Proroguing Parliament till October buys Harper and Tories time

WHITEHORSE — The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen depart Calgary on route to Whitehorse on Aug. 18, 2013. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stephen Harper is hitting the reset button on Parliament, delaying a reopening of the Commons until October as he continues a pre-election overhaul of his government after nearly eight years in power.

The restart effectively gives Mr. Harper two high-profile opportunities in October to sell Canadian voters on the notion he is still the person to lead the country.

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The first is a Speech from the Throne that will outline the government’s agenda for the last half of its current mandate. Mr. Harper will then rally supporters in late October during a Conservative Party convention, where he will work to rebuild relations with rank-and-file Tories disenchanted over the Senate expenses scandal.

Proroguing leaves the New Democrats and Liberals without the platform of Parliament to hammer the government over the issue for several weeks longer than expected.

The Prime Minister announced his fall plans during the second day of his annual summer tour of northern Canada, where he has tried since 2006 to build a political legacy of defending Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic and promoting resource development.

The Prime Minister is focusing this tour – his eighth – more on economic and social development of a region that struggles with unemployment and the challenge of creating durable jobs.

But even in the North, Mr. Harper continues to be dogged by questions about the Senate scandal. On Monday, he called for Senator Pamela Wallin to be made fully accountable for her actions after an audit showed she filed more than $120,000 in questionable claims.

Mr. Harper’s mid-term political reboot began with a major cabinet shuffle in July that moved new faces into his inner circle, and he is currently shaking up his staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, a development expected to bring back former aide and Harper loyalist Jenni Byrne.

The next step, as Mr. Harper announced Monday, will be proroguing Parliament before its scheduled return on Sept. 16, and reopening it in October. Sources say while the timing is not set in stone, the Commons is expected to return after Thanksgiving.

While Mr. Harper’s uses of prorogation when he governed with a minority were controversial, majority governments often employ the procedure to signal a new legislative agenda. New sittings begin with a Speech from the Throne.

Conservatives have privately said they are fighting complacency and malaise in their own ranks after improper expense claims by some Harper Senate appointees marred the government’s credibility on the Senate and its record in office. Even staunch Conservative MPs are concerned the government does not have more signature accomplishments to show for winning a majority two years ago.

Mr. Harper confirmed, in response to a question Monday, that he will run in an expected 2015 federal election.

“Of course, yes,” Mr. Harper said during a stop at a Whitehorse machine shop. “I’m actually disappointed you feel the need to ask that question,” he said, smiling as staff and supporters cheered him.

Mr. Harper said the priority for his government will continue to be jobs and the economy.

“We remain in a very difficult, fragile and competitive global marketplace, and we think there is much more to be done to secure Canada’s economic potential and economic future.”

Mr. Harper is already road-testing campaign themes to persuade Conservatives, and Canadian voters, his government has delivered on its promises.

He told Tory partisans in Whitehorse on Sunday that the party had fulfilled 84 of the more than 100 campaign pledges from 2011. It is clear a “promises-made, promises-kept” theme is emerging.

Mr. Harper is quick to contrast this with the record of rival Justin Trudeau, taking a swipe at the Liberal Leader’s pledge to legalize marijuana by suggesting it is the only idea his opponent has put forward.

But while the Prime Minister is putting a fresh coat of paint on his government, the overriding political imperative in Ottawa for the next two years is balancing the budget. The Conservatives are determined to retire the deficit by 2015 – barring a sudden and drastic drop in economic fortunes.

Mr. Harper promised to eliminate the deficit in the last campaign, and his strategy for the next election is predicated on a balanced budget. The Conservatives want to deliver on pricey promises such as income-tax splitting that should form the core of their next election platform, but are contingent upon surplus cash in federal coffers.

All signs suggest the Conservative Throne Speech will focus on the unfinished business of economic reforms that have become a mainstay for a government with little money to spend but a desire to make Canada more competitive. It should wrap together labour market changes to attract skilled foreigners faster, find more jobs for aboriginals, close loopholes that allow too many temporary overseas workers, and enact the new job skills grant announced in the 2013 budget.