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Five long and cantankerous weeks ahead in Ottawa

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa Nov.1, 2011.


The Harper Conservatives think their reforms are taking too long to get into law while the opposition is arguing the exact opposite. For them, bills are moving at warp speed through the House as the government brings in motion after motion to choke off debate.

As MPs return to the House on Monday after a week-long break, the Tories have only five weeks to make law before Parliament rises for the Christmas holidays.

Expect divisions to exacerbate. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan refers to this period as a time that "always seems to get people cantankerous."

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So, amid this "he said, he said," what and who are to be believed?

It's personal …

Despite vows by the government and opposition to make the House more civil, it has been anything but. Speaker Andrew Scheer is having trouble controlling the heckling, spending a lot of time on his feet during Question Period trying to shush unruly MPs.

No surprise then, that there is little trust between the principals in the Commons – Government House Leader Peter Van Loan and his NDP counterpart, Opposition House Leader Joe Comartin.

Mr. Comartin, a former defence lawyer, is quick and wily. He takes every opportunity to hammer Mr. Van Loan over decisions to limit debate, accusing him and the government of disrespecting democracy.

The Government House Leader vows he will stop using these time-limit measures only when the opposition co-operates.

"They have signalled their intention to use every resource at their disposal to keep the agenda Canadians voted for from happening," Mr. Van Loan says. "We have a majority, but they have enough speakers that they can tie up an individual bill for weeks and weeks and weeks."

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It's procedural…

Seven major bills are in the Commons or at committee, including long-promised Tory reforms such as repealing the long-gun registry, ending the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board, the tough-on-crime omnibus bill and the bill to rebalance the House of Commons.

"We're now in our third month here and not a single one has become law," Mr. Van Loan notes. "Not a single one has even made it to report stage yet in the House of Commons, let alone over to the Senate. So things are hardly going quickly."

That's not how the opposition sees it. Not only is debate being limited to a few hours in the Commons, Mr. Comartin points out it's now being choked off in committee.

On the controversial wheat board bill, he says, the government has put on "very rigid time limits" in committee. It has also limited the Liberals and NDP combined to 24 witnesses and given their side 24 witnesses for the omnibus crime bill study. The bill is complicated. It's more than 100 pages and contains nine different pieces of legislation all wrapped in one package.

"It's nowhere near adequate in terms of the scope of the bill," Mr. Comartin says.

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It's possible…

"I'd be surprised if anything of substance" will make it through by Christmas, a pessimistic Government House Leader says.

However, Mr. Van Loan has his fingers crossed that the Fair Representation Bill, which will add 30 seats to the Commons to redress serious underrepresentation in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, and the budget implementation bill, which contains measures such as the small-business hiring credit – will get to the Senate and be passed into law by Christmas.

It's prorogation?

Mr. Comartin says he has been picking up whispers the government will prorogue Parliament in the new year, once it gets a few more measures through.

Mr. Van Loan has dismissed this. There are no plans to prorogue, he says. There is still a lot to do.

But Mr. Comartin cannot see what other legislation is in the pipe once these reforms are passed. He believes that with the economy in dire straits, the government wants to avoid Ottawa and a daily grilling from the opposition for a couple of months. Then it will come back with a new Throne Speech and budget in the spring.

His theory is based on the fact that Mr. Van Loan has suggested to him that the time allocation motions will soon stop. Mr. Comartin says the Government House Leader has told him "don't worry, there's only a few more bills and then you'll like the outcome."

The outcome? Prorogation so that the House does not sit during the NDP leadership campaign that ends in late March. "They think falsely … because of the leadership campaign, that we would be happy if they prorogued until after, …" he says.

Mr. Van Loan is incredulous. "I don't remember having said anything remotely like that to Joe, let alone have him ask me that question. … I don't want to say he is lying …"

Against this backdrop, the House resumes on Monday for five long weeks.

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