Critical issues await PM

With a midterm budget on the way, it is a no-brainer to expect Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to continue to do a lot of heavy lifting in the House of Commons over the next few months.

With a midterm budget on the way, it is a no-brainer to expect Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to continue to do a lot of heavy lifting in the House of Commons over the next few months.

But the spring budget is only one of the top-drawer files that will define the 2013 parliamentary season. Here are four others:

A less confrontational relationship with the First Nations: Prime Minister Stephen Harper has yet to flesh out the process to which he committed in the face of mounting Idle No More protests.

This is a front on which the opposition parties have so far been remarkably constructive. Last week, the Liberals and the New Democrats facilitated an overdue end to the deadlock between the fasting Chief Theresa Spence and the prime minister without pouring more gasoline on the First Nations’ anti-Conservative fire.

Over the past seven years, Harper has used a bipartisan approach on a few tricky files, including a 2008 public apology to the First Nations, but also the Afghan mission.

In the latter case, Liberal interim leader Bob Rae played a pivotal role in articulating a joint Liberal-Conservative followup to Canada’s military role in Kandahar.

Rae has forgotten more about the First Nations file than most Indian affairs ministers ever knew.

The First Nations leadership has little faith in minister John Duncan. There is not a cabinet shuffle expected until next summer.

With a permanent Liberal leader to be chosen in April, Rae will soon have more time on his hands.

If he is serious about getting results, the prime minister could do worse than to explore whether Rae could serve in a more formal role in the high-stakes reconciliation process.

Trade: Negotiations with the European Union have entered the make-or-break phase. Over the next few months, Harper has to sign off on a list of potentially controversial trade-offs or decide to walk away.

That’s a juggling act the prime minister will have to perform with an eye to the provinces. They are direct participants in the talks and the onus is on Ottawa to ensure that they are onside.

This is an issue that could pit a strong pro-free-trade Quebec political consensus against the traditional instincts of some vocal NDP constituencies.

If a deal is concluded, Thomas Mulcair’s stance will provide the most exact measure to date of how far the NDP leader is willing and/or able to recast his party’s economic message.

Pipeline politics: The jury is still out as to how U.S. President Barack Obama’s fighting inauguration words on climate change will affect the fate of the Keystone pipeline.

In British Columbia, an NDP victory in a spring provincial election could hammer a definitive nail in the coffin of the Northern Gateway project.

In the circumstances, the alternative proposal of a pipeline to link the oilsands to the refineries of Central and Atlantic Canada has been gaining momentum.

But Pauline Marois is a wild card.

Late last year, an initial meeting between the Quebec premier and Alberta’s Alison Redford ended on a positive note. But for Marois, selling her party and her cabinet on the idea could be a much taller order than rallying the opposition majority in the national assembly to its merits.

More co-operative opposition arrangements: Some of the first questions asked at the recent Vancouver Liberal leadership debate dealt with the perils of a divided progressive opposition.

Based on byelections held in Alberta and British Columbia in November, the NDP and the Liberals will have to compete with Elizabeth May’s Green party for the non-Conservative vote in 2015.

In Quebec, an increase in vote-splitting between the Liberals and the New Democrats could see a return in strength of the Bloc Québécois at the expense of both federalist parties.

The Liberal and NDP establishments have tried to keep a lid on that conversation. But it is likely to resume with a vengeance once a new Liberal leader is in place by the mid-April leadership vote.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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