OTTAWA — Two months after Canadians returned a minority Liberal government to power. the country’s 338 members of Parliament are gearing up to return to the House of Commons.
Here are five things to watch for amid the pomp and circumstance, politics and policy choices that will start playing out as of Monday.
Election of the Speaker
Before the House of Commons can get down to business, the first step is for MPs to elect the person who will preside over the chamber and help keep them on track as they carry out their work — the Speaker.
The Speaker from the last Parliament, Liberal Anthony Rota, is the odds-on favourite, but at least two Conservative MPs and another Liberal are eyeing the job.
The vote is wrapped up in ceremony. Presided over by the longest-serving member of Parliament, it usually involves a colourful parade from the Senate to the House of Commons chambers, where the winner is playfully dragged to their seat in a show of feigned reluctance.
That tradition dates back to the job of the Speaker in the British Parliament to communicate messages from the Commons to the monarch — when being the bearer of unwelcome news could result in death.
Will any MPs not be in their seats?
As of Nov. 22, all members of Parliament — and anyone else working in the Parliament buildings — must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have an approved medical exemption.
The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois have all confirmed the vaccination status of their members, something the Conservatives have held off publicly disclosing.
On Friday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told CBC that all 118 of his MPs will be present, as each is either fully vaccinated or has a medical exemptions. When asked to confirm that, however, O’Toole’s office would only say that all Conservative MPs would abide by the rules.
The Tories have also said they will challenge the way the vaccination requirement was implemented at their first opportunity. To raise that issue in the House, however, they will need to wait at least until the Speaker is elected, and likely until after the throne speech.
The speech from the throne
This address to Parliament, laying out the government’s priorities for the coming session, will be read in the Senate chamber on Tuesday by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon.
While Simon’s appointment earlier this year was heralded as historic — she is the first Inuk to hold the job — she has also acknowledged she speaks little French. It remains unclear how much French (or Inuktitut, in which she is fluent) will find its way into her remarks.
The Governor General can add a paragraph or two of their own priorities to the list, but the speech is a recap of policy promises woven together with the themes the governing party wants to emphasize.
Since the election, the minority Liberals have already moved ahead with some key campaign commitments: COVID-19 vaccination mandates for travel and the public service, child care funding deals with the province, and new pledges on climate change.
But other issues have come to the fore since last summer’s election, and observers will be watching to see if or how they merit a mention in the Liberals’ to-do list. Notable among those are the disaster unfolding in British Columbia, and persistently high inflation that’s resulting in the price of everyday goods continuing to skyrocket.
Some veterans are also advocating for a mention in the speech about the ongoing sexual misconduct crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces, a problem the Liberals have pledged to address.
With a minority Parliament, the Liberals will need co-operation from at least one other party to pass any item on their agenda, so the speech could also contain some hints of where they seem room for agreement with their rivals.
The opposition parties each get a chance in the coming days to formally reply to the speech from the throne. The speech itself eventually goes to a vote, one of a handful of votes in Parliament that are considered matters of confidence in the government. That means if the speech is not approved by the House, an election could be called.
That’s unlikely to happen in the short term, but the threat of a lost confidence vote will return to hang over this session of Parliament, much like it did the last.
The Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois all have ideas they want to advance in the coming months, in order to have something to take back to voters whenever the next election is called.
Look for the Tories to focus on inflation and related economic issues, while the New Democrats will aim their early fire at the end of pandemic-related benefits and the precarious financial state of Canadians who are losing them. The BQ will focus on climate change and health-care funding — and the ongoing demand from Quebec and other provinces for the government to massively increase how much money it provides them.
Where the action will actually happen
When the country all but shut down in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, Parliament took a brief hiatus before returning with a hybrid format that spring.
That format — some MPs attending in person, some participating online — remained in place until Parliament dissolved for the last election.
For such an approach to resume, all parties would have to agree on it again — which is unlikely, given that the Conservatives staunchly oppose a virtual Parliament as they argue it allows the government to escape real scrutiny — or a majority of MPs could vote to continue with the hybrid model. Such a vote in the House of Commons would likely pass with Liberal and NDP support, allowing MPs to continue trading the chamber for a Zoom room for the foreseeable future.
How soon that vote will take place isn’t clear but many are hoping it comes at least after highly anticipated first question period, currently scheduled for Wednesday.
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