The highlights and lowlights of the spring session of Parliament:
1. Board of Internal Economy/NDP mailings
The secretive board broke a tradition of working by consensus after it found that 23 NDP MPs had broken rules governing large volume mail. The board said the electoral letters should have been paid for by the party. It also said MPs owed a combined $36,309 to the House for envelopes and toner and $1.13 million to Canada Post for franking privileges.
The board is also pursuing a study of NDP satellite offices, despite the objection of the two NDP MPs on the committee. New Democrats say they will not pay the money and vow a legal challenge, calling the board’s action a “ridiculous witch-hunt” by a kangaroo court.
The board is also looking into the use of per diems and secondary — housing allowances — those expenses that got senators such as Mike Duffy into trouble. Commons staff are reviewing each MP’s usage and warning party whips of what they find. The rules may be revamped.
2. Harper’s battle with the Supreme Court
After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the federal government’s desired go-it-alone Senate reform plans, softened two tough-on-crime measures the Conservatives introduced and said Justice Marc Nadon was ineligible to sit on the top court, Conservatives fought back. Prime Minister Stephen Harper insinuated that the Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin had inappropriately tried to contact him to discuss Nadon’s candidacy.
Weeks later, however, Canadians learned that McLachlin never attempted to influence either Harper or Justice Minister Peter MacKay on Nadon’s appointment. Instead, it appears that she tried to warn them of potential constitutional problems with appointing four of the nominees on the government’s short list.
3. Jim Flaherty’s death
The former finance minister’s death stunned parliamentarians on April 10. The 64-year-old died of an apparent heart attack, a few weeks after announcing his retirement from politics.
He resigned his finance portfolio but kept his seat after a public spat with the Prime Minister and Employment Minister Jason Kenney over the government’s desire to implement income splitting – a costly the promise the Tories ran on in 2011 but one that Flaherty believed would benefit too few Canadians. Flaherty, who was well loved by opposition MPs, united the Hill in a brief moment of collegiality and genuine grief.
4. The Fair Elections Act
In a rare scene, political critics, civil society and even some of its own MPs united against the government’s proposed changes to the Canada Elections Act. The Tories tried to stack the deck in their favour by revamping fundraising rules and severely limiting some Canadians’ ability to vote.
After the outcry, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre agreed to scrap several of the bill’s most contentious provisions, such as big fundraising loophole and the elimination of vouching.
It looks like Canadians will never know exactly what happened during the last federal election when thousands of voters received illegal calls misinforming them their polling station had moved. The Commissioner of Elections Canada issued a summary report in April finding that, despite not having the cooperation of a key witness or being able to listen or track most of the calls, it believed there had been no wide conspiracy to suppress the vote.
In June, the trial of former Conservative staffer Michael Sona, the only person charged over the misleading calls in Guelph, provided few answers. The Crown’s key witness, Andrew Prescott, a colleague of Sona’s during the local campaign, suggested that campaign manager Ken Morgan was also involved. It remains unclear whether anyone in the Conservatives’ national campaign knew what was going on or, even less clear, whether anyone up top orchestrated it. The verdict in Sona’s trial is expected in August.
The Conservative government prides itself on being a strong defender of Canada’s armed forces, but it dropped the ball on veterans issue this year.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino cut funds to nine regional veterans affairs offices as part of a plan to move services to a centralized Service Canada counter. When upset vets flew to Ottawa to meet with him, he initially cancelled a meeting but then reluctantly met with them with the cameras rolling.
Later in May, Fantino was caught on tape evading the spouse of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. His office been under the gun for spending $4 million on advertising programs for veterans rather than investing the money in services. Meanwhile, the government organized a big show on Parliament Hill to praise Afghan vets.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s policy of imposing a pro-choice position on all new candidates while grandfathering MPs with anti-abortion views drew criticisms from all sides.
One of his MPs dubbed it a “bozo eruption” and questioned the advice Trudeau was getting, while Roman Catholic leaders condemned his policy. Meanwhile, the NDP attacked him for keeping longtime anti-abortion MPs within the party fold. Trudeau had difficulty explaining his position at first, but after two months of clarifying the Liberal policy, it now seems that everyone has got the message.
The government reintroduced a new version of a bill that would give police sweeping powers to track and trace telecommunications online. The bill, C-13, “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” tackles cyberbullying by prohibiting the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. But it also overhauls the existing system of production orders and warrants.
The government says the bill does nothing new and that police are already obtaining information from third parties voluntarily, without a court order. That practice, however, was put into jeopardy in June when the Supreme Court said in a 8-0 ruling that police need a search warrant to get internet service producers to turn over information on their subscribers’ identities.
The Tories are also pushing ahead on another bill, S-4, “Digital Privacy Act,” that would allow internet service providers to share subscriber information with any organization that is investigating a possible breach of contract, such as a copyright violation, or illegal activity. Telecoms would be allowed to keep the sharing of data secret from the affected customers.
– With files from Daniel Tencer and the Canadian Press
The Conservatives tabled legislation in June to respond to a Supreme Court ruling that struck down three major laws relating to prostitution last December. The constitutionality of its bill, C-36, “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act,” was first questioned by experts.
Then, outspoken sex-workers and those who advocate on their behalf argued that the bill would do nothing to address the top court’s concerns and would actually make their jobs less safe. Finally, even the Conservatives’ own supporters found problems with the bill, since it criminalizes prostitutes. The bill has been rushed to committee, which will hold hearings during the summer, when everyone is paying attention to other things.
Bill C-24, “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,” contains several controversial measures that have opposition MPs worried. Among them:
– It limits appeals in order to cut down on processing time and reduce the department’s large backlog;
– Increases the length of time applicants need to spend in Canada before obtaining their citizenship;
– Forces 14- to 16-year-olds as well as 54- to 64-year-olds to meet language requirements and pass knowledge tests;
– Gives Ottawa the power to revoke the citizenship of dual citizens who are convicted with terrorism outside Canada.
Critics worry that there is no distinction between someone convicted after a fair hearing or a political scapegoat convicted in a sham trial. They are also concerned that the minister retains the right to grant or revoke citizenship without public knowledge or court approval.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a strong stand against Russia, condemning President Vladimir Putin for invasion and annexation of Crimea in March.
But despite tough talk, Canada and the international community have not been willing to do much to prevent Putin from expanding his sphere of influence. A team of 500 Canadian election observers, however, oversaw the country’s May 25 election. And Harper became the first world leader to meet Ukraine’s newly inaugurated President Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko was elected after his predecessor, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country following violent protests.
There are more than 1.25 million Canadians who claim Ukrainian roots, and the group is an important electoral constituency. But, NDP MP Jack Harris said, it’s unclear what the federal government has accomplished on the issue.
“Is the government doing much more than shouting out rhetoric at Vladimir Putin, or are we doing more on the ground?”