OTTAWA — Members of Parliament were off to a sluggish start when the House of Commons resumed last month, but fireworks should soon return to the chamber.
When MPs return to work Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to be in the capital after cancelling his trip to Barbados. The prime minister had been scheduled to cap off an international tour designed to ensure as much face time with as many world leaders as possible — first at African Union meetings in Ethiopia, then in Senegal; in Germany at the Munich Security Conference, and, this Monday and Tuesday, at CARICOM, a meeting of Caribbean countries in Bridgetown.
Trudeau has been on a charm offensive to secure support for Canada’s bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. Canada is in a tough battle this June, competing with Ireland and Norway for one of the two seats available.
But Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Trudeau would suspend his travels and call a meeting with seven top cabinet ministers to address what it called “the infrastructure disruptions occurring across the country,” and work towards a solution to restore service to the rail system.
While the prime minister was abroad, on what the Conservatives labelled his “vanity tour,” Trudeau made headlines and raised questions for his government’s perceived slow response to anti-pipeline and Indigenous protests across the country that have led to the shutdown of rail lines, including all of CN’s Eastern Canada operations and Via Rail’s passenger routes. He has also been attacked for a warm embrace of Iran’s foreign minister while the missile attack that killed 57 Canadian airline passengers goes uninvestigated, and for his reluctance to publicly rebuke African leaders on their countries’ human rights records.
Those topics are all expected to be fodder for the opposition when the Commons resumes. MPs will have not only the daily hyperbole of question period to look forward to but also committees are also expected to get going, which could lead to more headaches for the Liberals. The opposition is expected to try to call Mario Dion, the ethics commissioner, to committee to explain his damning report from last August in which he found that the prime minister had “knowingly sought to influence” Jody Wilson-Raybould, the then-attorney general to intervene in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Last summer, opposition MPs were blocked by the Liberal majority from calling Dion to appear. The tables have now turned, and opposition parties hold a majority of the seats on Commons committees.
The opposition says it is eager to get to work.
In the first two weeks after MPs returned to Ottawa from an extended winter break, the Liberal government tabled three pieces of legislation — two recycled from the previous parliament — legislation to provide for independent oversight of the Canadian Border Services Agency and a bill spearheaded by former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose requiring sexual assault law training for judges — and one new bill — legislation to enact the new NAFTA agreement. Despite committee hearings into the matter and some opposition concerns, the agreement can’t be fundamentally changed without renegotiations with the United States and Mexico.
NDP MP Rachel Blaney, the party’s whip, called it absolutely concerning that the government was “a little bit slow” getting going.
“We’re definitely waiting to get to work on some key things,” she told HuffPost Canada. “At the end of the day, it’s really up to the government to set the legislative agenda.”
Without legislation in the window, she said, the NDP has no way of knowing where the Liberals’ priorities actually lie. “Canadians want to see where this government is going.”
Watch: Trudeau addresses train blockades. Story continues below video.
While the New Democrats have used question period to push for commitments on pharmacare and dental care, the party will have to wait until March for their first opposition motion, a procedural tool that could force more government transparency, propose policy, or show dissent in Liberal ranks, such as on the Teck mining project, for example.
As the official opposition, the Conservatives have so far used three opposition motions to strike a special committee to study Canada’s relationship with China, to call for the auditor general to investigate the Liberals’ $180-billion infrastructure plan, as well as to instruct the public safety committee to probe a parole board decision that led to a young sex worker’s being killed by a convicted murderer who had recently been released on parole.
The Tories have benefited from support by other opposition parties for most of their motions (all but one Liberal MP voted not to call in the auditor general to look at the government’s infrastructure spending and all Liberal MPs voted against the establishment of the Canada-China committee). The NDP Liberals also had the backing of the Liberals, the Bloc Québécois, the NDP and the Greens to speed Ambrose’s sexual assault training bill through to the Senate, but Conservative MPs blocked the move insisting that the bill be enlarged to include training for parole officers.
She told a Quebec newspaper she was disappointed by what she viewed as illogical action that should have been done through different amendments to current laws.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez denied the House has been slow to get started. The government’s top priority is the passing of the new NAFTA, he said, and it was debated and sent to committee for study. “So, it’s moving forward,” he said.
While most committees didn’t get formally under way before last week’s break, the body that oversees procedure in the House of Commons was consumed with another issue: debating whether the NDP and the Bloc Québécois should be granted the perks and titles of a third committee vice chair.
The issue may seem like small potatoes, but the Conservatives, who granted the opposition such a status when they set up the special Canada-China committee in December, are now blocking efforts to extend those privileges to the third and fourth parties for all standing committees.
Conservative Whip Mark Strahl told HuffPost the Tories are looking out for the public’s money. Each vice chair makes an extra $6,200 on top of their $178,900 salary as MPs, and each standing committee already has a chair and two vice chairs, he noted.
“The additional cost to taxpayers is at least $167,400 per year,” he said, adding that that money could go to NDP and Bloc MPs who already get supplementary salaries for other positions, such as house leaders (an extra $17,500) and whips ($12,400). (Government and official opposition house leaders and whips get paid more.)
“Many NDP and BQ MPs who sit on multiple committees would be receiving multiple vice chair positions in addition to their existing supplements,” and practically speaking, he added, “the third vice chair will never, ever actually be called upon to fill in for the chair of a committee, calling into question the necessity for the position to be granted.”
The Bloc and the NDP already have positions on steering committees, the sub-committees that decide agenda and travel budgets, he noted.
“This is all about the extra money,” Strahl said. “If this is adopted, every single NDP and most Bloc MPs will be receiving a significant pay raise for doing no additional work on committees, simply because they are assigned to standing committees as all MPs are expected to be.”
And the Liberals, he added “appear to be willing to use tax dollars to pay Bloc and NDP MPs a supplement they don’t deserve because they want them to be onside with them in this minority parliament.”
Blaney said the NDP is willing to have a “conversation” about whether the third vice chairs should get paid, but not at the same time as committee members debate her motion to grant the positions.
“If we want to look at compensation, which I think is definitely something we can open up. It has to be looked at by us separately from what I understand from the clerks.”
Changing how supplementary salaries are awarded would require legislation, while the NDP and the Liberals, who first proposed the motion, suggest a temporary change to the rules of the House.
Rodriguez said the Liberals and opposition parties are still “debating” the idea. “We’ll see what happens. We’re listening to the different arguments. We’ll see,” he said. “We’re listening to all sides… .
“It’s a minority government. You know what the thing is with this kind of government? You listen. That’s what we do. We’re listening.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated the Liberals had the backing of the NDP, Bloc and Greens to push forward Ambrose’s judges’ training bill when the request for unanimous consent was proposed by the NDP.