Budget top priority of next sitting

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper promised during the election campaign that his Conservatives would be prepared to “hit the ground running” when the House of Commons resumed.

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper promised during the election campaign that his Conservatives would be prepared to “hit the ground running” when the House of Commons resumed.

The pace looks more like a determined walk to the first tee as MPs convene in Ottawa this week for the opening of Canada’s 41st Parliament.

Ensuring government spending authority for the current fiscal year appears to be the only significant order of business for a parliamentary sitting that could last as little as two weeks and is unlikely to stretch past three.

A spokeswoman in the Prime Minister’s Office would only say “the budget and the BIA (budget implementation act) are our top legislative priorities” before the summer break.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has already signalled the federal budget he’ll introduce Monday will have only minor “tweaks and adjustments” from the one he delivered March 22, three days before the Commons brought down the Conservative minority over contempt of Parliament.

The new budget will add Conservative campaign promises to kill the per-vote party subsidy — requiring later amendments to the Canada Elections Act — and some $2 billion in compensation for Quebec’s 1997 harmonization of its provincial sales tax with the federal GST.

But insiders maintain any other changes will reflect only shifting economic assumptions, not government pledges.

“One thing I’ve learned in this business is that surprises are generally not well received by the public,” Harper said the day after winning his historic majority.

While it is possible measures such as Senate reform legislation — the fourth incarnation of Conservative efforts to establish elections and term limits for senators — could be introduced in June, no serious debate on legislation is likely to get underway until the autumn.

An omnibus justice bill — promised within Parliament’s “first 100 sitting days” — can be introduced in September and still easily meet the Conservative pledge.

In a sense, the next week of apparent frenetic activity on the Hill will really only get the parliamentary calendar back to where it was in late March — notwithstanding the dramatic political changes brought about by the May 2 election.

“We’ve just had a huge turnover (of MPs) … there’s going to be an adjustment period,” Tom Mulcair, the NDP House leader, said in an interview.

The brief spring sitting, he said, “is going to be mostly about making sure we get through the institutional piece that’s compulsory, then we’ll set ourselves up for a full-fledged fall session.”

Here’s the drill:

The full national Conservative caucus — 166 MPs plus as many as 55 Senators — meets Wednesday under the Peace Tower for the first time since the May 2 election.

One floor lower in the bowels of the same Centre Block, the decimated Liberals will also huddle to plot strategy, while the 103 official Opposition New Democrats met last week as a group.

Only four Bloc Quebecois MPs survived the election, while Green party Leader Elizabeth May won her party’s first seat in a general election.

On Thursday, observers will be watching for the first significant signal regarding the tenor of the Harper majority government when all 308 MPs, in a secret ballot, elect a new Commons Speaker to replace retired Liberal MP Peter Milliken.

Milliken was the Commons’ longest-serving referee-in-chief — 10 years — and retired after delivering a historic rebuke to the prime minister in the form of two, unprecedented findings of apparent contempt of Parliament.

At least half a dozen individuals appear to be in the running for Speaker, but the roster can be rather ad hoc, since every MP who fails to say they’re not interested is automatically put on the ballot. Only cabinet ministers and party leaders are excluded.

A speech from the throne — the first for Gov. Gen. David Johnston since he was appointed last July — takes place Friday, laying out the government’s blueprint. Expect it to be short and direct.

On Monday, the government won’t even stage a full budget “lock-up” for journalists and experts to digest the budget before its release, since the document was already screened in March.

Budget debates and votes, a vote on the throne speech, a couple of opposition days and a possible parliamentary debate over an extension of Canada’s military mission in Libya should eat up the calendar until MPs break for the summer in time for Quebec’s Fete nationale on June 24.