Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated Wednesday that the Liberals do not want a federal election, but pushed back at the notion that holding another campaign now would be “reckless” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addressing reporters in Ottawa at the end of a two-and-a-half-day cabinet retreat, Trudeau was asked if he thought it would be irresponsible under the circumstances for opposition parties to reject his government’s speech from the throne and trigger another election.
“I think it’s irresponsible to say that an election would be irresponsible. Our country and our institutions are stronger than that. And if there has to be an election, we’ll figure it out,” he said.
Still Trudeau said he doesn’t think Canadians want an election. “I don’t think that’s what opposition parties want, and it’s certainly not what the government wants.
“What we want to be able to do is focus 100 per cent on keeping Canadians safe every step of the way and that’s what we’re going to do.”
CTV reporter Glen McGregor also asked the prime minister if he felt he had an obligation to consult opposition leaders — more than is typical — to ensure they are on board with elements of his minority government’s roadmap.
The Prime Minister’s Office announced Tuesday, after HuffPost Canada pressed the prime minister on the issue, that Trudeau will speak with his House of Commons counterparts — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May — this week.
Trudeau said his government has consulted its rivals since the beginning of the pandemic to pass legislation on major emergency measures, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
“I look forward to sitting down with all of them, mostly virtually, to hear from them directly on their concerns and preoccupations for the months ahead,” he said.
Opposition parties will need to reflect on whether or not they agree with the direction the country is headed, Trudeau added.
“I know that Canadians want their politicians to be focused on them and their well-being. And I know that all opposition parties want to do a good job of representing Canadians in their views and their concerns,” he said. “They will look at the throne speech with that in mind.”
If an election is triggered, Trudeau said, he has “tremendous confidence” in Elections Canada to bring forward strong measures to keep Canadian voters safe.
The independent agency told HuffPost Canada in May that if political parties want Canadians to vote only by mail changes will need to be made to the Canada Elections Act.
Trudeau pointed to Monday’s election in New Brunswick as proof that voters can go to the polls and democracy can “continue to thrive” even in the face of an ongoing health emergency. The small province has some of the fewest cases COVID-19, just 194 current infections as of Sept. 15.
Canadian Press reporter Joan Bryden told Trudeau it sounded like he would welcome another election — a suggestion the prime minister swiftly rejected.
“I do not want an election. I don’t think Canadians want an election. I think Canadians want politicians to work together, to serve them, to build a better future for them, and keep them safe during this COVID crisis,” he said.
As the clock ticks down to next week’s throne speech, at least two opposition leaders have their health and the health of their family members top of mind.
Opposition leaders in self-isolation
The Bloc Québécois announced Tuesday that their leader is in isolation after Blanchet’s wife, Nancy Déziel, tested positive for COVID-19.
Blanchet, as with members of his caucus, was already in self-isolation over the weekend after a party staffer received a positive diagnosis for COVID-19.
Conservatives announced Wednesday that their leader is also in self-isolation after a member of O’Toole’s staff tested positive for the disease.
“While he hasn’t shown symptoms, Mr. O’Toole and his family are being tested out of an abundance of caution,” read a statement from the party. “Other staff who were travelling with Mr. O’Toole are also being tested and will be self-isolating.”
O’Toole was in Montreal earlier this week and met with Quebec Premier François Legault for a one-on-one meeting. O’Toole and Legault stood a few feet from each other and exchanged brief remarks with television cameras rolling. Neither men wore masks for the full duration of the meeting. Legault said he would be monitoring for symptoms but would not get tested.
The possibility that O’Toole and Blanchet will be absent from a confidence vote on the speech from the throne has raised questions about Parliament’s willingness to adopt a new remote voting system.
Prior to the pandemic, a system of bells and lights would sound off in the buildings of Ottawa’s parliamentary precinct for 15-30 minutes before a vote to alert MPs to get to their seats.
But with the risk of COVID-19 transmission in crowded, enclosed spaces, House Speaker Anthony Rota proposed an app-based solution in June for consideration. The app is currently being tested.
Speaker’s office spokesperson Heather Bradley, told HuffPost any procedural changes will require a decision by the House while members are sitting.
“There are several ways the House could come to such a decision, including adopting a motion by unanimous consent without debate or debating a motion and adopting it on either a voice vote or a recorded vote,” Bradley wrote in an email.
The bells and lights would still go off for 30 minutes in Rota’s suggested pandemic workaround for recorded votes, but at the same time an electronic alert would be sent to MPs informing them of their immediate access to the electronic voting system.
Trudeau told reporters Wednesday his preference is for MPs to resume their work through a hybrid-model of Parliament. He explained this would allow members, who have to self-isolate at home, the flexibility to vote remotely.
The Conservatives have advocated for a full resumption of in-person sittings with agreed-upon limits on how many people can be inside the chamber. It remains unclear if that position has or will change now that O’Toole is in self-isolation.
Discussions between the parties on the rules that will govern a potential hybrid system continue, said Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez.
Rodriguez told reporters Tuesday that testing for the voting app is “not going to take very long” and that it could be live as early as next week when the House returns.
Parliament is not strictly subject to Ontario’s regulations including restrictions on gatherings, but Ottawa Public Health guidance is being taken into consideration.
Parliamentary privilege gives MPs and senators the right to regulate their own internal affairs. It also ensures that even with agreement between parties on the number of MPs in the chamber, nothing prevents any member from showing up and taking their seat.
The House is set to return to in-person sittings on Sept. 23.