Canada

Cleaning up the leftovers

The Liberals want to head into the next federal election with a clean slate

John Geddes September 25 2000
Canada

Cleaning up the leftovers

The Liberals want to head into the next federal election with a clean slate

John Geddes September 25 2000

Cleaning up the leftovers

The Liberals want to head into the next federal election with a clean slate

By John Geddes in Ottawa

Like kids going back to school with new pencils and pristine pink erasers, MPs like to think of the fall opening of a new House of Commons sitting as a fresh start. But for some prominent Liberals, there are unfinished assignments left over from last springs semester. A few powerful cabinet ministers, including some who will be called upon to play key roles in the election expected next year, need to wrap up old business on issues from protecting endangered wildlife to prosecuting teenage criminals. Liberal campaign strategists do not want to carry the dead weight of stalled bills and derailed initiatives into an election season, so the pressure is on to turn these problem files into winners—or walk away from them.

Among the most potentially explosive election issues is crime. Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day has served notice he will make law and order a core platform theme. The cornerstone of the Liberals’ claim to be taking action in this area is the Youth Criminal Justice Act that Justice Minister Anne McLellan announced on March 11, 1999. But the new law, now being studied by a Commons committee, is under heavy fire from the Alliance, some provincial governments and outspoken victims’ rights groups. McLellan’s bill does take steps that could be sold as get-tough provisions, such as dropping to 14 from 16 the age at which judges can decide to sentence violent young offenders to adult prison terms. But the Alliance calls for making those adult sentences mandatory. And Bloc Québécois MPs have held up the bill at the committee stage, arguing it intrudes on Quebec’s jurisdiction. McLellan is preparing to tinker, but not retreat. “We’re going to move this through [the House] quickly,

quickly, quickly,” said one of her aides.

On the environment, the Liberals hope to go on the offensive in an election. The party’s polling firm, Pollara Inc., recently found that 45 per cent of Canadians say environmental issues will play a very important role in how they vote. To exploit that mood, the governing party needs a track record to tout. Environment Minister David Anderson tabled his most ambitious new law, the Species at Risk Act, on April 11. Anderson had to tread carefully, since environment is a shared jurisdiction with the provinces. His law aims to protect endangered species first through voluntary measures, cooperating with provinces and

private landowners whenever possible. “But where other measures fail,” he warned, “the federal government will step in with prohibitions on the destruction of critical habitat on federal, provincial and private lands.”

That failed to satisfy many environmental groups. A backlash has been sustained by a coalition called the Canadian Endangered Species Campaign. Its key criticism: even though independent scientists would evaluate which species are at risk, the federal cabinet would decide whether to take action to protect them. A “report card” released last month by four environmental groups assigned Anderson’s bill a D-minus, slamming it for leaving too much room for “political discretion.” Anderson is expected to appear before a Commons committee to defend his bill—and propose at least minor changes—as early as this week. But his critics should not expect too much. “People who want fundamental changes should know we’re just not going to do that,” said one official.

Other old Liberal projects once considered high priorities are considered expendable. Late last year, Health Minister Allan Rock’s staff was working overtime to prepare a sweeping “reproductive technology” law. It was to have done everything from banning the sale of human eggs and sperm to regulating embryo research. But wrangling with the provinces and the medical community held Rock back. Now, his officials concede privately the initiative is all but dead. “Right now,” said one Liberal strategist, “reproductive technology is not on top of anybody’s hit parade.” With an election in the wind, a hit is whatever is judged likely to sound catchy on the campaign trail. EZ3