Welcome back, Harper

Now that the House of Commons is back in session after an extended winter break, watch to see how the Conservative government handles problems they've created and fights they've picked.


1. Stephen Harper's bagman

Will Senator Irving Gerstein stay on Harper's good side, despite being knee-deep in the Senate spending scandal and cover-up in the Prime Minister's Office? The RCMP allege Gerstein agreed to have the party pay off Senator Mike Duffy’s bogus expenses, but withdrew the offer when he found out the bill topped $90,000.

The Mounties also allege Gerstein tried to influence an external audit into the Senate expense scandal by calling up a buddy at Deloitte to encourage the auditing firm to drop Duffy, a Harper appointee, from its probe. Did we mention Gerstein is the Conservative Party's chief fundraiser?

That may be why he's still standing, but watch to see how Harper defends the indefensible.

 

2. The loyal soldiers

With Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau gone from the Senate for now, how do you solve a problem like this trio of Conservative senators: David Tkachuk, Marjory Lebreton and Carolyn Stewart Olsen? Their version of events of the Senate spending scandal are being challenged by the RCMP, so will Harper finally throw them under the bus? It could get even trickier, now that Canada’s auditor general has wrapped up the first part of his investigation into Senate spending that touched all three senators. Michael Ferguson's results are expected to be released within weeks. Yikes.

 

3. Mr. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Clear

Speaking of the Senate mess, will Harper keep MP Paul Calandra front and centre in Question Period as the PM's point man on scandal-related questions? If he does, it won't be pretty. Watch Calandra repeat how "very clear" he's being 24 times in under an hour, and you'll see why Calandra’s broken record line quickly became meme-worthy. A website popped up, mocking his go-to lines to deflect from the Senate scandal, including the one about his dad's pizza shop and two young daughters.


4. The Minister for seniors fitness and rail disasters

Expect Transport Minister Lisa Raitt to be on her feet to answer a lot of questions. She was so fortunate last month when Canada Post went public just one day after the House of Commons rose for an extended Christmas break with its plan to kill door-to-door mail delivery in Canada's cities, part of a sweeping five-point plan to slash services and raise prices. Raitt, the minister responsible for the file, defended the move, pitched by the president of Canada Post as a way for seniors to get exercise.
 
We'll no doubt also hear that rail safety is a "top priority" for the Conservative government, even as Canada's Transportation Safety Board issued three urgent recommendations last week to fix huge safety gaps in the system in the wake of last year's Lac Mégantic rail disaster.

 

5. The job-killing, tax-hiking Finance Minister

Jim Flaherty has lots of explaining to do. He'll be tabling his budget in February on the heels of some dismal economic news that has undercut the Conservatives' "we're awesome at managing the economy" line: 60,000 full-time jobs were lost in December, translating into a loss of 46,000 jobs overall. That means Canada's jobless rate increased to 7.2%, up from 6.9%, the "biggest one-month increase in the rate since May 2009." And on average, Canadian employers created a "measly 8,500 jobs per month last year – just one-third of the moderate rate of employment growth experienced in 2012." Oh, and about that tax-cutting talk? Read this and this.
 


6. The anti-union surrogates

The anti-union bill (C-525) authored by Conservative backbencher Blaine Calkins resurfaced in the last session, building on a similar union-busting bill (C-377) of caucus colleague Russ Hiebert. The bill proposes to change certification and decertification procedures, shifting the current majority process to minority rule, where a threshold of 45 per cent could dissolve a union. With the pending retirement in June of Senator Hugh Segal, who led a rebellion against bill C-377 last session by gutting it and sending it back to the House of Commons, will Harper put these bills back on the front burner?
 
Photo: loneprimate. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.