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Trudeau’s Liberals have so much to do, and so little time left

The Globe and Mail with Anna Esselment 23 May 2018

There is word going around that, after the House and Senate rise for their summer recess in June, Justin Trudeau will ask the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament, so that the fall session begins with a Speech from the Throne.

That would be sensible, if true; the government hasn’t had an agenda-setting throne speech since the first one in December, 2015. But it reinforces a growing realization that this government is running out of legislative weeks to fulfill its commitments. When the House recesses in June, 2019, that will be it for the 42nd Parliament. The Liberals have little more than a year to complete their agenda. Time is not their friend.

One feature of parliamentary systems is that it can take an awfully long time to pass a bill. Apart from the debate in the House, there can be weeks of committee hearings. If the opposition parties strongly oppose a bill, they can slow its passage, forcing the government to impose closure.

The newly empowered Senate has no qualms about closely studying bills sent from the House, sometimes sending them back with proposed amendments, which slows things down.

Prorogation would further delay the parliamentary calendar by sending any bill that has not received royal assent back to square one.

And this Liberal government moves particularly slowly, thanks to its commitment to consultation and inclusiveness. Deadlines have a tendency to come and go unmet.

“Legislation has been passing at a slower pace” than under the previous Conservative government, observes Anna Esselment, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo, “but that appears to be the choice of the Liberals to do that.” For example, the government has avoided imposing closure to cut off debate on legislation and force a vote.

The price: swaths of unfulfilled promises. Prof. Esselment points to the web page in which the government lists every commitment listed in the mandate letters sent to ministers. I counted about 90 commitments met. Another 250, or thereabouts, are still being worked on. Not all require legislation to be fulfilled, but still.

So what’s on the order paper, now and to come? The highest, and most vexing, priority is passing an act to implement the renegotiated North American free-trade agreement. But first we need an agreement, which has proved to be no easy thing.

There remains a brief window over the next couple of weeks to conclude at least an outline of a new deal; after that, the Mexican presidential and American midterm congressional elections will force all sides to suspend the talks until the beginning of 2019, leaving little time to pass a new NAFTA implementation act.

Right behind securing a new NAFTA deal comes the Trans Mountain pipeline bill. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has promised legislation affirming the federal government’s authority to proceed with the pipeline expansion despite the objections of the British Columbia government. Since NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh opposes the pipeline, the New Democrats may seek to obstruct the bill. Things could get lively.

The July 1 deadline for legalizing the consumption of marijuana is out the window, but the government still hopes for a late-summer implementation. The Liberals are also pushing an election reform bill that would impose new limits on political advertising and safeguards against foreign interference. Both must be passed within the next few weeks.

The government has also signalled its intent to address the competitiveness question. The Americans have cut corporate taxes and as a result investment capital is reportedly flowing out of Canada. The pre-election budget in February or March may tackle this challenge. Either way, passing that budget’s implementation measures will take up many of the available hours in the final sitting.

Getting all of these priorities through Parliament in the remaining months will test the skills of House Leader Bardish Chagger. Any other bills − such as the legislation introduced this week that further protects the rights of children in a divorce − has little chance of passage without support from the opposition parties.

And then, of course, there are events, that notorious derailer of government agendas.

It may feel like a long time until the next federal election. But legislatively, this government is running out of room.