Senate, budget expected to top agenda

They’re ba-a-a-ck. MPs return to Parliament on Monday with the spectre of the Senate expenses scandal still hovering over the Harper government.

OTTAWA — They’re ba-a-a-ck.

MPs return to Parliament on Monday with the spectre of the Senate expenses scandal still hovering over the Harper government.

The government says it intends to remain focused on the economy, with next month’s budget the centrepiece of the winter sitting.

But New Democrats and Liberals believe the ongoing RCMP investigation and potential charges against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff and four senators will keep the government firmly mired in the Senate scandal, as it was for most of last year.

Moreover, the opposition parties contend government efforts to redirect attention to the economy — the Conservatives’ perceived strong suit — could backfire as sluggish growth and rising unemployment put paid to the government’s mantra that Canada’s economy is performing better than any other G7 country.

They suspect the government is intending to pick a fight with public sector unions in a bid to shore up the Conservative base and deflect attention from the Senate quagmire.

“They just came from one of the worst years they’ve ever had in 2013,” says NDP House leader Nathan Cullen. “I only assume they’re going to try to hit that magical reset button, whatever it is.”

Harper tried repeatedly to change the channel last year — a cabinet shuffle, a throne speech, a free trade deal with the European Union. But nothing stopped the relentless mushrooming of the Senate scandal, which enveloped Harper’s office with the revelation that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally paid Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 so that he could reimburse the Senate for allegedly fraudulent living expense claims.

Bombshell RCMP documents filed in court have revealed more than a dozen top players in the Prime Minister’s Office, Senate leadership and Conservative party were involved in concocting a deal to protect Duffy, interfere with an independent audit of his expenses and whitewash a Senate report on his conduct.

Cullen expects the juicy revelations to continue.

“To this point, the RCMP seem to be very focused and unafraid to go right into the heart of power because what we’re talking about it not just fraud but bribing a public official and all these things.”

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