Of housing, access to justice and a standoff: how politics touched us this week

OTTAWA – The party planners for Ottawa’s hectic cocktail circuit clearly didn’t anticipate having to compete for attention with Parliament Hill this week. They booked caterers and stocked their bars thinking the House would be winding down for the summer.

Instead, Parliament is in overdrive, with senators and MPs in a standoff over the bill on assisted dying — extending the parliamentary calendar well into next week if not later, long after the welcome-to-summer receptions have subsided.

At stake is far more than the scope of the assisted-dying legislation. The nature of the Senate under the new Liberal government, as well as the government’s relationship with public opinion and the constitution, are also in the fray.

While assisted dying took centre stage, Ottawa was also staking new ground on legal aid and on the overheated housing market in Canada’s largest cities.

Here are three ways federal politics touched Canadians this week:

ASSISTED DYING: The June 6 deadline imposed by the Supreme Court for Parliament to pass legislation has come and gone with no new law. Provincial governments and doctors’ organizations have been clarifying their stances and filling the legal void — even as cabinet ministers warned of ambiguity, a lack of balance and unequal access to the right to die.

The legislation has passed through the House of Commons, but senators — newly free to speak their minds without fear of party discipline — are demanding amendments on major parts of the bill. The main controversy is whether medical assistance in dying should only be available to those near death, as the legislation proposes. The debate is an emotional one since it touches every Canadian in a deeply personal way.

The standoff also exposes the nature of a Senate where no single party rules the day, and where senators can suddenly think independently — but only to a point. They are well aware they are unelected, and are mindful — given recent scandals — that there are limits to public patience.

WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN? Both the Bank of Canada governor and the finance minister publicly fretted about the state of the housing market this week, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, where housing prices continue to climb and risky borrowing and over-indebtedness have become more pronounced.

The concern is that the market will suddenly turn, leaving homeowners in over their heads and banks’ lending portfolios exposed to too much risk. So pressure on the federal government to crack down on frivolous lending and borrowing is intensifying — from the central bank, from the Vancouver mayor, and even from international financial institutions.

Minister Bill Morneau’s response this week was to point to a “deep dive” by officials into why the housing market is misbehaving. His department has already spent years analyzing and tinkering with an array of attempts to cool things down. There are still a few measures Finance could introduce, and there are plenty of hints that something will eventually be in the offing. The trick is to find the appropriate way to cool off specific overheated housing markets without hurting regular homeowners too much.

Will those measures help families grapple with unaffordable housing? New research suggests housing affordability is a growing problem in many communities across the country, not just Toronto and Vancouver. And social policy experts are quick to suggest that there is a desperate need for more government support in affordable housing, not just in the mortgage market.

LEGAL AID: The federal government announced this week it would top up its funding for legal aid programs in order to help low-income Canadians improve their access to the criminal justice system. But the additional funding will only fully kick in in 2021. And the money won’t spread to family legal aid, which is the kind of help most often sought by women.

Still, federal funding for legal aid has been stagnant for so long that the provinces — which shoulder the lion’s share of legal aid — jumped for joy.

A few numbers to understand how much of the weight the federal government carries: Governments spend almost $800 million a year on legal aid of all kinds. Of that, federal contributions have been about $112 million a year, focused on criminal legal aid. This week’s announcement was to add $30 million a year to ongoing funding by 2021. The federal budget set aside another $88 million over five years.