Political games set to renew with throne speech
OTTAWA - Let the political games begin -- again.
Amid the afterglow of Olympic euphoria, Stephen Harper's Conservatives will launch a new parliamentary session this week aimed at steering the country through a fragile economic recovery.
When he decided to delay Parliament five weeks beyond its scheduled Jan. 25 reopening, the prime minister may have hoped that lingering patriotic fervour from the Vancouver Winter Games would spill over onto his government.
Instead the Tories return to work locked in a dead heat with the Liberals, their pre-Christmas lead in opinion polls frittered away amid the public outcry over Harper's decision to suspend Parliament.
While they're keeping their election sabres sheathed for now, opposition parties are hoping to continue stoking those prorogation fires even after Parliament gets back to work.
Harper maintained the extended break was necessary to "recalibrate" the government's agenda as it makes the transition from a stimulative spending binge to post-recession deficit reduction.
Now the pressure is on to demonstrate in Wednesday's throne speech and Thursday's budget just what the government has been doing with its extra Parliament-free time.
Already, Tories are signalling there'll be no big new spending or tax measures in what is expected to be essentially a stand-pat budget. It will continue with the second phase of the economic action plan unveiled in last year's budget, including $19 billion in stimulus spending, and outline a longterm plan, starting next year, for reducing the record $56 billion deficit.
And that has opposition members wondering why the government needed any time off.
"All of the signals from the government (suggest) they are labouring mightily and coming forth with a mouse," Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale said in an interview.
"So what was all this recalibration about? Not much it would appear."
But Tories maintain the government has put the extended break to good use, even if it doesn't produce any big surprises in either the throne speech or budget.
Kory Teneycke, a former communications director for Harper, said prorogation has given the government "breathing space" from the daily election-jockeying of a minority Parliament to do some long-term planning for an economy which is at "a bit of a crossroads."
"We're into recovery, there's another year of stimulus spending that needs to be rolled out but the agenda then shifts to trying to bring the budget back into balance and doing it in a way that doesn't stall economic growth," Teneycke said in an interview.
"It's not something you do on a long weekend. It's a long and involved process."
But as far as the opposition is concerned, the absence of any dramatically new agenda proves Harper prorogued Parliament for other reasons. Namely, to shut down an opposition-driven investigation into allegations that prisoners captured by Canadian soliders were routinely tortured by Afghan authorities.
On that issue, all three opposition parties intend to pick up precisely where they left off before Christmas. They are demanding that Harper abide by a motion, approved shortly before Parliament broke, ordering the government to produce all the uncensored documents related to the Afghan detainee controversy.
The government has so far refused to comply -- risking being found in contempt of Parliament and potentially sparking a constitutional crisis. However, opposition parties are treading carefully, refusing to speculate on their next move should the government continue to thumb its nose at the will of Parliament.
Teneycke predicted the opposition will ultimately back down because Canadians "by and large do not care" about "a four year old story about Taliban prisoners."
"If they want to have an election on this issue, I would just say bring it."
However, Bloc Quebecois House Leader Pierre Paquette is encouraged by the fact that the government has agreed to quickly reconstitute the special committee on Afghanistan, which had been spearheading the investigation into the detainee controversy. He sees that as a sign the government will capitulate on the documents as well.
"If they want to work with some efficiency in the House, they have to understand they are a minority government and they have to work with the opposition," Paquette said in an interview.
Layton isn't so sure about that.
The NDP leader managed to wring a few small concessions from Harper last fall in return for ensuring the government's survival. But after a recent meeting with the prime minister to lay out the NDP's budget priorities, he found little "receptivity" to his ideas, particularly his call for cancellation of scheduled corporate tax cuts.
While he stressed the NDP prefers to keep Parliament working, Layton said Harper will have to demonstrate a willingness to collaborate if he wants to avoid an election this spring.
"It all depends what he does in the budget," Layton said in an interview.
"Will (Tories) show up and poke everybody in the eye and try to provoke an election or will they recognize that the different parties have brought forward important ideas, some of which need to be incorporated in the budget?"
Goodale said Harper has not met with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff nor have there been any House leaders' meetings to discuss priorities for the new session -- "not a good omen" for a collaborative session.
He said Liberals will wait to see the throne speech and budget -- both of which will entail a series of confidence votes -- before determining whether to support the government.
But Goodale added: "We're not pushing for an election."