Five stories we’re watching

The Maclean’s Ottawa bureau on yesterday’s stories and tomorrow’s headlines

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, Sept.17,2012 .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld</p>

CP/Adrian Wyld

The political workweek of Sept. 17-21 churned up five stories the endings of which have yet to be written.

  1. Treasury Board President Tony Clement promised reforms to the lobbying laws. More public servants will be covered, Clement said on Sept. 17, not just the top echelon of mandarins. But he seems unwilling to close a key loophole: in-house arm-twisters for companies and interest groups who spend less than 20 per cent of their time lobbying still won’t have to publicly disclose their contacts with government. So, will Clement’s reform package, still months from being tabled, draw more critical attention to such gaps than positive reviews for any improvements?
  2. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s about-face on China—from tough-on-human-rights to wide-open-for-business—arguably has been the key foreign-policy maneuver of his six years in power. And that shift seemed to pave the way for federal approval of a Chinese state-owned corporation’s bid to buy Canadian oil company Nexen. But on Sept. 18, Ted Menzies, a Tory MP well worth listening to as junior finance minister, bluntly stated that he’s heard “many concerns” about the deal. Does Menzies’ remark signal that rejection of the deal is more likely than many previously thought?
  3. The Conservatives have made enhancing Canada’s Arctic sovereignty a pillar of their political image-making efforts. Funding the search for Franklin’s lost ships fits the bill. But news on Feb. 19 from U.S. scientists of what one researcher called “a stunning loss of sea ice” in the Arctic this past summer, to record low ice and snow cover, should raise the stakes. After all, the Tories canceled funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. If the Far North really matters, they may need to rethink their commitment to understanding climate change.
  4. Also on Sept. 19, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said he would appeal an Ontario court ruling that struck down a Conservative criminal law reform from 2008, which put the onus on certain criminals to prove they should not be designated dangerous offenders, rather than requiring the Crown to prove they should be. This latest in a string of clashes between the Conservative government and the courts comes just after the Tories said they’d appeal a Quebec judge’s ruling that the province’s government should be able to keep the data from the scrapped gun registry. It’s a pattern of growing interest; battling the courts, rather than the parliamentary opposition, could emerge as the defining dynamic of Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda.
  5. The workweek ends with Statistics Canada reporting that inflation slowed more than expected last month, a sign of the economy’s worrying lack of vigor. This comes after recent news that factory sales are down, the trade deficit it up, and building permits—a key indicator of housing-market action—have slumped. Politically, the question is, Does Stephen Harper benefit by selling his Conservatives as reliable managers for uneasy economic times, or does Thomas Mulcair capitalize if voters decide things aren’t going all that well under current management? The politics of party brand strengths will matter if the economy doesn’t pick up in the months ahead.