Harper government can expect rough ride as House resumes

Afghan prisoners, nuclear safety, Mulroney and budget will be hot topics

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The Gazette, Monday, January 28, 2008

When Parliament resumes today, the Harper government will face a barrage of questions on several files to which it might not have satisfactory answers. If you thought the place was unruly before the holidays, you might have seen nothing yet.

First, there's the question of halting the transfer of prisoners to Afghan authorities over concerns they would be facing torture. There are several questions about when the military informed the government, and why the government didn't inform the House.

Second, there's the question of the government's late-night firing of Linda Keen, the Liberal-appointed head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, for refusing to sign off on a restart of the Chalk River nuclear facility that produces medical isotopes, forcing Parliament to pass emergency legislation to that effect.

Third, there's the question of the prime minister's response to the Manley panel's recommendations on the future of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.

Fourth, there's the question of the budget next month, where the government has a shrinking margin of cash to offset the slowdown in the American economy sideswiping our own.

Fifth, there's the question of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, which completely overshadowed the government's Throne Speech in the fall session, and will again as the House ethics committee resumes its sittings this week.

These points are likely to dominate question period for weeks, making it extremely difficult for the government to get back on its game in the possible run-up to an early election, should the minority Conservatives fall on the budget.

The question in the halting of detainee transfers in Afghanistan isn't whether the Canadian Forces did the right thing when they saw evidence of abuse of one prisoner. Of course they did the right thing. The question is whether the military did so on its own, without informing the government back in Ottawa. Was this a routine operational decision on the ground, implementing a policy if there was visible evidence of prisoner abuse? Or should the government, which makes policy, have been informed by the military?

That's an issue of the chain of command, when ends not with General Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff, but with the defence minister, Peter MacKay, and ultimately the prime minister, Stephen Harper. And then there's the tick-tock. The decision to end transfers was taken on the ground on Nov. 5, but Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier did not acknowledge an apparent case of torture in the House until Nov. 14. In fairness, the House was in recess from Nov. 5-12. But Harper, MacKay and Bernier will all be pushed hard on this, with the opposition parties shouting that the government and the House should have been informed at once.

Then there's the question of the government firing the nuclear regulator, for her apparent reluctance to sanction a cabinet ordered restart at Chalk River, resulting in all-party approval of emergency legislation ordering it. There's a host of public policy and governance issues at play here, including the independence of the regulator on the one hand, and the constitutional role of the federal government to ensure "peace, order and good government" on the other. And finally, there's the obvious clash of two overriding issues--public health in supplying isotopes, and public safety in a nuclear facility. Harper and the natural resources minister, Gary Lunn, can expect a nuclear reaction in the House.

On the Afghan mission, Harper is expected to announce his response to the Manley panel today, and he will probably take on board its recommendations to extend the mission past next February, but look to NATO allies for burden-sharing in Kandahar while Canadian troops shift their focus to training Afghan recruits. John Manley recommended that no resolution be brought to the House before Harper gets the chance to ask for more help at a NATO summit in early spring, by which time we could be in the closing stages of an election campaign.

Let's see how Harper finesses the report, including the criticism that the government controls information too closely and that the PM himself must do a better job of selling the mission.

The budget looms as a real problem in terms of cash available to stimulate the economy in the face of a U.S. downturn. The government already gave away $60 billion in tax cuts over five years in the October mini-budget, and its margin to manoeuvre has been reduced by $6 billion a year by the second round of the GST cut. Not that the cupboard is bare, but the surplus is shrinking.

And finally, the House ethics committee resumes its show with a parade of a dozen witnesses, starting with another appearance by Karlheinz Schreiber on Wednesday. Brian Mulroney has been asked back again at the end of February, with perhaps a dozen other witnesses in between.

Welcome back to the show.

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