OTTAWA — Any hope the Liberals had of a quiet Thanksgiving break melted away quickly this week, even with MPs back in their ridings and all the party leaders politicking in distant places.
The hullabaloo over the government’s tax proposals degenerated into a head-scratcher, with the governing party having to revise, re-explain and eventually retract an obscure tax change on retail employees’ benefits that suddenly grabbed the public’s interest.
After weeks of loud criticism over measures to crack down on the personal use of private corporations in order to pay lower taxes, news of the retail employees tax landed hard. The Liberals blamed the civil service at first, then moved to cancel it outright.
While it’s still unclear whether slivers of that measure still exist, it is clear the government’s credibility on tax policy is under some intense pressure — coming to a head on Monday when Finance Minister Bill Morneau will appeal to Liberal MPs to support a rejigged tax-reform package that he hopes will be less contentious.
Even with noise about taxes aside, the week in federal politics was loud, with developments around NAFTA, the future of energy and the fight for byelection voters in the Saguenay. Here’s how politics mattered this week:
OUTRAGE OVER AUTOS
Trade negotiators from Canada, the United States and Mexico are meeting for their fourth round of talks to revamp NAFTA, and Team USA is taking the negotiations to a whole new level of antagonism.
After taunting Canada and Mexico with seemingly unworkable proposals on government procurement and a five-year sunset clause on a new deal, American officials are now rolling out their ideas on how much North American content should be included in cars to be considered acceptable for tariff-free treatment.
The American rules-of-origin stance has spooked Canada from the beginning, with many an expert and official fearing that Canada’s large auto sector is very vulnerable to the whims of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has complained loudly about auto production shifting to Mexico.
At first glance, the U.S. stance lives up to its billing, demanding so much North American content as to make a tariff actually preferable — and prompting observers to wonder if the U.S. is bargaining in good faith.
Warnings about the death of NAFTA have loomed large. Even as Trump met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Washington to discuss the pact this week, the U.S. president threatened yet again to tear it up. As Trudeau moved on to Mexico to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto, talk turned to Plan B — life without NAFTA.
IT’S A PLAN! IT’S A STRATEGY! NO, IT’S A VERY LONG CONVERSATION
How is Canada going to move to an era of renewable energy and environmental protection even as the national economy is dependent on fossil fuels, and is torn about how to best benefit from its natural resources?
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr has been canvassing the country on those questions, and this week he had been expected to set out his big vision for national energy.
Hundreds of experts and industry players went to a days-long Winnipeg conference to discover where he is heading. Instead of a formal strategy, however, the minister is pointing to further consultation and a piece-by-piece approach to regulating energy.
That will start with revisions to the environmental assessment process and the National Energy Board. But how the government sees an east-west energy grid or the development of pipelines fitting into the broader plan is still a mystery.
SIDLING UP TO SAGUENAY
While Trudeau was rubbing elbows in Washington and Mexico City, the new leaders of the Conservatives and the NDP were both jetting off to the often-sovereigntist Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region to give their local candidates a boost in an upcoming byelection.
The Oct. 23 vote will be telling for all involved, since the seat is the Conservatives to lose, and since the new NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, is untested in Quebec.
Their visits gave us a glimpse into the newbies’ style of politics. Singh gamely answered a stream of questions about his views on separation, national unity, religion and its ties to politics — and his turban.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who arrived a couple days after Singh left, faces a challenge in maintaining the seat after the resignation of longtime Tory Denis Lebel, who won the riding by just 33 per cent of the vote in 2015. The Conservatives have put a high priority on growing their 11-seat base in Quebec in the next election.
Heather Scoffield, Ottawa Bureau Chief, The Canadian Press