OTTAWA – A number of major themes echoed through the turbulent fall session of Parliament that comes to an end this week. Here is a quick look at some of them:
Politics: With the next scheduled federal election less than a year away, the Conservatives were working to hold their majority, while the New Democrats pondered byelection omens and the Liberals piled their political eggs in Justin Trudeau’s basket.
There were six byelections held in June and November, and the Conservatives held onto four seats — despite the oft-repeated maxim that byelections tend to go against a party in power. The Liberals held one and picked up another. The NDP, however, saw popular support plummet. The party finished second in Trinity-Spadina, which they had won with 54.5 per cent of the vote in 2011. In Whitby-Oshawa, the party fell to 8.1 per cent of the vote from 22.3.
Finance: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government touted the imminent return to a budget surplus, while rolling out a series of targeted goodies, including a new child benefit, tax breaks and income-splitting for families, EI premium cuts for small business and new infrastructure spending pledges. Plunging oil prices are a growing cloud on the government horizon, however.
The NDP and Tom Mulcair pledged to bring in a multibillion-dollar program of $15-a-day child care. That came just before Quebec announced changes to its own cherished $7-a-day program, saying it would jack up prices in a sliding scale.
Trudeau condemned income-splitting, but was short on details of his own plans. He did say he wants to stress infrastructure and help for the middle class as the basis of his fiscal policies. He suggested Harper’s tax breaks are wrong and that he might reverse some.
Terror: Terrorism re-emerged as a political issue in the fall with the brutal rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and disturbing attacks at home. The Conservatives dispatched six CF-18 fighter-bombers to participate in air strikes against ISIL. This came over the objections of the NDP and Liberals, who both argued for more humanitarian aid and against military action. Trudeau scorned Harper’s use of jets as a macho gesture.
Attacks in Quebec and Ottawa which left two soldiers dead and saw a shootout in the Centre Block of Parliament sparked a debate over what constitutes terrorism. Were the attacks the work of deranged individuals, as the opposition argued, or terrorist-inspired assaults which should be warnings for the future, as the government claimed?
Scandals: Anonymous accusations of misconduct, which led Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to suspend two of his MPs, sparked an onerous discussion of harassment on Parliament Hill and how to deal with it. The debate sits stalled, with no clear way forward and two political careers in limbo.
The government’s handling of veterans benefits had the opposition demanding that Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino resign or be fired. Each government effort to extricate itself from the political mire just seemed to dig it in deeper.
An April trial date was set for disgraced Sen. Mike Duffy on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. That will resurrect the whole Senate expense scandal just five months before the scheduled election.
Foreign Affairs: Although Harper has long been accused of ignoring foreign policy and scorning the United Nations, the autumn saw his stock rise internationally. Amid Russian aggression against Ukraine, Harper travelled to Kyiv to show his support and won international notice for a public rebuke of Russia’s Vladimir Putin at a summit in Australia.
He and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird worked behind the scenes as Michaelle Jean was selected to lead the Francophonie. The government also contributed money, vaccines, equipment and people to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The opposition nagged about some details, but generally left the government’s foreign efforts alone.