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Opinion

What to watch this parliamentary sitting

By Tim Powers      

The last pre-election budget, a contested environmental assessment bill, and the Burnaby South byelection are all on politicos’ radars.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with reporters next to the portrait of his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, before Question Period on Jan. 28, in the House’s new home in West Block. The PM started off Day 1 of the winter sitting on the defensive after he fired his ambassador to China the weekend before. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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OTTAWA—Parliamentarians have returned to Ottawa for their last sitting prior to this year’s federal election. The theatrics of what happens in the House of Commons are often overstated when trying to analyze what election outcomes might look like. For example, just before the last election then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair was seen as a master of the House and Justin Trudeau a minnow. The minnow became prime minister and the master a political pundit.

Speaking of the prime minister, he is probably not delighted about the way this last dash has begun. Over the weekend he had to fire John McCallum, his own appointee as Canada’s ambassador to China, for twice making ill-conceived public comments at a time when our relationship with China is precarious. Trudeau started off Day 1 on the defensive, as the opposition tried to make the state of affairs with China more about the prime minister’s competence than the ambassador’s mouth. Competence and connection to the public, not unlike the 2015 campaign, will be centre stage again during Question Period over the dwindling days of this session.

In line with the theme of ‘what is old is new again,’ the first editions of the 2019 House of Commons Hansard will record that the prime minister still believes he is battling Stephen Harper, and Andrew Scheer, the official opposition leader, thinks Trudeau is a spoiled rich kid detached from reality. I suppose such predictability is more appetizing than getting a dose of the discourse out of the United States. But I’m not sure it does much to advance what should be the bigger issues of the day: like truly finding a balance between energy and the environment; or figuring out how we remain competitive in a fractured, potentially inward-looking world.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh wasn’t in Ottawa when this new round kicked off because he is out trying to punch his ticket to town by winning a byelection in Burnaby South, B.C. That is arguably one of the most important things to watch in the calendar. If Singh loses, you can consider the NDP in a full-blown crisis. If he reigns victorious, gets a regular place on the national stage, and holds his caucus together, the public perception of the NDP on life support may temporarily dissipate.

Sometime this winter or early spring will usher in the Liberal government’s last budget of its mandate. Who will be rewarded? Who will be punished? Finance Minister Bill Morneau, not the government’s best communicator, will get a final chance to jazz up his party’s re-election chances. This will be a central moment. It will spell out to some degree the Liberals’ game plan for continuing control of the House.

What happens to Bill C-69 is one of the must-views of the last days of this Parliament. The bill, which would change the federal environmental assessment process, has become the biggest domestic lightning rod or tool of transformation, depending on where you sit, for the Trudeau government. Some view it as a grand bargain with Satan, while others see it as divine intervention to save the planet. The Liberals need to pick a lane and a winning narrative. The Conservatives see attacking this and challenging the government’s carbon-pricing plan as two of the most prominent weapons in their arsenal. This will be one 69 that is unlikely to produce a lot of gratification.

One good thing did happen with Parliament’s relaunch. All the parties did get together to unanimously consent to a motion that Paul Henderson, the Team Canada player who scored the winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union, finally be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hockey is potent and powerful in forging consensus, even in an election year where gross misconduct is the order of the day.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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