Parliament returns with Liberals focused on Ukraine, Tories trained on carbon price

The Liberals intend to move quickly to get a Ukraine free-trade bill back up for debate and pressure the Conservatives to support it as MPs return to the House of Commons today following the Christmas break.

The legislation to implement an updated free-trade agreement between Canada and Ukraine became unexpected political fodder in the fall when the Conservatives voted against it in a protest against carbon pricing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. The Liberals intend to move quickly to get a Ukraine free-trade bill back up for debate and pressure the Conservatives to support it as MPs return to the House of Commons today following the Christmas break. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

Ukraine has had a carbon price since 2011 and Canada since 2019 but the updated free-trade agreement calls on both to promote carbon pricing.

The Conservatives say they voted against the legislation solely because they won’t support any promotion of carbon pricing and have shown no signs of willing to budge.

Conservatives, meanwhile, will be wasting no time in bringing a carbon pricing carve-out for farmers onto the floor, with the potential to drive more holes in one of the Liberals’ signature climate policies.

The Conservative carbon-pricing bill to remove some additional farm fuels from carbon pricing was amended in the Senate and is up first for further debate this morning.

Several Ukrainian organizations in Canada criticized the Conservatives for the vote against the Ukrainian free-trade bill and the Liberals seized on it, accusing the Conservatives of bending to American right-wing commentators and politicians who have taken Russia’s side over Ukraine’s in the conflict.

Liberal House Leader Steven MacKinnon said the bill will be brought up for debate soon, as will legislation to implement the fall economic statement and one banning the use of replacement workers in most federally regulated workplaces. 

MacKinnon said Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has a choice to make about Ukraine.

“You know, we’re the only people that aren’t ridiculing his position on that,” said MacKinnon.

Poilievre said Conservatives will enter the session with a relentless focus on passing Bill C-234.

Gasoline and diesel used on farms is already exempted from carbon pricing because, for the most part, there are no alternatives. The legislation, brought forward by Conservative MP Ben Lobb, seeks to remove carbon pricing from natural gas and propane as well. 

The bill passed the House of Commons easily nearly a year ago with support from all parties except the Liberals. But the Senate voted to amend the bill in December, leaving only propane for grain drying to be exempted. 

Lobb said Sunday that he rejected those amendments, telling reporters he expects it to return to the House as it was initially written. 

That bill now has to be further debated in the House of Commons, and if passes puts both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in a bit of a political bind. 

Both have pledged no more carve-outs from carbon pricing after they moved in October to remove it from heating oil for three years. That decision, which they insist was made to give heating oil users more time and money to replace their oil furnaces with electric heat pumps, was met with significant political criticism.

With heating oil more prominent in Atlantic Canada the Liberals were accused of pandering to the region to win back votes.

Poilievre will kick off 2024 in Parliament much like he spent the previous year, with a hawklike focus on the cost-of-living anxieties plaguing Canadians, which range from housing affordability to grocery prices. 

His decision to do so throughout 2023 saw him rise to the top of the polls, leaving Trudeau’s Liberals scrambling to catch up. 

“Conservatives will fight throughout this session,” Poilievre told his caucus on Sunday, “to axe the tax, build the homes, fix the budget, stop the crime.” 

Appealing to Canadians concerned about crime in their cities is another major focus of the Tories, as is growing support among the country’s working class, particularly in NDP and Liberal held ridings in northern Ontario, British Columbia’s interior and on Vancouver Island. 

When it comes to the Liberals’ bill to ban the use of replacement workers in federally regulated workplaces, the Tories have yet to state their position.

New Democrats and Liberals continue to negotiate on what an initial pharmacare program might look like.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said working with the Liberals on pharmacare legislation has been like wrestling eels covered in oil.

Singh told a town-hall meeting in Edmonton, where the New Democrats  held a caucus retreat last week, that he took the eel description from his party’s health critic Don Davies, who has been negotiating with the government on a framework bill.

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