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Here’s the Harper Government’s Game Plan for the Next Four Months

Security, justice, and a (hopefully) balanced budget are all on Harper's to-do list.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA

Parliament in Ottawa. Photo via Flickr user sarah_poo

We're in the home stretch.

Members of Parliament, senators, and staffers flocked back to Parliament Hill on Monday, as Parliament resumed for what will likely be its last sitting before the 2015 election.

Canada's lawmakers fled the capital in December for their month-long Christmas break. Now, they've got just a few short months to put the finishing touches on the 41st Parliament's legacy.

In a speech to supporters on Sunday, the prime minister outlined the plan: first up is new anti-terror legislation, then new measures to stiffen penalties for violent offenders, and finally introducing a balanced budget.


Canada's leader then stepped off the stage to take selfies with supporters as the journalists present were corralled to the back of the room and summarily told to leave. No journalists were permitted to ask Harper any questions.

This, as terrorist groups make renewed called for attacks on Canada, the Supreme Court takes aim at several new pieces of Conservative tough-on-crime legislation, and plunging oil prices frustrate Ottawa's efforts to get the Canadian economy back on track.

Parliament is scheduled to sit for 15 weeks between now and the middle of June, when it is slated to rise for the summer. In other words, with the federal election slotted for October 19, the government needs to get everything done by the summer.

Fighting terror
After months of alluding to new anti-terror legislation in the works, Justice Minister Peter MacKay is expected to announce the new bill on Friday.

"These measures are designed to help authorities stop planned attacks, get threats off our streets, criminalize the promotion of terrorism, and prevent terrorists from travelling and recruiting others," Harper said in his Sunday speech, hastily adding that, "to be clear, in doing so, we shall be safeguarding our constitutional rights of speech, of association, of religion and all the rest."

Two sections of the Criminal Code have been singled out as targets, introduced by the Liberals in 2001 and beefed up by the Conservatives in 2013, allowing police to preventively detain suspected terrorists without charge, if they believe an attack is being planned. Those powers have only been used once so far, and the Conservatives have been considering loosening the judicial thresholds to make them more accessible to law enforcement.


"We're doing it in a way that is really focused on not only thresholds, but the practical application of the current sections and whether they're sufficient," MacKay said.

Speaking with journalists in October, MacKay also indicated that they would be looking at online advocates of terrorism.

"There's no question that the whole issue around radicalization and the type of material that is often used that we think is inappropriate and we think, quite frankly, can contribute to—again, this is my word—the poisoning of young minds, that this is something that needs to be examined, the type of material, the type of images," MacKay said, acknowledging that his government is looking at powers to remove online material that glorifies terrorism, and possibly even to prosecute those who disseminate it.

MacKay said they were looking at similar legislation passed in Europe.

This sort of legislation exists in France, where the government has faced backlash for curtailing freedom of speech after dozens of investigations were launched into those who were "glorifying" terrorism.

Asked by VICE, however, MacKay tried to temper down fears that the legislation would be a big change.

"I wouldn't want anyone left with the impression that these are broad, sweeping changes," MacKay said in the foyer of the House of Commons. "These are being done in a way that is very much informed by both recent experience and ongoing examination of many security measures that really need to be examined in detail. This is a deep dive. This not something that is being done in any, as I say that is simply responding to these events on Parliament Hill."


The House of Commons will also be debating C-44 in the coming weeks. That legislation was introduced last October, with the intent of allowing CSIS, Canada's spy agency, more power to operate abroad and cooperate with the NSA and its Canadian counterpart, CSEC.

MacKay said the Conservatives have been listening to criticism, "constructive or otherwise," from the courts and from watchdogs about the government's spying program.

Balancing budgets
The Harper government has spent much of the past few years bragging loudly about its prowess at fiscal management, job creation, and economic growth.

But, thanks to a pissing match between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel and American oil producers, the price of oil has plunged and left Canadian exports in the lurch.

