09/19/2011 05:22 EDT | Updated 11/19/2011 05:12 EST

MPs return to Ottawa; sharply polarized Parliament expected

OTTAWA - Few ties bind Members of Parliament but as the House of Commons returned Monday, all briefly united to remember the NDP's late leader Jack Layton.

But the common bond quickly devolved into a Gordian knot befitting the political tug of war that will continue throughout the fall session.

The new legislative agenda of the majority Conservatives will be rolled out Tuesday, beginning with the re-introduction of a bundle of crime bills whose unknown cost to the public purse sparked the last election.

The Safe Streets and Communities act will be an omnibus piece of legislation that will increase the number of mandatory minimum sentences, eliminate house arrest for violent offences, hike the cost of applying for a criminal record suspension and a host of other measures.

Experts say crime is at historic lows in Canada and the tougher measures will hike the cost of the justice system while doing nothing to deter criminals. The arguments don't deter the Tories.

"Crime is still far too high in this country," Peter Van Loan, the government House leader, declared Monday. "Our agenda is to make our communities safer. That is what our comprehensive crime bill will seek to do and I believe it has the strong support of Canadians."

Majority Liberal and NDP opposition in the last Parliament always threatened to derail individual crime bills — although the Conservatives appeared content to exact a political price from their tormenters while letting much of the legislation languish.

Now, as the opposition ramps up the rhetoric against the crime measures, the government is free to pass them at will.

With their political majority firmly in hand, for the Tories the 41st Parliament is partially about making good on long-time promises.

Abolishing the gun registry and dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board's marketing monopoly in the West are both on their agenda, as is a bill to add seats in the Commons.

The future of the wheat board sparked Monday's only raucous debate in the Commons, with a back-and-forth between the Liberals and Conservatives prompting shouts and finger-pointing from both sides.

Throughout the day, NDP MPs remained calm in their seats, fulfilling a pledge to keep the atmosphere in the House civil as a tribute to their late leader.

"Jack Layton improved the tone of the debate in Parliament," said interim Leader Nycole Turmel. "He firmly believed we could have passionate disagreements without being disrespectful or disgraceful to each other.

"Let us now honour his memory by conducting the next session of Parliament in this spirit. Let us always put the interests of Canadians before our own partisan interests, as Jack Layton would want us to do."

The day he revealed he was diagnosed with a new form of cancer, Layton had promised to be in the House when it returned on Monday. He died Aug. 22.

Turmel stood in his stead for question period, an empty chair beside her.

All three parties intend to focus on job creation during this session and Turmel used her first two questions to press the prime minister on the issue, accusing the government of wearing rose-coloured glasses when it comes to the economy.

Not enough jobs have been created to replace those lost during the recession, she said.

"More and more Canadians are giving up."

The Tories say they've created 600,000 new jobs and there are more Canadians working now than before the economy tanked in 2008. Their majority, they argue, is a reflection by voters of well Canada weathered those storms.

Things have changed in the economic climate since June, the Liberals charged, and it's time for a fresh approach.

But with the Commons buried under the weight of debate on a bill to combat human smuggling and the coming omnibus crime bill, Liberal Leader Bob Rae wondered when anyone will find the time for economic leadership.

"You say we're really focusing on the economy? Where's the legislation dealing on the economy? I don't see it," said Rae.

The Conservatives have balked at introducing any new stimulus spending as they maintain a promise to eliminate the deficit by 2014, although Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently said some "flexibility" might be necessary.