And) having the NDP in opposition has helped because … instead of dealing with trumped up and phony issues that the Liberals were constantly choosing, now, we are actually going to be debating policy differences. I think that results in a much more reasoned debate," the minister said.

NDP House leader Thomas Mulcair has pledged that the NDP caucus under Interim Leader Nycole Turmel will be respectful and take the high road over partisan barbs. Liberal House leader Marc Garneau said the Grits will heckle when necessary.

"We've always said that if we will do a bit of boisterous heckling it will never be personal, it will be objecting to what someone has said. It will be a spirited opposition, hopefully with good humour," Garneau said.

"We know that the Conservatives are a majority but that doesn't mean that we are going to sit down and roll over and not speak up … We have a very, very skilled leader (in Bob Rae). He is probably the most experienced in the House of Commons and he is very good on his feet. As far as we are considered, we are going to be an effective opposition this fall," he added.

Van Loan conceded the chamber will be much different when MPs return to work in Ottawa at 11 a.m. ET Monday — especially now that the Harper government faces no permanent opposition leader save for Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

"We will have to wait and see how it changes the dynamics," Van Loan said. "We intend to work and we intend to work hard to fulfill the mandate Canadians gave us."

JOBS AND THE ECONOMY

The Conservatives' first priority will be jobs and the economy, Van Loan said, anchored by the next phase of the so-called economic action plan, the Tories' budget which was re-introduced in June after the government was brought down in a non-confidence vote in March.

"The bulk of the budget has yet to be implemented and that includes for example, the tax credit for small business job creation… (It) will also include the elimination of subsidies for political parties as well," Van Loan said of the substantive budget implementation bill.

CRIME BILL

The second priority for the government is the passage of its sweeping omnibus crime bill that it has pledged to pass within the first 100 sitting days.

The bill, which will be introduced Tuesday, is already getting roasted by the opposition, which believes many of its measures will fundamentally transform the justice system and are unnecessary when crime rates have dropped to their lowest since the early 1970s.

"We have very reasonable expectations that … [this] bill will start dismantling some of the safeguards in the checks and balances in our system that ensure that people are presumed innocent," NDP house leader Thomas Mulcair said.

"[The Conservatives] will start waving the spectre of criminals being let free, like they did on other issues in the past, and stoke the fires of division as they so often do. They will go at this not with a scalpel but with a rusty machete and they are going to try to score points with their ideologically right-wing base, so we are expecting a rather tough fight on this crime bill."

Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said the Liberals would study the bill closely and would "speak up" and if, as they expect, they don’t like what they see.

"(Legislation) should be based on what is right," Garneau told the Huffington Post.

"We've been saying (that the crime rate is dropping) for a very long time, but it doesn't seem to have any effect, "the astronaut-turned-MP added. "You know, we are the party of facts and scientific evidence, and that includes, that type of evidence."

"If you have unreported crime, how do you deal with something that is imaginary? We think that the government is pushing that narrow ideological agenda because it serves its purpose, because they feel that Canadians are happy with their message that they are getting tough on crime, but are they doing it in an intelligent manner? No."

Tories also plan to ask Parliament this fall to approve free trade deals it has negotiated with Panama and Jordan.

More contentious, however, are the introduction of bills this fall that will scrap the long-gun registry, kill the Canadian Wheat Board and add more seats in the House of Commons for Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, thereby diminishing Quebec's weight in the lower house.

NEW SEAT DISTRIBUTION

"The objective there is to move closer to the principle of each vote having equal value," Van Loan said, adding that the Tories would try to get it through the House before Christmas so that additional seats can be carved out in time for the 2015 federal election.

"What we want to do is have it in law by the time that the census result come out early next year, so that the rules for distribution process are clear for everyone," the House leader said.

The bill is highly divisive for the opposition, especially the NDP which now has a large chunk of its caucus from Quebec as well as seats in B.C. and Ontario, populous provinces that stand to gain from the legislation.

Van Loan didn't spare an opportunity to slam the NDP saying it was "quite surprising" the party had come out against the Tories' "principle" position.

