Trade, taxes and transportation: welcome back to the Hill

MPs expecting a quiet return to Parliament Hill had better hold onto their hats: this fall session is shaping up to be a whirlwind.

The circus that is the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations is headed to Ottawa later this week. Negotiators and officials will gather in the nation’s capital for the third round of trade talks starting Sept. 23. Talks are scheduled for five days.

Canada, the United States and Mexico head into this round in ardent disagreement over the latest ask from Washington: a five-year sunset clause on the entire deal.

Canada and Mexico shut down the idea immediately, making it another Washington request to spark swift condemnation. Neither Canada nor Mexico is prepared to renegotiate NAFTA every five years to ensure it doesn’t disappear.

Nor is it clear where the current talks are headed. Tensions remain around known contentious files like dispute settlement regulations, rules of origin and supply management. How much progress, if any, has been made on those files is unclear.

Whether fissures on those or other files will emerge in Ottawa remains anyone’s guess.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a speech Sept. 18 at the Washington Centre for Strategic and International Studies that he wasn’t entirely sure where the talks were headed.

“We’re moving at warp speed, but we don’t know whether we’re going to get to a conclusion, that’s the problem. We’re running very quickly … somewhere,” he said.

Meanwhile, the House of Commons international trade committee is continuing its study on stakeholder priorities for bilateral and trilateral trade in North America.

NAFTA isn’t the only file moving through Ottawa at record speed.

Opposition continues to proposed Liberal tax changes to corporations which, if implemented, would have a significant effect on Canadian small businesses and agriculture.

The proposals, which were announced in July, are subject to a consultation period that ends in early October, a time frame that happens to fall in the middle of harvest.

The Conservatives have made it clear they oppose the plan, and party insiders say they plan to make it their top priority.

They made good on that promise within minutes of MPs taking their seats in the House of Commons Sept. 18, with several questions to various Liberals, including Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

The Liberals continue to insist the proposed tax changes are aimed at making the Canadian tax system more fair.

Trade and taxes aren’t the only hot-button files on the House agenda.

The House Transport committee came back a week early to start its study on Ottawa’s planned overhaul of the Canadian transportation system, including long promised changes to grain transportation and an airline passenger bill of rights.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau had promised to have the legislation in place before the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act expired in July. The new timeline is to have the legislation in place sometime this autumn.

Opposition efforts to pull out the grain section to try and have that portion passed before the House rose for its summer recess failed. It remains unclear whether the Liberals are open to amending the legislation.

With a busy House agenda looming, the federal government may be forced to use time allocation, which limits debate and is often controversial, to ensure it can meet that timeline.

As for the House agriculture committee, MPs are launching into their study on Ottawa’s promise to develop a food policy for Canada. Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay has promised to have the policy complete this spring.

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