OTTAWA - They're ba-a-a-ck.
MPs return to Parliament on Monday with the spectre of the Senate expenses scandal still hovering over the Harper government.
The government says it intends to remain focused on the economy, with next month's budget the centrepiece of the winter sitting.
But New Democrats and Liberals believe the ongoing RCMP investigation and potential charges against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff and four senators will keep the government firmly mired in the Senate scandal, as it was for most of last year.
Moreover, the opposition parties contend government efforts to redirect attention to the economy — the Conservatives' perceived strong suit — could backfire as sluggish growth and rising unemployment put paid to the government's mantra that Canada's economy is performing better than any other G7 country.
They suspect the government is intending to pick a fight with public sector unions in a bid to shore up the Conservative base and deflect attention from the Senate quagmire.
"They just came from one of the worst years they've ever had in 2013," says NDP House leader Nathan Cullen. "I only assume they're going to try to hit that magical reset button, whatever it is."
Harper tried repeatedly to change the channel last year — a cabinet shuffle, a throne speech, a free trade deal with the European Union. But nothing stopped the relentless mushrooming of the Senate scandal, which enveloped Harper's office with the revelation that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally paid Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 so that he could reimburse the Senate for allegedly fraudulent living expense claims.
Bombshell RCMP documents filed in court indicate more than a dozen top players in the Prime Minister's Office, Senate leadership and Conservative party were involved in a deal to protect Duffy, interfere with an independent audit of his expenses and whitewash a Senate report on his conduct.
Cullen expects the juicy revelations to continue.
"To this point, the RCMP seem to be very focused and unafraid to go right into the heart of power because what we're talking about it not just fraud but bribing a public official and all these things."
Wright said last year that he is confident his actions were lawful and that he acted within the scope of his duties.
Duffy said last year he was coaxed into accepting the $90,000 from Wright, despite written assurances that he had broken no rules.
Deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale similarly predicts the government will be "as much mired in ethical issues as ever."
While the opposition parties may intend to remain focused on the scandal, Government House leader Peter Van Loan maintains that's not what Canadians care about. During budget consultations over the break, he says he found people concerned about bread and butter issues, "entirely different from what you hear from the opposition in question period."
Not surprisingly, he says the government will "continue to focus on the economy and job creation and long-term prosperity," with a budget that will continue to whittle down the deficit with the goal of eliminating it altogether in 2015, which happens to be an election year.
Van Loan boasts that Canada is the only G7 country that has more business investment now than it did prior to the 2008 recession — a result, he says, of the government's low tax policy and pursuit of free trade agreements.
"That's one reason why we've had over 1 million net new jobs and the strongest job creation record of any of those new economies."
However, opposition parties contend the government may regret urging Canadians to scrutinize its economic record.
"They assume that the economy is an issue that works for them. Well, not necessarily," says Goodale.
He argues that economic growth under Harper has been the slowest since R.B. Bennett was prime minister during the Great Depression. And, he says, the International Monetary Fund is projecting below average growth for Canada over the next five years.
Rising unemployment, record household debt, ballooning trade deficit — "those are all bad indicators," says Cullen.
"We're under-performing the U.S. dramatically now ... We're not doing better than any other G7 country."
So if the economy isn't the channel changer the government is hoping for, what else might it do to deflect attention from the Senate scandal?
Van Loan says the government will continue its "tackling crime agenda," including introduction of a victims' bill of rights and another new bill cracking down on child sex offenders. It also intends to "strengthen the value of citizenship" with an overhaul of the Citizenship Act.
To Cullen, that sounds "completely underwhelming." He suspects the government may try to do something more dramatic, like declaring "total war" on public sector unions.
With contract negotiations slated with bargaining units for some 100,000 public servants this year, Treasury Board President Tony Clement has signalled his intention to roll back public sector wages and benefits to private sector standards.
As well, two controversial Conservative private members' bills are still in the legislative hopper, one aimed at forcing unions to disclose their finances and the other aimed at making it harder to certify and easier to decertify a union shop.
"They want to find an enemy to vilify and organized labour has already been singled out by them as a punching bag that they're willing to pillory" says Goodale.
Not only does it play well with rank and file Conservatives, Goodale says going to war with unions would help burnish the image of the NDP, which has stalled while Liberals rebounded in the polls over the past year, as the primary defender of organized labour.
"One of their tactics will continue to be divide and conquer (the opposition parties)," he says.
"The Conservatives will want to prop up the NDP. Picking a fight with them is a way to do it."
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