"They are going to find some contentions between those of their western or Ontario caucus and those in the Quebec caucus if they are looking to oppose it. I think it is mistake if we (don't pass the bill), we begin to lose the legitimacy of our political system if we allow this imbalance or under-representation of these provinces to fall as far and as wide as it already is. "

In the last Parliament, the Conservatives introduced a bill that would add 30 seats to the House of Commons: five for Alberta, seven for B.C. and 18 to Ontario.

But according to the NDP’s democratic reform critic David Christopherson, that scenario is unfair to Quebec because it reduces its influence in the chamber.

"We believe that Quebec should maintain the percentage of seats that they had when the House passed the resolution recognizing the Quebecois form a nation in a united Canada," he said. "We believe that it goes against the sentiment of that expression and it is insulting to, on the one hand say to Quebec there is a recognition that the Quebecois form a nation in a united Canada and then turn around and introduce legislation hat waters down their relative representation within Canada."

Garneau also said the Tories' proposal penalizes Quebec because its share of MPs would be slightly under its population count.

SENATE REFORM, WHEAT BOARD, GUN REGISTRY, AND LIBYA

The Conservatives' bill to elect senators and limit their stay in the upper house to one non-renewable nine-year term won't likely be debated in committee this fall. The Tories introduced the bill in June after its own Senate caucus voiced its disapproval with the bill, but Van Loan wouldn't commit Sunday to moving forward with the legislation. The minister suggested the NDP's unwillingness to support Senate reform — New Democrats believes in abolishing the upper chamber — would drag out speeches against the legislation and likely prevent it from reaching committee stage.

Two controversial pieces of legislation the Tories have long sought to pass, however, will be dealt with swiftly this fall: the elimination of the Wheat Board's monopoly on wheat and barley and a bill abolishing the long-gun registry.

Although the Liberals and NDP strongly oppose the legislation, there is little they can do.

"It is totally unacceptable for the government to ram this thing through," Garneau said of the Conservatives' drive to scrap the Wheat Board. The government "did not, as they were supposed to do, get a plebiscite, and we know from polling done this summer that about 60 per cent of farmers would like to keep the Wheat Board. So we will be speaking forcefully on that."

Parliamentarians may also be asked to vote to extend Canada's military action in Libya.

The mission is "very close to success right now," Van Loan said. But if NATO isn't able to get the job done by September 27, "it will be necessary to have a vote," he said.

BUDGET CUTS

Although the Tories are on a mission to slash billions in government spending, Van Loan told The Huffington Post that Canadians won't feel the effects of any cuts until 2012, after the budget is introduced. "There will be work done this fall (on The Deficit Reduction Action Plan) but there won't be any legislative work done this fall," he said.

The opposition, however, is bracing for the possibility that a second stimulus package may be needed in Canada that could drive the country further into deficit.

Van Loan said the government would be "flexible," but Garneau suggested the Tories "who have always been large spenders" would be squeezed with smaller margins to maneuver with if the economy contracts and jobs are lost.

"This is going to be the first time that this government is really tested with regard to its economic competence, " the Liberal MP predicted.

The Conservatives didn't see the recession coming in 2008 and downplayed its effects, Garneau added.

"It wasn't until the Opposition pushed them from a stimulus package that they brought one in. So hopefully, they have learned their lessons and will not be dogmatic and will react quickly and intelligently to an evolving economic situation."

TRIBUTES TO LAYTON, CAMERON VISITS

When the House of Commons opens its doors Monday for its 307 MPs, the first order of business will be tributes to the late NDP leader Jack Layton. The party leaders are all expected to give short speeches.

Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to New York City for two days of meetings. He will participate in a high-level meeting on Libya, attend a UN event hosted by the Secretary-General titled Every Woman Every Child, and he will take part in a business roundtable hosted by the New York Stock Exchange.

The Prime Minister's planned absence irked Mulcair who called it a "lack of respect" for Parliamentary institutions.

"It is a well-planned and timed Parliamentary session for him to start absenting himself and it is an indication of a lack of respect for Parliament," he said.

Van Loan, however, defended his boss, saying that minority governments had kept Harper from playing a leading role on the world stage.

"Minority parliaments meant that ministers and the Prime Minister were really tied down and couldn't afford to be away because of votes coming. I think now, when you think of Libya, that is a tremendous success story … and that mission was lead by a Canadian," he said.

Harper, however, will be back Thursday when British Prime Minister David Cameron visits Ottawa and addresses a joint session of Parliament.