Against the backdrop of an ongoing protest, Members of Parliament returned to their duties in Ottawa on Monday and a cold familiarity hung in the air as the response to COVID-19 continued to dominate the agenda. The Prime Minister disclosed this morning that he has tested positive after being forced into isolation late last week when one of his children contracted the virus. He intends to continue to work remotely throughout the week.
Heading into 2022, many believed we would be in the “re-building and recovery” stage of the pandemic, but the Omicron variant has demonstrated just how precarious progress can be, fuelling yet another wave of infections and putting the federal and provincial governments back on their heels.
Cabinet met for three days last week to define its next set of priorities. Trudeau noted at the conclusion of the summit that key priorities are affordability, climate change, economic recovery, and COVID-19.
All parties also held caucus meetings where MPs had the opportunity to bring forward the issues they hope their parties will work to advance over the next sitting.
At the Conservative Party caucus meetings, leadership was yet again on the agenda. Alberta MP James Cumming presented a post-election report that concluded leader Erin O’Toole did not connect well with voters, in part because he was over-coached and over-managed, and “was not himself.” Alongside questions of leadership emanating from the post-election report, O’Toole was yet again caught between a rock and a hard place with his caucus, as many have voiced their support for the controversial convoy that is currently occupying much of Ottawa’s downtown core.
Even while the House was on an extended break, the Conservatives, alongside other opposition parties, have continued to hold the government to account by calling a series of committee meetings to study inflation, the government’s response to the pandemic, and issues related to critical minerals.
Issues That Could Dominate the Early Agenda
Inflation: In December, inflation rose to a 30-year high. Canadians are feeling the impacts hardest at the grocery store, where prices have been affected in part by supply chain issues. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance is currently studying inflation, and while the Bank of Canada opted to keep interests rates steady in January, Bank of Canada Governor, Tiff Macklem has hinted that rate hikes are coming sooner than later.
The pandemic: While restrictions are beginning to ease across the country, public health officials have cautioned that the sheer volume of COVID infection rates associated with the Omicron variant continues to test Canada’s health care system. Pandemic fatigue among Canadians is at an all time high, shaking confidence in public health measures and lowering tolerance of restrictions. The federal government has a delicate balancing act to perform: holding steady on the fight against COVID-19 to mitigate against surges and new variants while also forging ahead with the “build back better” phase of our recovery.
The Canada Health Transfer: Premiers are ramping up their pressure on Justin Trudeau to have the federal government increase its share of health care funding to the provinces and territories. The Prime Minister has continuously messaged to the premiers that he is open to having this conversation only once the “acute crisis” of the pandemic has passed. With capacity health care capacity stretched across the country, the premiers are getting impatient – expect them to ratchet up the pressure on coming to a new funding agreement.
Supply chains: Global supply chain challenges are impacting nearly every sector across Canada. Challenges are wide-ranging and include shortages of critical materials like semi-conductors and disruptions driven by the pandemic, including absenteeism of employees who have been exposed or infected. The federal government has begun consultations with those impacted through the National Supply Chain Summit, which commenced January 31 with additional consultations to come.
Ukraine: Tensions continue to run high as Russia has amassed troops on Ukraine’s border in an attempt to secure a commitment from Ukraine to not join NATO. Canada has been supportive of Ukraine, alongside other NATO allies and has provided Canadian troops to assist with security force training. Defence Minister Anita Anand was in Kyiv on January 30 and 31. The House of Commons will hold a debate on the situation in Ukraine on the evening of January 31.
What to Expect Next
As the House resumes sitting until June 23 when it will rise for the summer break, here is what we expect next:
While many criticized the Liberals for a slow return to parliament once the writs of the election had been returned, to the surprise of many a flurry of legislation was successfully passed before rising for the winter break – including a ban on conversion therapy which was supported by the Conservatives.
When the election was called this summer, a number of bills that had been introduced by the Liberals died on the Order Paper, and we expect many of those to be re-introduced, including legislation related to strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and reforming the Privacy Act for the digital age.
The Liberals also committed to passing several bills in their first 100 days of government – the self-imposed deadline expires on February 3. To fulfill this commitment the Liberals will have to introduce legislation related to:
- Updating the Broadcasting Act to regulate foreign web giants, and ensure they contribute to the creation and promotion of Canadian content. This commitment was previously captured in Bill C-10, which passed the House, but not Senate.
- Requiring web giants that link to media content on their digital platforms, to compensate the media companies who originally created the content. Canadian legislation will mirror Australia’s.
- Combatting harmful online content.
- Updating the Officials Languages Act.
Many committees are meeting early this week to discuss their forward agendas, including the new Standing Committee on Science and Research, the Transportation Committee, International Trade, National Defence Committee, and the Heritage Committee.
Key studies already underway or set to take place:
- The Standing Committee on Finance is currently studying inflation and as of January 31 has started calling stakeholders to appear as the committee gets set to make recommendations in advance of the 2022 budget.
- The Standing Committee on Industry and Technology is currently undertaking a study related to critical minerals and will soon publish a report on the committee’s findings related to a previous study on the Rogers-Shaw deal.
- The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics will commence a study on the collection and use of mobile data by the federal government.
- The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development will receive a briefing from Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development on February 1 and will likely soon undertake a study on the management of nuclear waste.
- The Standing Committee on Natural Resources may revive its study of Canada’s low-carbon and renewable fuels industry.
The federal government will present its next federal budget in 2022 – while there is no date set yet, it is likely the budget will be presented in March or April. The finance committee is currently preparing to make recommendations to the House on what should be funded in the upcoming budget. The Department of Finance just launched its own pre-budget consultations today.
On January 5, a number of significant changes to the senior ranks of the public service were announced. We expect more changes to the deputy and assistant deputy minister ranks soon. Notably, the deputy minister tasked with procurement policy, Paul Glover, announced his imminent retirement after the last significant shuffle, and in an effort to fill such a pivotal role, a domino effect with senior positions is expected.
On the political side, while Erin O’Toole seemingly can’t shake questions about his leadership, expect that leadership conversations will also start heating up within the Liberal Party. Many believe that Trudeau will not contest another election as leader, paving the way for conversations on succession planning. Those who we speculate are currently considering runs for leadership are: Chrystia Freeland, Francois Phillipe Champagne, Anita Anand, Melanie Joly, and Mark Carney.