As the new year begins, policy-makers across Canada are gearing up for what looks be a busy year ahead. 2015 is expected to bring a packed political agenda with issues of both national and regional scope that will make for an interesting lead-up to the federal election scheduled for October 19 (although many are anticipating a spring election). The election is a common thread that will run through any and all policy work taken up this year, and it appears that there are already a few noteworthy challenges and emerging issues poised to take centre stage.
1. Oil Policy
As 2015 begins, Canada finds itself in the midst of a complicated and paradoxical period in terms of oil policy. On one hand, oil prices have and will continue to drop to unprecedented levels, leading to an estimated $13 billion in lost revenues – a figure that will continue to inflate if this trend persists. On the other hand, the $8 billion Canada-US Keystone XL Pipeline project is nearing approval on both sides of the border, even in the face of persistent opposition from various political actors, environmental advocacy groups, and First Nations/Native American communities. It is still expected to push on across the border in spite of unstable oil prices and the threat of President Obama vetoing legislation approved by the American Senate and Congress. In Canada, Prime Minister Harper and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice have been vocal about the virtues of the pipeline project and having recently taken up a vigorous lobbying effort in America to gain political support.
As long as oil prices remain volatile, policy-makers on all levels of government will need to consider how to respond to both short and long-term implications. Nationally, social programs such as Employment Insurance (EI) will be stretched thin as the future of various oil sands projects becomes uncertain – at least two companies have already cancelled upcoming projects in Alberta as a result of the price drop. On a provincial level, while net producers of oil such as Alberta and Newfoundland are preparing for an economic bust, net importers such as Ontario and BC may see an economic boom as lower prices drive down the Canadian dollar, drive up exports, and reduce manufacturing costs for local businesses. Yet while the Canadian public appreciates lower prices, there is significant concern about the potential impacts of the price drop. Very different expectations across the country means that both incumbents seeking re-election and new candidates in the upcoming federal election will need to shape their campaign narratives to avoid isolating any one jurisdiction of potential voters.
2. Overcoming Scandal
2015 will also be a year in which numerous political scandals that surfaced in recent months will reach a pinnacle: suspended Senator Mike Duffy will be on trial for 31 different charges in April; Senator Patrick Brazeau is expected to begin his own trial in late March; and retired Senator Mac Harb will be on trial come August. Current Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin has yet to be charged, but remains under investigation by the RCMP for fraud and breach of trust. Parliament is also grappling with several recent accusations of impropriety on the part of both Members of Parliament and political staffers across party lines: Dean Del Mastro, Michael Sona, Bruce Carson, and Manon Perreault will each make their way through Canada’s judicial system this year.
When Parliament reconvenes (on January 26), developments in these cases are likely to trickle down into question period, both as a smear tactic and in the form of a policy question considering if more stringent regulations are needed within government to address this apparent pattern of misbehaviour amongst elected officials. Canada’s Auditor General is also expected to release the findings of a Senate expense audit in March, detailing the spending of each of the country’s Senators. The culmination of recent and ongoing scandals and the potentially damaging content of the Auditor’s report will likely leave Senators, Parliamentarians, and election hopefuls on edge, concerned over a potential loss of public confidence.
3. Elections, Elections, Elections!
The federal government is not the only institution gearing up for an election in 2015, as provincial and municipal elections are also set to take place across the country. Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories each have provincial or territorial elections scheduled for the fall. All three of Canada’s territories will also conduct municipal-level elections at the end of the year. While it remains to be seen how much turnover will occur in each region, one can posit that elections happening at all three levels of government in such a close sequence will be in some way transformative.
The federal election in particular is expected to be one to watch — not only because of the growing atmosphere of competition between the major political parties, but also in light of regulatory changes that are expected reframe the campaign period. Canada’s electoral boundaries were redrawn in 2014 to introduce 30 new ridings; and amongst the original ridings, upwards of 70 percent have seen changes in electoral boundaries and riding names. This shakeup offers a strategic starting point for candidates entering the election period – the more seats up for grabs, the livelier the race. Given that these new boundaries take effect in May, pundits are waiting to see if Harper will call an spring election while his political momentum is strong. Knowing this, opposing parties consider themselves to be already fully engaged in the “election cycle”. A shakeup of officials post-election is always something to watch, as new and existing priorities — and people — attempt to coexist comfortably while governing on behalf of their constituents.
The dawn of a new year is more than a metaphorical clean slate in the policy world. It is an opportunity for policy-makers to carry over some of the previous year’s agenda items that warrant further attention; and perhaps more importantly, in an election year, it is a chance for incumbents to start fresh and reorient the public perception in their favour. As multiple elections loom, 2015 is off to a running start that is unlikely to slow down until the winners are revealed.
Deanna Veltri is a Master of Public Policy student at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and holds a Bachelor degree in Political Science from McGill University. Her areas of interests include gender policy and health policy.