Sound and fury

Plenty of posturing, but not much else, as Parliament reopens

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The Gazette, Monday, September 18, 2006

It's back to school today for the minority Parliament, and it promises to be a session, in Shakespearean terms, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

There will be no shortage of posturing, but it won't mean anything because the government isn't going to fall, or arrange for its own defeat in this fall session. That won't happen before next winter or spring on the budget.

But the House will be a noisy place, starting with the tabling of the Softwood Lumber Agreement, signed with the United States last week. The government regards it as a confidence measure, but because the Bloc Quebecois is supporting it, has no worries about losing the vote in the House.

The Bloc is supporting it because the Quebec government supports it, because the industry in Quebec supports it and even the trade unions support it. In Quebec, that constitutes a political consensus, with which the Bloc had to fall into line.

That leaves the NDP free to denounce the agreement, with no concern about triggering a fall election. As for the Liberals, they obviously have no appetite for an election before their leadership convention in December. They are also in an awkward position on softwood in that the deal is supported by Liberal governments in three producing provinces - British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario - that account for 90 per cent of our softwood-lumber exports to the United States. Under the circumstances, it's in the interest of the Liberals to give softwood a pass.

Three issues are likely to dominate the session - climate change, the fiscal imbalance and Canada's mission to Afghanistan.

The Harper government's climate-change package was initially to have been introduced at the beginning of the session, but that has now been rolled back to the first week of October, likely just before the Thanksgiving break.

The government has successfully changed the conversation from Kyoto to climate change, but now comes the part about delivering on its promise for a made-in-Canada plan to address it. The focus is on air and water - a Clean Air Act is the centrepiece of the package, which has been dubbed Green Plan II, echoing the Mulroney government's environmental package in the early 1990s. This is an important test of the Harper government's ability to manage an issue that resonates big time with mainstream voters. Positioning the climate-change package, and soliciting endorsements of it, will equally be a test of the government's strategic communications abilities.

The fiscal imbalance - the discrepancy between Ottawa's fiscal capacity to fund services and the provinces' ability to provide them - appears less daunting than it was when Harper took office promising to redress it. For one thing, the provinces couldn't agree among themselves on whether the imbalance should be addressed in a new equalization formula to eight provinces, or higher transfer payments to all of them. Since it's Ottawa's money anyway, Harper gets to call the shot and is likely to choose an enhanced equalization formula that will allow him and Jean Charest to say, "problem solved."

The Afghanistan mission is one that sees a House very much divided, but not so much that the government would fall over it. Here again, the Bloc is supporting the mission, with certain reservations, and wants a full debate on the offensive nature of it.

From the left, the NDP adopted a resolution at its Quebec City convention calling for the immediate withdrawal of Canada's 2,200 troops from Afghanistan. This is a policy of cut and run, in which Canada would turn its back not only on the Afghan government, but its NATO allies. But in political terms, it's a pincer move, with the NDP squeezing the Liberals from the left, while the Conservatives adhere to a stay-the-course position on the right. The Liberals remain deeply divided in opposition about a reprofiled mission they approved in government.

Stephen Harper himself has to do a better job of making the case for a mission that is proving more difficult and dangerous than was thought at the beginning. The Taliban insurgency began as a hit-and-run operation, but has since intensified into large-scale firefights, the largest such engagements by Canadian forces since the Korean War.

Harper began making making that case with his speech on the 9/11 fifth anniversary last week, directly linking the terror attacks to Afghanistan, where the Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden and the gang. He'll make much the same case to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, and some important third parties are turning up to thank Canada for taking on this burden.

Condoleeza Rice was one, Hamid Karzai is another. Exceptionally the U.S. secretary of state spent not one, but two days in Canada last week, in Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay's home turf of Nova Scotia. Canadians might not like George W. Bush, but no one has a problem with Rice. Coffee with Pete at Tim Hortons was something ordinary voters could relate to.

As for President Karzai, he's expected to make an address to a joint session of Parliament, where he would normally be introduced by Harper. What will the NDP do about that? Boycott the session? Sit on their hands? Perhaps Jack Layton can call for peace talks with the Taliban.

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