First Nations first: the political agenda as the House returns

John Geddes considers the PM's To Do list at the start of 2013

When it comes to assessing the performance of political leaders, there’s often a good deal of talk about how well they succeed at setting the agenda. But since the agenda rarely conforms for long to anyone’s manipulations, what matters more is how well they adjust to the unexpected.

Stephen Harper didn’t plan for aboriginal affairs to emerge as the dominant federal issue at the start of 2013. But when the House resumes sitting on Jan. 28, he’ll have to cope anyway with a first order of business imposed largely by Idle No More and Theresa Spence.

The Prime Minister will try, judging from his own public statements and comments made by his officials and cabinet ministers, to pull this unwieldy set of issues, foisted on him by shopping-mall drum circles and a fasting chief, into the safer confines of his own, preferred economic agenda.

To that end, he’ll argue that the way to offer new hope to impoverished reserves is to link their fortunes to natural resource developments. Instead of seeing First Nations’ grievances in sweeping historic and constitutional terms, Harper will frame the problem as an underutilized labour pool that could be matched with an expanding economic sector. Better education, his government contends, is the key. So listen for that theme when Harper meets one-on-one, as planned for sometime in the next few weeks, with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.

Oddly, Harper’s preference for casting issues in economic terms doesn’t mean this year’s budget will be all that big a deal. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is signaling that 2013’s fiscal blueprint will be an uncommonly tight one. Indeed, with the economy cooling, he won’t have the tax revenue for much fresh spending. (How, though, will Flaherty meet credible demands to fund infrastructure?)

Severe restraint on budget-making leaves the Conservatives in need of other ways to show that they are making a difference when it comes to jobs and prosperity. The need to fill that gap makes finalizing a Canada-European Union trade deal—expected early this year—even more politically crucial.

And with Flaherty’s restraint sure to continue squeezing many federal programs, Harper needs to avoid sending the message that he’s failing to exert spending control elsewhere—especially on the purchase of new military jets. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose has the lead on that troublesome file. Within the first few months of this year, Ambrose should have the independent reports she needs to recommend sticking with Lockheed Martin’s troubled F-35, or beginning in earnest some new process for choosing an alternative fighter. Either way, it’ll be a controversial call—certain to spark turmoil in the House.

Opposition leaders have even less power than prime ministers to dictate the agenda, and thus generally need to be even more opportunistic. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, however, has lately shown some caution. Mulcair kept his distance, for instance, from Chief Spence’s hunger strike, and has generally avoided sounding like he’s trying to score easy points on the file. Popular reaction to First Nation protests is at best unpredictable.

On other files, Mulcair is hardly likely to holding back. His NDP has to be annoyed that news broke before the House resumed sitting on the federal ethics commissioner finding that Flaherty violated conflict of interest rules by trying to influence a CRTC decision. That’s the sort of lapse they will make QP fodder every time. The looming question concerning ethics is when Elections Canada will come to any conclusions in its investigations, now featuring RCMP help, into Tories being behind deceptive campaign robocalls. Any development there would carry obvious agenda-disrupting importance.

Until something like that happens, one of Mulcair’s most difficult tasks will be somehow making last year’s government actions seem fresh enough to still deserve this year’s attention. Key Harper moves from 2012—streamlining approval of resource projects, pushing Employment Insurance recipients to take jobs, requiring Canadians to work a couple more years to qualify for Old Age Security—all remain NDP targets. But in an era of epidemic mass-media ADD, can measures unveiled months and months ago, no matter how lastingly important, keep commanding our interest?

Beyond the control of either Harper or Mulcair is the Liberal leadership contest. Both must be hoping Justin Trudeau’s lead continues to look insurmountable, robbing the race of suspense. Until Liberals (and mere supporters of the party, under its new rules) vote for the new leader on April 14, Bob Rae will lead the third-place party in the House. Watch for Harper or Mulcair to pay Rae a good deal of respect—the better to hint that Liberals passed on their most prime-ministerial option.

As for trying to look prime-ministerial, Mulcair is planning spring trips to both the U.S. and Europe. There’s nothing like a jaunt abroad, complete with photo-ops beside impressive foreign figures, to put a little statesmanlike gloss on a political scrapper. Harper, for his part, isn’t expected to be travelling near as often as he did last year. But perhaps focusing on Canada’s own First Nations, which seem in so many respects worlds apart within our borders,  will feel just as much like venturing into unfamiliar territory.