IN THE NEWS ~ Budget bill expected as parliamentarians return from break

OTTAWA - The federal budget bill, the Conservative government's rejected Supreme Court selection and continued parliamentary brawling over proposed elections reforms will be in the spotlight when the House of Commons resumes sitting Monday.

It will also be the first time in eight years that someone other than Jim Flaherty will rise as the federal finance minister; that job now belongs to Joe Oliver, the former natural resources minister.

Here's a look at what to expect when members of Parliament return to the Commons on Monday following a two-week break:

Conservative government vs. Supreme Court:

Friday's ground-shifting ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada rejected the Harper government's appointment of Marc Nadon to the top court and leaves him scrambling to name a new Quebec judge.

In its 6-1 ruling, the country's highest court also declared unconstitutional the Conservative government's recent amendments to the Supreme Court Act, which had clarified the selection criteria for jurists from Quebec to allow Nadon to sit on the court.

"It was surprising. To me, this was a very, very qualified justice," said Government House leader Peter Van Loan. "The consequence of this decision from the court is that Quebecers actually have fewer options to make it to the Supreme Court of Canada than other Canadians, which is a very unusual paradox to see."

Tinkering on the front benches:

Jim Flaherty's surprise resignation last week as finance minister and the subsequent mini-cabinet shuffle will change the dynamics in the Commons on two of the government's most important portfolios: finance and natural resources.

Oliver, the former natural resources minister, takes over for Flaherty as federal finance minister. Along with the prime minister, Oliver will now be the face of the government's focus on the economy.

Expect sparks to fly. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has already called Oliver an "embarrassment" because of past controversial comments he made on climate change and environmental groups.

Northern Ontario Conservative MP Greg Rickford is the new natural resources minister. Aboriginal groups across Canada, especially in British Columbia, are demanding more meaningful consultation on projects such as oil and gas pipelines.

The federal cabinet must make a final decision by June on the contentious Enbridge Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline from northern Alberta to the port of Kitimat, B.C. A National Energy Board joint review panel has already conditionally approved the project.

London Conservative MP Ed Holder replaces Rickford as Minister of State for Science and Technology.

On the opposition side, the NDP has just shuffled a handful of its critic roles. Former Opposition House leader Nathan Cullen is now the party's point man on finance and will regularly battle Oliver in the House.

Peter Julian has shuffled over to be House leader and he's replaced in natural resources by Hamilton MP Chris Charlton.

Budget bill battle:

The Conservatives are expected to introduce legislation as early as this week to enact measures included in the February budget.

The government's budget bills in recent years have often been hundreds of pages long and sometimes included measures not directly related to the fiscal plan.

Van Loan said most of the measures announced in the budget will be in the implementation bill. Only very rarely will the government introduce extraordinary items in the bill that aren't related to the budget, he said, and "I can't think of any (extraordinary items) off the top of my head that are coming."

The Fair Elections Act:

The government and opposition will continue locking horns over the Fair Elections Act, which would overhaul the country's elections law.

The NDP calls the bill, currently before a parliamentary committee, the "Unfair Elections Act." The official Opposition says the bill, which creates stricter rules for voter identification, makes voting harder for some Canadians. However, the Conservatives argue the changes make it more difficult for people to cheat the system.

The Fair Elections Act also raises financial contribution limits to political parties, imposes new penalties on people making "robocalls" to deceive voters, and limits the powers of Canada's chief electoral officer to communicate with the public.

The NDP has been holding town hall meetings across Canada about the legislation. The party will use its opposition day Monday to introduce a motion calling on the government to abandon the bill because it will "disenfranchise many Canadians."

"We're going to clearly press this issue. We clearly think Canadians are on our side," Julian said.

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