October 26, 2015 3:03 pm
Updated: October 26, 2015 5:15 pm

Parliament postponed: What Canada’s new Liberal government could – and couldn’t – tackle without oversight

WATCH: Liberal MP Ralph Goodale says it's unlikely parliament will meet before Christmas.

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Liberal MP Ralph Goodale says a new Liberal government, set to be sworn in next week, probably won’t recall Parliament until January.

That’s obviously hypothetical: We won’t know when Parliament sits again until after the new cabinet’s sworn in.

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But the Liberals are allowed to hold off. Technically they have to call Parliament back less than a year after it rose, which gives prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau until June.

But if Parliament doesn’t sit until January that’ll mean six months without Parliamentary oversight.

And, notes University of Waterloo politics professor Emmett Macfarlane, it’ll put an ambitious Liberal legislative platform on hold. No new laws until the House of Commons reconvenes.

“The longer we go without Parliament sitting, the more acute accountability issues arise,” he said.

“There’s a whole legislative agenda that emanates from the Liberal platform. … What’s the hold-up?”

On the one hand, postponing Parliament delays changes the Liberals have argued are critical.

On the other, it leaves a government and cabinet in charge without formal checks in place.

Canada doesn’t get put on hold while the House isn’t sitting. Day-to-day business keeps going and, as of Nov. 4, Justin Trudeau will be prime minister and his cabinet members will be able to make ministerial decisions.

And there’s a lot they’ll have to deal with before Christmas — with or without Parliamentary oversight.

Refugees

Trudeau has said he wants to bring in 25,000 new Syrian refugees by the end of the year. And the party’s sticking to that line.

That means resettling 10 times the number of Syrians Canada resettled in two years within two months — do-able, but hardly an easy task. Will the yet-to-be-named immigration minister sign orders to expedite refugee processing? Will Canada airlift refugees directly from Syria, or refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey? What kind of resettlement resources will this require?

There’s also the question of refugee health care: The Liberals have vowed to reverse cuts to Canada’s Interim Federal Health Program — cuts a court called “cruel and unusual.” Will they do that before the end of the year and before a new influx of refugees in need of care? If it requires changes to laws, that may have to wait.

ISIS

Trudeau has already told U.S. President Barack Obama he intends to end Canada’s bombing mission in Iraq and Syria. But there’s no timeline for withdrawal yet. The Conservative government’s commitment lasts through March 2016 — will a Liberal government cut that short? If so, by how much, and would this decision be made unilaterally?

Presumably Trudeau’s plan to shift Canada’s military resources to focus on training Iraqi troops can wait until Parliament sits again. But we don’t know for sure.

Citizenship revocation

Trudeau has said he’d repeal the aspects of C-24 that allow the government to unilaterally revoke the citizenship of Canadians convicted of terrorism.

This is more than a theoretical legislative issue: Multiple people are fighting citizenship revocations in court. Will a new Trudeau cabinet immediately end plans to revoke their citizenship, and reverse the revocation of one man’s citizenship? Will a new justice minister unilaterally repeal all or part of the law? We don’t know.

“Theoretically, in any ongoing legal challenge to the law, the government could make the decision it’s not going to contest that. And we might see a court then make summary judgment that the law is invalid,” Macfarlane said.

“I’m not sure there’s a lot of precedent for that. And I think it’s preferable to see Parliament actually amend the law rather than just having the Attorney General lie down on a legal challenge like that.”

Assisted suicide

The Criminal Code prohibition on physician-assisted death expires Feb. 6, 2016.

That doesn’t leave much time for federal and provincial governments to fill the legislative vacuum that appears almost inevitable: Which health care practitioners are allowed to assist in a suicide? Are health practitioners who don’t want to help someone die obliged to refer them to someone who will? What if a person has a physician willing to help but the institution where the person is staying doesn’t want the death to take place there?

READ MORE: Is Canada ready for physician-assisted death?

But even that limited time for a House of Commons committee to meet would be better than not having that committee at all, Macfarlane said.

“Weeks of investigation is a lot better than none,” he said.

“There’s all sorts of things they can do with a few weeks before the Christmas break so they can come back in the new year to finalize something.”

Right now Canada’s on track to face a murky legislative patchwork, at best. There are two ongoing consultation processes — one initiated by the Conservative federal government, the other a partnership between provinces — attempting to get a sense of what physician-assisted death might look like in Canada.

The new federal government may ask the Supreme Court for an extension, but hasn’t yet — and won’t until after cabinet’s sworn in next week.

Climate change

The Paris summit won’t wait for Canada’s Parliament to act. Trudeau and opposition party leaders will head France-wards this fall to talk climate change and what Canada can do to help mitigate it. The prime minister-designate has promised a national strategy within 90 days of this summit, which would mean shortly after Parliament sits.

Missing and murdered aboriginal women

Trudeau promised to launch a national inquiry within his first 100 days. It isn’t clear whether he’d take this to the House of Commons to debate its structure, makeup and mandate.

Long-form census

The clock is ticking if the Liberal government wants to reinstate a long-form census by next year.

It’s do-able, former chief statisticians have said. But Statistics Canada will want to get started on it right away.

Reverting to the long-form census would probably require Parliament to sit, Macfarlane said. But in the meantime the Liberals could at least give Statistics Canada a formal head’s up.

“This is actually going to be a lot of work.”

“I don’t want to go so far as to say an extra two months of Parliament not sitting is this egregious problem or that it delegitimitizes everything the government does until then,” Macfarlane said.

“But I do wonder why they would see this as necessary. There’s no reason Parliament can’t be called back in the next couple weeks and a host of things can get some momentum.”

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