Return of Parliament

The Top Line

The Federal House of Commons resumes sitting today, while the Senate will return on February 8, kicking off the first substantial session of Parliament under the Liberal government elected in September 2021.

In an interview over the weekend, the Prime Minister identified the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, action on climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, affordable housing, and supporting the cultural sector as his major policy priorities for this session of Parliament, which will run until June.

In the immediate term, however, the return of Parliament comes against the backdrop of a protest movement that arrived in Ottawa this weekend, blockading the Parliamentary precinct with vehicles. Erin O’Toole and some members of his Caucus have echoed the convoy’s frustration with the Trudeau government and its vaccine mandates, while distancing themselves from extremist elements of the protest. Conversely, the Liberals are eager to highlight extremist participants in the convoy and are confident that the politics of vaccines are on their side. Since some convoy participants have pledged to remain in place until most of the public health measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic are removed, the narrative around the protest will dominate at least the first week of this session.

But, while the convoy dominated the political discussion this weekend, the more potent political issue that hangs above this Parliamentary session and more directly threatens the Liberal Party’s public support is inflation. The current national inflation rate is 4.7%, which is the highest rate since February 2003. To-date, the Government has left the Bank of Canada to respond to this issue, a slow process that will only really kick into high gear when the Central Bank raises interest rates in March. At the moment, the Liberals are focused on the public policy challenges around inflation, not the political dynamics. That approach risks making them appear aloof to voter anxiety about the cost of living. For example, the Liberals’ major communications response to the issue so far – trying to tie policies that pre-date serious inflation concerns (e.g., Federal-Provincial agreements on subsidized childcare) to the politics of the cost of living – was not effective. Managing the public narrative on inflation and seeking to look in control of the matter will be a major political priority for the Government over the coming months. The Supply Chain Summit beginning today, held collaboratively by five Federal Ministers, is the first major example of that work, and stakeholders should expect more, similar initiatives to come.

A Deeper Dive

House of Commons Procedure

The current operating orders for the House of Commons, which do not expire until June, allow Members of Parliament to participate remotely in all proceedings. During the brief sitting of Parliament in December, every party sent a contingent of MPs to participate in-person, but both the Liberals and NDP have indicated that they will send only a few MPs to the House for the foreseeable future. Stakeholders should expect all Parliamentary proceedings to be predominantly remote for at least the coming few months.

At this point, however, the Liberals are most preoccupied with ensuring that their legislative agenda passes through the House more quickly and smoothly than was the case during the last Parliament, when the Conservatives in particular used House procedure to slow the passage of Government Bills to a crawl.

During this session of Parliament, look for the Liberals to appeal directly to the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to support measures to limit debate and force votes on Bills if and when the Conservatives use such tactics again. How often and consistently the NDP and Bloc are willing to do so will be decisive in determining how productive the Government can be in terms of passing legislation during this session of Parliament. Politically, the NDP and Bloc face a delicate balancing act on this matter; not wanting to be seen by their base as supporting the Government in exchange for nothing, but also needing to deliver for their stakeholders by moving forward on policy priorities that they share with the Government.

The Liberals are also moving to ensure that Opposition-controlled committees are manageable during the coming months. After Election 2019, many committees – usually on the initiative of Conservative MPs – launched investigations of government missteps or held up the passage of Government legislation. Notably though, during the December sitting of Parliament, the Liberals partnered with other parties to pass a motion that changes the rules for triggering an emergency meeting of a committee so that, instead of any four members of the committee being able to compel a meeting, it now takes four members from at least two different parties to do so. While House committees will continue to be a distraction for the Government, the rule change could make that situation less severe, since now no Opposition Party can act alone to control the proceedings of a committee.

