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Economy top of mind as fall session nears

Dozens of bills to be debated in the House

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OTTAWA -- The economy continues to be the federal Conservatives' raison d'�tre as the government prepares for the coming fall session of Parliament.

The government will return to Ottawa on Sept. 17 with dozens of bills to debate, but as always it's the fiscal framework running the show.

"It's the economy, the economy, the economy; it's jobs and wealth creation," said Manitoba junior cabinet minister Steven Fletcher.

Although Canada's fiscal picture looks much better today than it did a year ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty warned earlier this month ongoing troubles in Europe and the United States are still putting pressure on Canada's economic engine.

He said he will step in with further economic-stimulus measures if necessary.

Which is an interesting prospect, considering the government is only partway through implementing its first austerity budget that aims to slash $5 billion from the government's operating budget by 2015.

Fletcher, who is in London this week for meetings with British cabinet ministers and a chance to attend the Paralympic Games, said Canadians have much to be proud of and thankful for, compared to what is happening in Europe.

"The kind of austerity the government is being forced to do is difficult for everyone, but the alternative is worse," he said. "In relative terms, I am very thankful to be a Canadian."

Along the economic theme, up high on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's agenda for the fall are the final negotiations for a Canada-European Union trade agreement this month and next. The government estimates the deal could add $12 billion to Canada's economy each year. However, negotiations on issues such as drug patents and the environment will be sticky.

There was speculation last spring Harper might prorogue before Sept. 17 and return instead with a throne speech and a new agenda. However, he ruled that option out in July.

House leader Peter Van Loan said the focus on the economy will include a second budget-implementation bill to deal with outstanding items from the 2012 budget. Opposition parties are bracing for that bill, after the first one packed amendments to nearly six dozen federal acts into 452 pages. Opposition parties criticized the government for using the budget bill to make sweeping changes to environmental protections and changing things affecting immigration, pensions and food inspections.

Last fall, Harper used his first full session after winning a majority to usher through long-promised changes, including ending the long-gun registry and the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly. This fall's agenda thus far will look to deal with more than a dozen bills that have been introduced but not debated, including Senate reform, fiscal accountability for First Nations, human smuggling and tightening internal investigations at the RCMP.

It's not clear what will happen to the government's most controversial piece of legislation. Bill C-30 was introduced by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in February but was hit with a massive backlash from across the country, including within the Conservative caucus. The bill would allow the government to get information on people who use the Internet without having a warrant. The backlash led the bill to stay on the sidelines throughout the spring sitting and it's not expected to come up for debate any time soon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2012 A9

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