01/30/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 03/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Parliament Resumes: Budget, Pensions To Be Focus For MPs

OTTAWA - A winter parliamentary session that many have predicted will be a donnybrook began Monday with the gloves still on, and the only jersey askew being an old powder blue sweater vest.

The benign, Ward Cleaver image Prime Minister Stephen Harper cultivated in a previous election campaign is gone, warned Peter Julian, the NDP finance critic.

"Very, very clearly, this government has taken off the sweater vests," Julian said.

"They've taken off any pretence of moderation and a responsible approach to public policy."

The Conservative government, which spent last fall clearing a number of long-standing legislative promises, wades into 2012 giving clear signals of a more far-reaching agenda.

Harper's mini throne speech, delivered to a business audience in Davos, Switzerland, last week, set the stage for a bruising winter.

With deep spending cuts, pension reform, a new copyright act, changes to environmental assessment reviews, an end to the long-gun registry and tough criminal justice reforms all on deck, the opposition will have plenty to chirp about.

Nycole Turmel, the NDP's interim leader, took a rhetorical suicide run at Harper's majority last week, vowing to make the looming spring budget the "fight of my life."

Asked about a fight that — numerically in the House of Commons, at least — the NDP simply can't win, Julian said it's a battle for public opinion.

"For the Conservatives to say 'we just don't care about public opinion' for the next few years, I think would be a primary mistake. I don't think they're that stupid," he said.

But as hard as New Democrats and Liberals are working to pull the sweater over Tory heads and lay on a beating, the anticipated brawl has yet to materialize.

The Conservative caucus was a relaxed, chatty and mild-mannered bunch in the Commons, appearing almost bored by the opposition attacks during Monday's long, dreary question period to open the winter sitting.

Harper set the tone, responding placidly with studied hand gestures to every fresh provocation.

"This government received a mandate to gradually reduce our deficit to zero," he intoned in both official languages, to several separate questions. "We will do that while protecting the social programs that Canadians cherish."

That said, Harper added the ambiguous addendum that is driving the opposition to distraction: "At the same time, we will ensure that our vital programs are sustainable for the long term and for future generations."

All signals point to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty rolling out the kind of tough, transformative budget that Liberal Paul Martin unveiled in 1995 early in Jean Chretien's first majority government. The Conservatives may be betting that short memories and an improving economy — and perhaps a reopened federal spending spigot come 2014 — will be enough to win over voters angered by this year's tough medicine.

"We have eight billion, around eight billion (dollars) to find in the next budget," Maxime Bernier, confirmed on the way into a morning cabinet meeting. "I think we'll be able to find that looking in our own expenses, in our own programs."

The $8 billion in spending cuts now appear to be a floor, rather than the ceiling that was suggested when the government was initially promising a slow ramp-up to $4 billion in annual savings from program review.

Such deep cuts will rattle the public service and affect some government service delivery, but it is Harper's Davos promise to tackle Old Age Security that is raising the most ire.

"Absolutely not, he doesn’t have a mandate," thundered interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, conveniently forgetting a long line of governments that have saved the tough medicine until after election day.

Until Flaherty delivers his budget, the exact nature of any pension changes can only be guessed at.

"All seniors should rest assured those who are collecting OAS today will continue to collect it without any change," Peter Van Loan, the Tory House leader, said Monday.

"Our focus is on the medium and the long term and ensuring the sustainability of the system for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now."

It's been a steady Conservative refrain, but it hasn't stopped the opposition from accusing Harper of throwing granny under the bus.

What seems clear from the government pronouncements to date is that opposition MPs should really be championing 30- and 40- and 50-year-olds, who appear more likely to feel the future pension bite of any Conservative reforms.

But seniors vote en masse, and have time enough to devote a great deal of energy to public policy questions — making them irresistible for politicians of all stripes.

"I believe the seniors will rise to this issue and the government will back down," Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux predicted Monday as he arrived on Parliament Hill.

Judging by Monday's parliamentary performance, it's not safe bet.

The Conservatives won't target today's seniors, who vote predominantly blue, while those most vulnerable to pension changes — the middle-aged working poor — could be all but forgotten.

There seems something inexorable, like the tide, about the Conservative agenda. Even if it leaves an old sweater vest floating in the flotsam.

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