IN THE NEWS ~ MPs to focus on expense scandal, election strategy at upcoming summer caucuses

Byelections, expense scandals and ethics issues will be top of mind as political parties gear up for their summer caucus meetings ahead of an anticipated Parliamentary prorogation and subsequent throne speech.

The Liberal Party will hold its caucus meeting from Aug. 26 to 28 on Prince Edward Island, and Liberal caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.) told The Hill Times MPs will be focused on strategy, logistics and policy for the next election.

"Each party member is doing work on the ground preparing their campaigns, and the party is preparing the national campaign, and our policy process is in full gear so we'll be developing our platform over the next couple of years," he said, adding that the upcoming caucus meeting "is an opportunity to get together after a few months of colleagues not seeing each other for the most part," as both MPs and potential election candidates have also been visiting with constituents across the country throughout the summer.

It also provides a chance for Liberals to prepare for two upcoming byelections in ridings that traditionally vote for their candidates.

"The caucus meeting will bring us news about what's happening on the ground in Toronto," referring to the upcoming byelection in Toronto Centre, Ont., former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae's seat.

In the Bourrassa, Que., byelection, a seat vacated by longtime Liberal MP Denis Coderre, Mr. Scarpaleggia said, "Things are going very well, and that we have a good candidate."

Quebec MNA Emmanuel Dubourg recently announced he is resigning from the provincial legislature to pursue the federal Liberal nomination.

"We have had success in that riding for years and years," Mr. Scarpaleggia said, adding that from what he's seen, people are also excited about Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) as the party's leader.

"People believe he will do extremely well in the next election," Mr. Scarpaleggia said. "It's a feeling it's not someone saying that specifically to you, it's more a sense you get when you go to barbecues and golf tournaments. There is a real sense that the Liberal Party is racing back."

He also noted that he's heard a lot from constituents about the spending scandal gripping the Senate. "There is a general feeling that there is a lot of wear-and-tear on the government," he said.

Mr. Scarpaleggia expects Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) to prorogue Parliament but said he didn't expect the anticipated delay to last long.

"We've got Sept. 16 in our sights as the day we go back could be later that week, but I wouldn't see it going past Thanksgiving."

Meanwhile, the NDP will hold their summer caucus meeting in Saskatoon, Sask., from Sept. 9 to 11, and will focus primarily on ethical issues within government and the economy, NDP principal secretary Karl Bélanger told The Hill Times.

"Ethics are still on everyone's mind when it comes to federal politics with everything happening in the Senate and the involvement of the Prime Minister's Office and the Conservative Party," he said.

Mr. Bélanger indicated that the NDP's official position on the Senate, that it should be abolished, has received a positive response from constituents across the country as party members met with voters in recent weeks.

"Our long-standing position on the Senate is helpful this summer because it is basically the biggest federal political story. We just launched our roll up the red carpet' campaign, which is getting a very good response," referring to the NDP's online petition campaign where Canadians can indicate their preference to close the Senate.

NDP MP and caucus chair Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C.) said there's a higher frustration level among Canadians toward the Conservatives, including people who voted for the party. "What we are seeing is scandal after scandal and an attitude of entitlement that is exactly the opposite of what they voted for," he said. "We are going to continue to push to get to the bottom of each one of these scandals."

He also noted that he doesn't expect these problems to fade from public view any time soon, predicting that the government's current problems could become "ballot-determining" for many voters including those who traditionally vote Conservative during the upcoming election.

"There are issues where people are momentarily interested, and then after a few days or weeks the issue fades away. I am certainly not feeling that with the Senate spending scandal and the other Conservative spending scandals these issues have legs, and as a result, this is something that Mr. Harper has to acknowledge."

The NDP also hopes to capitalize on what they say was a particularly good Parliamentary session for their leader Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.), said Mr. Bélanger, who "expects that we will pick up right where we left off" when Parliament closed its doors in June.

Mr. Bélanger said he hoped if Mr. Harper does prorogue Parliament that MPs will still return as scheduled on Sept. 16. "There is nothing preventing him from proroguing and bringing it back right away as he should. There are some issues the people want the government to be accountable for, and it is our job to ask those questions on their behalf and we expect the Prime Minister will give us that opportunity," he said.

The Conservative summer caucus meeting has not yet been scheduled, but Kayleigh Heathcote, a communications assistant Conservative MP and national caucus chair Guy Lauzon (Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, Ont.) told The Hill Times in an email that "caucus will remain focused on the economy, job creation, and long-term prosperity." Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said that although the Conservatives will likely try to shift the public's attention away from the Senate in their upcoming throne speech, they would be smart to continue appearing committed to the economy.

"The more the public perceives the Conservatives as good economic and fiscal managers whether they are or not then the less they perceive the other parties as being like that, especially the NDP," Prof. Wiseman said.

He also said he didn't think it was very likely that the Conservatives would introduce any new legislation concerning Senate reform when the House returns.

"We'll have to wait for the Supreme Court," he said. "That way it lets them off the hook."

The Conservatives sent a reference to the Supreme Court on Feb. 1 in an attempt to determine how far Parliament's legislative authority can be extended to reform or even abolish the Senate without opening up the constitution.

"Our government remains committed to Senate reform and we remain confident that Parliament has the authority to enact the improvements to the Senate contained in our Senate reform legislation," said Democratic Reform Minister of State Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, Ont.) in a July 31 press release.

The Supreme Court reference on the matter will be held on Nov. 12-14.

Meanwhile, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) said her party's federal council will be meeting in Ottawa from Nov. 2 to 3. She said her party has been focused on organizing for byelections as well as following the Senate expenses scandal. Ms. May explained that she didn't want the public to become distracted from older and unresolved spending issues such as the $90,000 cheque former PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright gave to Senator Mike Duffy to repay inelegible housing allowances. "To me, the Mike Duffy situation isn't Senate scandal, it's PMO scandal and I want to keep the focus on what was going on in the Prime Minister's Office."

The Hill Times


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