The border, the budget and chafing over 'the centre': federal politics this week

By The Canadian Press
March 10, 2017 - 2:45pm

OTTAWA — The delight and optimism surrounding International Women's Day persisted over several days on Parliament Hill this week, with all the political parties piling on with speeches and toasts to women in politics.

A roster of 338 young women — one from each riding, organized by advocacy group Equal Voice — took over the House of Commons on Wednesday, to the applause of real MPs from across the political spectrum.

But the merciless cut and thrust of politics was never far away. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an impassioned speech, plus funding, in support of safe access to abortion around the world — a not-so-subtle dig at Conservatives for avoiding such support during their time in power. And Sophie Gregoire Trudeau sent out a Liberal party fundraising appeal on the heels of it all.

At the same time, the week saw concrete developments in grassroots politics, problems with the Canada-U.S. border and the pending federal budget. Here are three ways Canadian politics touched us this week:

CHAFING OVER CENTRAL COMMAND

Trudeau may be riding high in public opinion polls, but both his caucus and Liberal party members thumbed their noses at him this week and exercised some independent thinking.

On Wednesday, 104 members of the Liberal caucus voted with the Conservatives and the NDP to support a bill that aims to prevent genetic discrimination — despite arguments from the prime minister and the justice minister that aspects of the bill are not constitutional.

The proposed law would make it illegal to require someone to take a genetic test or to disclose previous results of genetic testing as a condition of an insurance policy. But it's now caught up in a power struggle, with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould signalling she will refer it to the Supreme Court for clarity — a process that could put the bill on hold for a couple of years.

Also on Wednesday, Liberal party members in the Montreal riding of Saint-Laurent rejected the favoured choice of the Prime Minister's Office to stand as the Liberal candidate in an upcoming byelection.

Instead of backing former provincial cabinet minister Yolande James, they voted for a 26-year-old high school teacher known for her persistent door-knocking in the riding.

BORDER POLITICS

The federal government is slowly gaining some clarity on how to handle Donald Trump's border machinations.

Trump issued a new travel ban early this week that was far easier for Ottawa to navigate than the previous version. This time, the executive order gave officials 10 days to go through the fine print, and also made clear that Canadian passport holders would not be affected, even if they are dual nationals.

On the trade front, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has set out what looks to be a schedule of sorts that will see negotiations to change the North American Free Trade Agreement start in earnest later this year, with first steps coming within a couple of weeks.

And Ottawa is now feeling comfortable enough about its relationship with the Trump administration to speak out publicly against proposals for a border tax, which would penalize Canadian exports to the United States. Trudeau criticized the proposals in a speech in Houston, even as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland privately brought up the matter with Ross.

PRE-BUDGET POSITIONING

Finance Minister Bill Morneau will roll out his second budget on March 22, and the building blocks are quickly falling into place.

Three more provinces signed bilateral health deals with Ottawa this week, paving the way for the federal government to write the long-term spending plan into the budget. The deals mirror the money set out by the previous Conservative government plus a little bit extra over the long term for mental health, home care or help with opioids and addiction issues.

Morneau was also standing alongside the big banks this week when they announced a $1-billion fund to help small and medium-sized companies expand — highlighting budget themes of growth and innovation.

Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains launched a faster process to bring in top talent from other countries — another note that will be sounded repeatedly on March 22.

And Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is travelling across the country to explain why the middle class feels so much angst these days, setting out the philosophical framework for the budget.

Heather Scoffield, Ottawa Bureau Chief, The Canadian Press

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