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There will be legislation empowering Elections Canada to more deeply investigate dirty tricks. The RCMP commissioner will receive new authority to clean house. And MPs' pensions will become less lucrative.

Other than that, the House of Commons will be relatively quiet as it returns Monday for a fall sitting that will focus mostly on housekeeping measures.

But don't think for a moment that this will make for a quiet fall. The great issue facing the country between now and Christmas lies outside Parliament.

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The Harper government is expected to announce a sweeping new free-trade agreement with the European Union, the most ambitious such undertaking since the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement of 1988.

Selling free trade with Europe – to the provincial governments and to all Canadians – will be Stephen Harper's biggest priority, according to government sources.

Another priority will be justifying the decision, expected before the end of the year, either to permit or prohibit the sale of the Canadian energy firm Nexen to the Chinese state-owned petroleum company CNOOC.

Both measures will be deeply controversial. Government procurement, patent rights for pharmaceuticals, agricultural tariffs and more will be affected by the new accord with Europe, which could also serve as a template for the even-bigger negotiations under way with Pacific nations, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Approving or prohibiting the sale of Nexen to the Chinese will be no less controversial. Many of the Conservatives' own supporters are wary of handing over a Canadian business to the Communist Chinese. But banning the sale will be seen by the world's second largest economy, and an emerging lynchpin of Canada's economic future, as a plain insult.

While government, opposition and provincial politicians grapple with these large and contentious files, the day-to-day business of the House will be mostly mundane.

All parties supported an NDP motion last spring calling for legislation that would give Elections Canada new powers to investigate allegations of electoral fraud – in particular, to track down those who send out robocalls with false information.

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The government will also focus on passing legislation that would give the RCMP commissioner new powers to weed out underperforming or abusive officers.

And new, and as yet unspecified, measures will target MP pensions, either increasing individual contributions, reducing benefits or both.

Some of the most important legislation currently before the House is being punted. As The Globe's Daniel Leblanc reports, Mr. Harper has decided to refer his Senate reform bill to the Supreme Court for an opinion on its constitutionality. The year or more that the court takes to deliberate will quell, at least temporarily, a restive caucus in which some Tory senators object to being forced out of their jobs after eight years.

Bill C-30, the infamous Internet surveillance legislation, is stuck in limbo and should remain there, while the Conservatives look for ways to redraft the bill to allay the concerns of privacy commissioners and of all Canadians who don't want the government looking over their shoulder when they're online.

So the most contentious bills are being set aside, while the legislation that does make it through to third reading will be of mostly second-tier importance.

There will, of course, be fireworks involving Mr. Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair over whether Big Oil is to blame for a rising dollar and a weakening manufacturing sector, and over the threat posed by the new Parti Québécois government in Quebec.

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In the winter, we can expect to see Mr. Harper have Parliament prorogued so that he can shuffle his cabinet and bring forward a new Throne Speech that will set the agenda for the final two years before the 2015 election.

Until that Throne Speech, the House will mostly be a dull affair, though things will be anything but dull outside it.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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