Lori Turnbull is director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. Drew Fagan is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s move to prorogue Parliament was certainly controversial. Hitting the reset button brought its activities to a halt. Given that most of those were on pause for the summer anyway, the most important consequence was to abruptly wind down committee investigations that were proving damaging to the government, particularly the controversy over the government’s contract with WE Charity to disburse a student grant program. The prorogation request looked like an act of unadulterated politics.
But politically speaking, his gamble appears to have paid off. Once the committees stopped meeting and the damning narrative of the WE controversy ran aground, the Liberals were able to generate weeks of speculation about the contents and consequences of Wednesday’s Speech from the Throne. Those efforts, along with the economic devastation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, made the speech one of the most anticipated in recent history. Now, the Liberals feel poised to lead a debate on what comes next for the country.
No federal government has ever been defeated on its Speech from the Throne. This one is no different. Neither the New Democrats (who have said they will back the speech) nor the Bloc Québécois wanted to be seen as responsible for forcing an election now, particularly as we head into a second wave. There also was plenty for each of them to like in this speech, although the Bloc unsurprisingly focused on Liberal interference in provincial jurisdiction, such as in social policy. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have their next move made for them: As the Official Opposition, they’re expected to vote against the Speech, if for no other reason than to assert themselves as a viable alternative.
However, as we draw closer to another election – likely in the spring, after Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers her first budget – the Conservative opposition to the Liberal plan will need refinement and its own alternative vision brought to the fore. If the Conservatives are to win, new leader Erin O’Toole must appeal beyond his base.
He might well find a following among voters for whom economic growth and the fiscal impact of a big increase in government’s role deserve much more scrutiny. After all, the Liberal government’s Throne Speech leaned left and promised big. They detailed plans to create a national childcare program, a drug program, national standards for long-term care, a more compassionate justice system, a greener economy, a million jobs, a better tax-filing system, a strategy on gender-based violence and a more robust employment insurance system – not to mention tougher tax measures on the wealthy and digital “giants,” a COVID-19 vaccine and an extension of some of the programs introduced during the darkest days of the lockdown. They put everything but a guaranteed basic income in this thing.
Still, it is about more than money. The Liberal plan focuses on inequities amplified by COVID-19 in what is coming to be known as a K-shaped recovery. The Throne Speech defines systemic racism as a stain on our society inconsistent with Canadian values. For his part, Mr. O’Toole has refused to state whether he believes systemic racism even exists in Canada.
As the Governor-General said, we are at a “crossroads” as a country, and it is the role of our political parties to offer competing perspectives on how to go forward; whenever a general election is called, voters will be presented with some very different ideas of Canada. We will be asked what kind of society we want and how much we are willing to sacrifice – and pay – to get it. And political parties will need to do the hard work of building consensus around their preferred path.
The Liberals have effectively made the role of the state into the primary ballot question – and they’ve sparked a moment of introspection not seen since the days before the 1988 election over free trade and the 1995 Quebec referendum. The Speech from the Throne will just be the beginning of this fraught debate.
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