There is no federal election on the horizon and Parliament doesn't sit for another three weeks, but the warm-up suggests that the 2012 federal Canadian political games may be worth watching.
We are moving beyond the early speculation regarding how an agenda set by Conservative majority politics would differ from the previous five years of minority rule. The first six months after the May 2011 election, the government cleaned up its unfinished minority business. Exit plans are in place for the Wheat Board, Kyoto, and the gun registry. The budget has been implemented, a few jails are about to be built, and more criminals face minimum sentences.
It was during his year-end interviews that Prime Minister Harper telegraphed a change in approach. "I want to make sure we use it," he said regarding his majority government, prompting pundits like Macleans' Paul Wells to go all a-twitter about what this would mean in practice.
The new year is just over a week old but we are seeing some fascinating hints. While some cynically dismissed the Prime Minister's appointment of seven new senators last week as a hypocritical contradiction of his Senate reform ambitions, I'm inclined to think that this is actually setting the stage for a more determined effort at implementing the agenda. With upcoming provincial Senate elections and a caucus including a majority of his own Senators, the resistance to his Senate amendment plans have been overcome. Look for the implementation of a longer-term game plan that will see fundamental change to this institution.
Then there was the surprising open letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver on Monday, lambasting "foreign special interest" and "radical groups" for gumming up the regulatory review process of Enbridge's proposed Northern Pipeline. The frenzied media response included over-the-top comparisons of the Harper government to the Syrian Hassad regime, which undoubtedly had Conservative spin-doctors salivating with delight. On some issues you don't need to convince Canadians regarding all the details of your position; you just have to seem more reasonable than the opposition.
Throw into the pot some signals about a forthcoming budget with more aggressive cuts than previously anticipated, Liberal musings about turning Canada into a republic and eliminating our ties to the monarchy, and a less-than-animated NDP leadership race complicated by evident internal divisions, and the stage is set for a year in Canadian politics quite unlike those we have experienced in the recent past. The federal decision to unilaterally announce the extension of health care funding through 2018-19 and leave it to the provinces to sort out how to use it is more significant for what it signals about the Harper approach to federalism than what it says about health care. First Ministers' conferences with grand schemes about health care reform are history; a stricter application of Section 91 and 92 of the Constitution is part of the future.
None of this changes the reality that the divisions within Canada's political parties are as significant as the divisions between them, but there is little doubt that the topics and framework for the debate will be different than it was in the previous few years. Indeed, the Canadian political games are a-changin'.