Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will be watching the outcome of byelection races in three provinces Monday. Canadian Press
An election is a year or more away, yet when Parliament is back in business Monday it will be hard to interpret any activity in a way that isn't somehow related to the vote scheduled in 2015.
Expect to see a few new distractions. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will be showcasing his new star MP Chrystia Freeland as critic of international trade. One source of entertainment for political observers will be how she performs in question period.
Former New Democrat MP Bruce Hyer, who moved to the Green Party following a stint as an independent MP, will be sitting beside his leader, Elizabeth May, bringing the Green Party's total caucus to two.
But the main government theme of the winter sitting is the 2014 budget — now set for Feb. 11 — that will prepare the ground for the election a year later.
There is only one goal the budget must achieve: to be in balance in time for the Conservatives' election campaign. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has been sounding bullish lately about eliminating the deficit in 2015. That will trigger some of the party's 2011 election promises, which hinged on the budget being in balance.
"The indications are that the fiscal situation is better than they've let it be known," said Kul Bhatia, who teaches economics at Western University.
"This is based on some information that they have that is not in the public domain — that's my hunch."
What also might be hidden in the budget, says Nelson Wiseman, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto, is new legislation that has nothing to do with spending. Environmental changes and new rules about selecting Supreme Court judges were tucked away in the voluminous pages of last year's omnibus budget implementation bill.
"It's disrespectful of Parliament," Wiseman said. "But what the last election demonstrated, when (then Liberal leader) Michael Ignatieff made a point of running on the disrespect for Parliament, the Canadian public didn't care. And they [the Conservatives] know that."
Consumers' rights are a theme
One of the themes of this sitting will be aimed at how voters are perceived more and more by politicians: as consumers.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair spent last week on what the party called an affordability tour, focusing on credit card fees, gas prices and companies who ding customers who still get their bills by mail.
NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen, speaking to CBC News, accused the Conservatives of stealing "four or five ideas from the NDP. Well, [it's] the nicest form of flattery, if you actually go out and do it."
Perhaps anticipating that do-nothing accusation from the NDP on the first day the House sits, the government quietly announced Friday it was removing the HST and GST from hospital parking fees.
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said in an interview the government would be introducing legislation giving consumers the ability to unbundle their cable or satellite television service and choose only the channels they want.
"More consumer choice, more freedom, more choices," he said.
Industry Minister James Moore is expected to introduce a bill on domestic roaming rates for cell phones almost right away, Yaroslav Baran, a former Conservative staffer who's now with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, told CBC News.
The government also plans legislation this sitting on child sexual predators, as well as a long-promised victims' bill of rights. However, Van Loan said there would be no "immediate" legislation on prostitution, even though the Supreme Court of Canada last month threw out current laws and gave the government a year to come up with new ones.
Senate scandal will return
For Justin Trudeau, this is his second crack at having several months in a row in the House as Liberal leader. It was predicted the House is a place in which he would not shine. Yet his party is not only still leading the polls nine months after he became leader, but also catching up to the Conservatives when it comes to fundraising.
A little more than a month after Canada Post announced it would eliminate urban letter-mail delivery within five years, the Liberals plan to make that change a focus of their work in the House, a spokeswoman for the party said Friday.
It's likely the Senate scandal will continue to take up much of the time in question period. The scandal's reach into the Prime Minister's Office makes it an irresistible issue for the NDP.
Observers are waiting to see whether the RCMP follow through with criminal charges against four errant senators, but Mulcair's prosecutor-in-chief style of questioning doesn't depend on charges.
The NDP leader has drawn praise for his skill in questioning the prime minister about what he knew about his former chief of staff's payment to Senator Mike Duffy.
The Senate scandal is "death by a thousand cuts for the Conservatives, at the moment," Cullen said.
Baran said that as soon as the government receives an opinion from the Supreme Court about the constitutional legalities of its Senate reform bill, it will act "quickly and boldly," and could even introduce legislation about a referendum on Senate abolition.
One topic that preoccupied political observers in the fall — whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper is planning on stepping down — seems to have vaporized, notwithstanding his trip to Israel last week, an experience so clearly meaningful to him it seemed like the ticking off of a bucket list.
"Harper is now going after the record books— the fourth consecutive win — that's driving him now," Bhatia said.
"I can speak from the perspective of someone who knows how his brain works and who knows him as a person," Baran said.
"This is his dream job. I don't see why he would leave it prematurely."