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Methane, deficits and the civil service: three ways politics mattered this week


OTTAWA — Speculation filled the void left by the members of Parliament who vacated the capital for the week to spend time in their ridings.

Who would win the Conservative leadership? Do Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the young, new French president Emmanuel Macron — who met together on the sidelines of the G7 summit this week —have the makings of a budding bromance? If the Ottawa Senators advance, is it OK to root for P.K. Subban (a moot point now, obviously)?

Whimsical calculations and conjecture aside, the week saw some concrete developments on climate change, deficits and the way the government manages its money.

Here are a few ways federal politics touched Canadians this week.

METHANE

Methane reductions are supposed to be the low-hanging fruit in the world of emissions and controlling climate change. But they're proving to be tricky for Canada.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna rolled out a draft of new rules Thursday that would force companies to control methane emissions by checking equipment for leaks, making repairs, using cleaner technologies and reporting their emissions levels back to Ottawa. The rules would be phased in over three years starting in 2020.

There is a cost. Between 2018 and 2035, the government estimates the measures would cost industry $3.3 billion — although it argues the cost of doing nothing and allowing climate change to continue unabated would be even more exorbitant.

Already there is resistance. Some companies are complaining about the expense — especially at a time when the oil patch is in a slump — and say they will be pushing for modifications to the regulations.

When it comes to the regulations, the government has put water in its wine before. Implementation has been delayed for three years now that U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to reconsider methane cuts in the United States.

DEFICITS

The government's preliminary fiscal numbers are out for 2016-17, and it looks like the Liberals have run up a deficit of $21.8 billion for the year. That's a bit smaller than initially forecast — with the big caveat that end-of-year adjustments could change the final numbers when they are published in the fall.

The deficit comes mainly from an 8.2 per cent increase in spending compared to the previous year, attributable in part to fulfilling an election promise to increase child benefits, plus more benefits for a growing number of seniors and more employment insurance payouts.

But direct program expenses grew by 9.1 per cent, not much of which can be attributed to the Liberals' vaunted infrastructure program, which will start growing this fiscal year. Rather, spending increased in a smattering of different government departments, such as Employment and Social Development and Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

The numbers are important because they are for the first full fiscal year completely under the purview of the Trudeau Liberals. And as the Conservatives choose a new leader, the one thing all candidates and their supporters agree on is that the deficit is too big.

Expect the new leader's team to take a magnifying glass to the numbers.

SORTING OUT THE CIVIL SERVICE

What was once a problem that was painful to civil servants but seemed to have only a limited effect on the broader population has now become an expensive mess that refuses to go away.

The Phoenix pay system is so bogged down in bugs that the government announced this week it will spend $142 million over two years to hire 200 extra people — on top of 300 working on the system so far.

That brings the total cost overruns to $402 million, for a project that was only supposed to cost $300 million in the first place and was intended to pay for itself and save the government money over time.

Government unions are upset, MPs are hearing many complaints about poor management and there is much finger-pointing all around. The Liberals blame the Conservatives for cutting government capacity to handle the new system.

Heather Scoffield, Ottawa Bureau Chief, The Canadian Press



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