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Parliament is resuming. What should progressives be watching for?

Now that the summer break is over, the federal government is back in session amidst a cost-of-living crisis.

September 14, 2023

4-minute read

On Sept. 18, parliament comes back into session. It’s been a bit of a raucous summer—the opposition Conservatives, led by Pierre Poilievre, are rising in the polls and the current minority government, propped up by a Liberal-NDP supply-confidence agreement, is looking shaky.

A new parliamentary session means the federal government will be moving forward on its legislative priorities—and, in the context of a rising opposition, possibly making some new and unexpected moves.

Housing

“Housing affordability has been on everyone’s mind this summer,” says David Macdonald, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “As interest rates stay high, mortgage costs have gone through the roof, actually driving up inflation in this area. On the other hand, high interest rates have dried up new residential builds inching us ever closer to a recession.”

In this context of an escalating cost-of-living crisis—particularly as it relates to housing—policy-makers can be expected to take some sort of action on the matter.

The federal government has been out of the social housing construction game since the 1980s and 1990s, when successive governments—both Conservative and Liberal—began to slash funds for social housing. Prior to those cuts, the federal cooperative housing program had constructed over 60,000 homes—a number which have dropped to zero since then, creating a decades-long deficit in non-market housing.

While federal politicians—both in government and in opposition—have been talking a lot about housing, very few have been focused on social, cooperative, and rental housing. Instead, they appear to be focused on private sector solutions, which has failed to produce affordable housing results so far.

“At a time when we need historic levels of new housing, particularly non-market housing, the private sector is pulling back and giving us historic declines,” Macdonald says. “There is a solution here—and it is much higher government involvement in directly funding new housing. This isn’t the time for home savings accounts and new-buyers tax credits, it's the time for new builds—and fast.”

Equity

“The federal government launched several policy initiatives earlier in their mandate but haven’t yet followed through,” says Katherine Scott, CCPA senior researcher. Scott says that if the government is aiming to shore up its faltering popularity, then it should take “bold action” on issues that matter to Canadians.

“Where is the new Employment Equity Act?” Scott asks. “Where are the long-promised reforms to Employment Insurance? Where’s the new pharmacare act and national formulary? ”

In particular, Scott will be watching for any progress on a proposed new Canada Disability Benefit. The federal government is set to begin consultations with disability stakeholders and provincial/territorial governments this fall, and, if all remains on schedule, it will release regulations in the spring.

“September 18 is the opening of parliament,” Scott says, “and it’s also the start of gender equality week. This is the perfect opportunity to take action.”

Climate

For CCPA Senior Researcher Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, who specializes in climate policy, this parliamentary session will be a key moment for Canada’s decarbonization process. He points out that the government tabled its Sustainable Jobs Act in June—an important piece of legislation that will determine how workers in the fossil fuel economy shake out of the climate transition. Will the transition help workers move into a clean energy economy?

“Labour and environmental advocates have been demanding just transition legislation in this vein for years,” Mertins-Kirkwood says. “But, while this new act is a strong statement of those principles, it comes up short on action.”

“It’s a plan to make a plan,” he says.

Some provincial governments have been openly challenging federal environmental legislation—including Alberta, where the provincial government has declared its intentions to defy federal legislation that would phase out carbon emissions from electricity generation. Such conflicts can be expected to flare up periodically, possibly during the fall parliamentary session—and possibly over the Sustainable Jobs Act, which the feds will continue to finesse with stakeholder consultations.

“The next few months could change the legislation as it makes its way through the parliamentary process,” Mertins-Kirkwood says. “Expect the opposition parties and key stakeholders, such as labour unions, to demand more tangible policy commitments from the government. Achieving a truly just transition to a cleaner economy requires more proactive efforts to create green jobs and support the retraining of workers from the fossil fuel industry.”

Post-secondary education

The legislative landscape for post-secondary education is less dynamic right now, says CCPA National Office Director Erika Shaker. While the federal government has some significant power in the field, it doesn’t appear to be a legislative priority to use it.

“Student debt remains a leading financial challenge for young Canadians,” Shaker says. “In 2019, students and former students owed about $39 billion. Nearly half of graduates end their time in school with student loans.”

Debt, she says, “plays a key role in driving young people into bankruptcy.”

It doesn’t need to be this way, says CCPA Research Assistant Ryan Romard. “The federal government is uniquely positioned to make an impact with progressive debt relief policies,” he says. “But it’s chosen instead to raise loan limits on the one hand and, on the other, eliminate interest on federal loans—literally the least they could do.”

“This parliament, the federal government is in a position to address the impact of debt on the current (and future) generation of students through debt elimination,” Romard says, “and implement meaningful investment in post-secondary institutions to end the user-pay model and eliminate the persistent reliance of institutions on precarious labour and contract work.”

If the federal government is serious about making good on its commitment to the next generation, Shaker says, then this is a move to consider. “It would be an immediate antidote to growing cynicism among young people—the fastest growing Canadian demographic—about how little their priorities seem to matter to decision-makers.”

Now or never

Where will the federal government place its priorities this session? Lawmakers in the governing caucus are pressuring leadership to take action on the cost of living, as they watch the opposition take ownership of the issue.

The government will likely try to take some of that terrain back from the opposition and introduce measures made to look like they’re doing something on the issue. Whether those measures are actually effective is another question—and if the governing parties want them to be, one way for them to do so would be to launch bold, publicly led projects, rather than tinkering around the edges and letting the private sector take the lead.

Unless that ends up being the case, we can continue to expect to watch the Conservative opposition eat the government’s lunch on bread-and-butter issues.

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