The Government’s Legislative Agenda

The Government has not identified specific Bills that it wants to pass before the summer recess of Parliament. However, the following issues, all of which appeared in the Liberal Party Election 2021 platform and all of which the Government has been working on during the Christmas recess of Parliament, are likely to be prioritized:

  • A Digital Charter:  The Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry is leading the development of legislation to create a Digital Charter – rules for the ways that Canadians’ data can be used as a resource for products and services and what protections companies must provide for users’ data. Minister Champagne has repeatedly indicated that he wants these rules in place as soon as possible, so expect him to act quickly upon the return of Parliament. Closely tied to this issue is the Minister’s now overdue decision about if Huawei will be allowed to participate in Canada’s 5G networks – which could spur new geo-political challenges for Canada.
  • Broadcasting Act Reform: The Liberal election platform promised to reform the Broadcasting Act to “ensure foreign web giants contribute to the creation and promotion of Canadian stories and music”. Nearly-identical legislation, known as Bill C-10, was debated by the last Parliament, but failed to pass due to a combination of controversy over elements of the legislation that would have imposed new requirements on content creators and the decision by the Liberal Party to call an election. Expect the new version of this legislation to be introduced soon and for it to be highly scrutinized over how it balances regulation of online platforms and other broadcasters with creator rights.
  • Official Languages: The Official Languages Act has not been updated in 30 years. A major element of the reforms promised during Election 2021 by the Liberals is new recognitions for Indigenous languages.

Budget 2022

Finance Canada and the line departments have begun work on the Budget, including ongoing dialogues between the Office of the Minister of Finance and other Ministerial offices about spending priorities. The official Finance Canada pre-budget consultations have not yet opened, and, overall, the Budget development process has been delayed and slow compared to prior years. However, stakeholders should move to engage Finance Canada and other departments about spending issues immediately.

The current wave of COVID-19 infections will have a large impact on the content of the Budget, since it’s unlikely that the Omicron wave will have fully receded by March. If the Government does not feel like the pandemic is under relative control by the time that the Budget is tabled, the communications for the Budget will focus predominantly on fighting the pandemic. However, stakeholders should also expect the Budget to have a strong focus on climate change and housing. And if the pandemic is steadily improving by March, look for the Budget to be more ambitious and forward looking as a whole.

Notably, housing is turning into a major political issue for the Government, as housing prices have risen beyond any reasonable definition of affordability in most cities and the Government has yet to make noticeable progress on eliminating homelessness. The Minister of Housing is currently holding consultations on a Housing Accelerator Fund, which would aim to help municipalities build housing more quickly, and a rent-to-own policy. Expect both those policies to be further detailed in Budget 2022.

2030 Emissions Reduction Plan

As mandated by the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act that was passed by the last Parliament, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change must table Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan in Parliament by the end of March. To inform that plan, consultations on several climate-related issues are currently open, including: Zero emission vehicles sales mandates, emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles, capping emissions from the oil and gas sector at current levels and requiring that they decline thereafter, a plan to reduce methane emissions, and transitioning to a net-zero electricity grid by 2035.

Taken alone, any of those issues is transformative for the Canadian economy and national emissions. However, the issue to watch most closely for political reasons is the Government’s commitment to cap and eventually reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector, so that they decline at a pace and scale needed to get to net zero by 2050. Any moves by the Liberals to act on that issue will attract fierce opposition from the Federal Conservatives and Conservative Premiers, especially those in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Yet, many Liberal supporters and the NDP and Bloc will be pushing the Government to act quickly on that issue and highlighting the climate commitments made recently at COP26. No matter what, the emissions cap policy development process will be a years-long, politically challenging initiative.

What This Means for You

Stakeholders should expect a busy session of Parliament, and for the Liberals to put forward an ambitious legislative agenda. For minority governments, the first year of sittings is often when the most actual legislating can be accomplished, before election maneuvering takes precedence and inter-Party relations sour. As such, stakeholders should be engaging early and often during the coming months to inform the policymaking for their issues.

Also, for that reason, it’s important to the Liberals that they make Parliament “work”, and that’s why this note highlighted at length the procedural angles for doing so. While these procedural issues can be dry, TSA believes that they will have a profound impact on how much legislation and what types of legislation gets passed during this session of Parliament. If the above maneuvers are successful and sustained, they will also reduce the amount of time that the Government spends on responding to Opposition motions and requests for government documents – something which monopolized the attention of Liberal staffers and Cabinet during the last Parliament.

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