Tories have a lot on their plate

The new government is coming very close to agenda overload with its top five priorities and more

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, June 12, 2006

After only two months in a minority House, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is coming very close to agenda overload.

Even in a majority house, his agenda would be considered perilously crowded. Not since the Pearson social reforms of the 1960s has a minority Parliament seen such an ambitious agenda.

First, there's Harper's top five priorities: the GST cut, child- care cheques, the Accountability Act, the crime package and the health-care guarantee. The first four have been funded already in the budget and might well clear the House before the summer recess at the end of next week.

The Accountability Act, a deeply flawed bill that might create more problems than it solves, is now in clause-by-clause review at the committee stage between second and third readings. The government is determined to push it through before the recess. In other words, no Accountability Act, no summer break. The House will sit until it is passed. Enjoy your summer, boys and girls.

It's the fifth priority, the health-care guarantee on waiting times, that has flown under the radar. In an SES poll for Policy Options magazine ranking the importance of the top five, 47 per cent of Canadians surveyed last month picked the health- care guarantee as their top priority, nearly three times as many who saw cleaning up government as the most important at 17 per cent.

As SES president Nik Nanos observed: "It's health care and it's guaranteed." In other words, it has huge brand equity in the marketplace. It's up to the health minister, Tony Clement, to get the health-care guarantee negotiated, and funded, with his provincial colleagues. Fortunately for Harper, Clement is an experienced hand, as a former health minister at Queen's Park, with a full understanding of the issue and the delivery of health services by the provinces.

The top five are Harper's checklist for being to able to say he has delivered on his promises as he asks for a majority next time out. But if four out of five are delivered in the first session of the House, the top five could be a memory by the time this Parliament runs its course in 2007 or 2008. And the fifth and most important top five item, the health-care guarantee, cannot be delivered by Ottawa alone.

But beyond the top five, Harper's agenda is incredibly crowded. First, there's his democratic- reform agenda, for fixed election dates and term limits for appointed senators as a first step to an elected Senate, which would require two constitutional amendments, a bilateral one with Quebec to eliminate its 24 Senate divisions, and a "7/50" amendment with the provinces.

Then there's the fiscal imbalance and the larger fiscal federalism agenda with the provinces for reshaping the federation along its original constitutional lines, where Ottawa sticks to its core competencies and leaves the provinces to theirs. There's going to be a full first ministers' conference in the fall, and if fails, it might doom both Harper's prospects for gaining a majority through Quebec, as well as Jean Charest's chances for re-election next year. The stakes on this are incredibly high, and failure is not an option.

On foreign and defence policy, Harper has prioritized renewing excellent transactional relations with the United States. In just a few months in office, he got a softwood-lumber deal with the Bush administration, one that also satisfied the producing provinces and the forestry industry. Harper got a deal where his predecessor failed because Paul Martin preferred running against George W. Bush to doing business with him. At next month's White House meeting, Harper and Bush are supposed to make progress on the looming U.S. deadline for passports or secure ID for crossing the border. The new NORAD agreement, extending its mandate to maritime security around North America, is also ready for signature.

Then there's the extension of the Afghan mission by two years, and some major military procurement decisions to be made. There's also the mega issue of climate change. If not Kyoto, then what? Harper is not putting out his policy on global warming until the fall, but he needs to say something about it before the summer. This is an issue that can either secure or cost him a majority.

Oh, and by the way, the government brought in its first budget, which passed unanimously on third reading when the Liberals and NDP, who nominally opposed it, were asleep at the switch.

With all this, it's no wonder Harper has decided to delay a vote on reopening the same-sex marriage issue until the fall. Not a vote on the issue itself, but whether to reopen it. This will both allow Harper to say he kept his promise, and allow many MPs to vote against a process rather than a principle. Very clever.

It's also the part about avoiding agenda overload.

 
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