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Issues crowd policy agenda


For those who wish that the current Parliament would feature more adult conversation, this is now-or-never time.

The House of Commons re-opened on Monday for the last full year before a general election.

It would be a pity, albeit not necessarily a surprise, if it were a wasted year.

A budget that will set the stage for a return to balanced federal books will be forthcoming on Feb. 11.

The government will decide the fate of the Northern Gateway pipeline — so far the most controversial of the plans on the drawing boards of the oil industry.

The clock is ticking on the prostitution laws and on the future of home mail delivery.

A road map to Senate reform will be delivered by the Supreme Court. It will also revisit the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia and there are at least even odds that there will be major developments on that front between now and the election.

Quebec is poised to put contentious limits on the fundamental rights of those who work in the province’s public sector. The election of a majority sovereigntist government could bring the unity issue back to the fore.

Ontario is looking at taking unilateral action on pension reform that could have a domino effect across the country. An election in the province could feature a fierce discussion on some long-held union rights.

There is no lack of significant issues crowding the policy agenda. And on a majority of the items mentioned above, the position of the main federal parties is at best work in progress when it is not simply non-existent.

With a return to balanced budgets comes the opportunity for more policy creativity. That is not the approach of the ruling Conservatives. They believe that when it comes to government, smaller is better.

But while the NDP and the Liberals routinely talk up the virtues of running activist governments, their policy proposals are strikingly short on ambition (or imagination).

Canada’s long-held energy assumptions never factored in the possibility that the United States could shift from energy importer to exporter. That change has profound implications for this country’s resources development plans.

At the same time Canada has fallen well behind the carbon emission targets the Harper government committed to in Copenhagen. Against that shifting backdrop, the leap of faith required to take the promises of the parties to square the environment/energy circle at face value keeps getting bigger.

In the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling on prostitution, Parliament has a year to come up with more Charter-friendly laws pertaining to the sex industry or else accept a legal vacuum.

The government is dead set against legalizing prostitution. But what of the opposition parties? It is far from certain that either the NDP or the Liberals will put that option up for discussion. A motion calling on the NDP to support the legalization of prostitution was sent back for further study at the party’s 2013 policy convention.

A similar resolution is expected to be debated at the upcoming Liberal policy convention in Montreal next month, but based on Justin Trudeau’s initial reaction it is not a position he is willing to readily embrace.

Polls show that a majority of Canadians want to see some policy movement on assisted suicide and euthanasia. But so far that is one policy parade that none of the federal parties has been eager to lead.

It remains to be seen if this Parliament will devote even one of its remaining days to the issue — unless or until the courts force its hand.

On Monday, it was not immediately obvious that MPs on either side of the House will be up to the task of bringing the same passion to the many policy issues that cry for their attention as they did to the scandal that consumed most of the last year in Parliament.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

 
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