That has led banks to scale back Canadian economic growth predictions. TD Bank now expects growth to be 2.4 percent for the 2014 fiscal year once the numbers are available, and just 2 percent for 2015. That's a downward revision of about half a percent overall.

TD also expects the Alberta economy to come to a stand-still next year, while equally oil-dependent Newfoundland is predicted to fall into a recession.

Growth in Ontario and British Columbia, buoyed by the manufacturing and exports that are made easier by a low Canadian dollar, is expected to carry much of the country.

Meanwhile, the Bank of Canada made the announcement that it would pare down interest rates to just 0.75 percent. That should put some coal into the engines of manufacturers, and could even encourage some oil companies to continue investing in the tar sands despite rock-bottom oil prices.


That puts the Harper government in a rough spot. As of the end of last year, Ottawa was predicting a big surplus with plenty of wiggle room, even with the Conservatives' intention to introduce their $2-billion income-splitting plan.

Even so, the government isn't backing down: the budget will still be balanced, albeit later than usual. Finance Minister Joe Oliver says the budget won't arrive until April, at the earliest. It's usually delivered in February.

Harper swore to supporters that the budget would be balanced this year, eliciting some raucous applause.

"You know, with the falling oil prices, the Government's fiscal flexibility has been reduced, at least for the short term," he admitted, before taking a swipe at the opposition. "To some, it's a reason not to balance the budget. But to them, there is always a reason not to balance the budget."

The prime minister went on to slag former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's economic record, casting him as the father of Canada's sizeable debt.

The NDP fired back, demanding that the government release its financial data to let citizens know just where the country's finances stand. They're calling it a "reality check."

The Liberals remained mum on Monday morning, but had accused Harper of making up economic policy on the fly. Party leader Justin Trudeau wouldn't say, however, whether or not the government should just run a deficit.

Tackling crime
Even though it feels like they've covered their bases already, Harper has promised a crown jewel in his tough-on-crime agenda.


"For the protection of Canadians, a life sentence will mean exactly that, a sentence for life!" Harper told the crowd on Sunday.

In Canada, a life sentence doesn't actually mean the rest of the person's life. Every convict is eligible for parole after 25 years. The Harper government has done a fair bit to keep supposedly dangerous criminals in jail—stiffening penalties for those not criminally responsible, imposing mandatory minimums on a slew of crimes, and imposing harsh new penalties on would-be gang members—but that automatic 25-year parole remains.

The government has sought to get around it in the past. By introducing consecutive sentences, Ottawa has made it so that anyone convicted of multiple violent crimes—among them sexual assault, abduction, murder, or aggravated assault—will have their minimum parole eligibility stacked.

That means that if someone is charged with four counts of first degree murder, their parole eligibility would be 100 years instead of 25.

But the language coming from the government this week appears to suggest that some criminals will lose the possibility for parole outright.

Also on the docket for Parliament is a private member's bill that lawyers say could criminalize anti-pipeline protests, as VICE reported in December.

Two bills that likely won't see the light of day again are two NDP-written bills: one would give trans Canadians the same human rights protections as gay and lesbian people, while the other would legalize sports betting.


The trans rights bill, as VICE has reported, is being held up by the Senate because the government is freaked out by the idea of recognizing trans people.

The sports betting bill, C-290, is also being held up by the Senate. It seeks to remedy the absurd reality that sports betting is legal in Canada only if you place bets on more than one sport. The bill seeks to legalize single-game betting.

The unelected Senate has passed scores of other legislation while leaving those two bills to sit, untouched. It's increasingly unlikely that either will be passed.

While this is going on, the Supreme Court will pass down several decisions that could blow new holes in the Harper government's previous tough-on-crime legislation. The top court will rule whether the Tories' mandatory minimum sentencing is unconstitutional, whether the government's anti-human smuggling rules go too far, and where medical marijuana users' rights begin and end.

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