Have the Trudeau Liberals become what they used to rail against?
While the callous way Trudeau thanked Morneau for his loyal service was not surprising — in one of his first moves as leader, Trudeau, fearing a spending scandal, turfed all Liberal senators out of his caucus, including Jim Cowan, the Grits’ leader in the Senate and the father of one of his principal advisers — it was a bit jarring.
More jarring, perhaps, for the opposition was Trudeau’s decision Tuesday to request the prorogation of Parliament until Sept. 23. This is a not-so-sneaky way of ensuring committees investigating his and his government’s actions in the WE Charity controversy pause their work and that no new witnesses are called. It prevents further legs from being added over the coming weeks to a developing story that shows the Liberals misleading — possibly lying — about the extent of political involvement in the awarding of a multimillion-dollar contract to a charity with personal ties to Trudeau and financial ties to his family members.
Watch: Tories say they want the full truth of WE scandal out before another election
When the Liberals were in opposition and prime minister Stephen Harper hit the reset button on Parliament to avoid having more details emerge about his government’s complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees, Trudeau took to the streets to protest against the move.
As prime minister, he spoke out against leaders using prorogation as a tactic to “avoid problematic situations.” And he campaigned on that pledge, saying in 2015, that he would not use prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances. “We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny,” the Liberals’ platform stated.
The prime minister argued this week that the reset is required to bring forward an agenda that responds to the COVID-19 pandemic and a new normal to which Canadians are adjusting. He said he would put forward a plan to build a stronger, more inclusive economy, one that is greener and fairer for all Canadians.
But nothing prevented Trudeau from waiting until Sept. 22 to hit “pause” and then “play” again on Sept. 23 with a speech from the throne.
What is perhaps more egregious — and demonstrates the extent of political gamesmanship — is Thursday’s announcement. The newly minted finance minister and her colleague, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, informed Canadians the government has been working on a plan for months to transition Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) recipients into new employment insurance programs. Programs that require legislative approval. Because Parliament is suspended, these benefits will see the light of day only if the Liberals survive a confidence vote following the speech from the throne. Until then, CERB recipients will get a four-week extension.
The Liberals could have introduced this legislation later this month — the House was even scheduled to meet on Aug. 26 — and then they could have prorogued.
As it has several times since the pandemic, in July, the House met and passed Bill C-20 in one day. That legislation extended the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy into November and possibly to the end of the year.
Despite the political posturing of the opposition parties, the Conservatives, NDP, Bloc Québécois, and Greens have been rather acquiescent in helping the Liberals swiftly adopt measures to assist Canadians struggling to make ends meet amid the pandemic.
Qualtrough even acknowledged Thursday that she was “very confident” the Liberals would be able to “reach consensus with the other parties” on the new measures.
So why wait until a confidence vote to bring in new financial assistance programs? Asked that question repeatedly on Thursday, Freeland offered this: “I hope that all MPs, that all Canadians, will study in detail our programs. And I hope they will support them.”
Trudeau was also pressed about this Friday, during an announcement with Ontario Premier Doug Ford in Brockville, Ont. “You’ve turned it into a political football,” Canadian Press reporter Stephanie Levitz said, as the prime minister tried to explain that he had not introduced the bill prior to prorogation because he wanted to “take the time to do it right.”
“Nothing around prorogation interferes with our capacity to support Canadians, to continue to have their back through this difficult time,” the prime minister said, noting he could introduce several measures through regulation without parliamentary approval.
But why announce prorogation and two days later unveil a $37-billion program, CTV inquired.
“Are you not playing hard ball with opposition parties, forcing them to vote on a speech from the throne and potentially forcing an election with no CERB or other help for them on the other side of it?” producer Mackenzie Gray asked.
“If the other parties disagree with extending the CERB, or getting people on EI, they need to say that,” Trudeau responded.
Over on the other side of the House, some Conservatives wonder if the Liberals are trying to engineer their own defeat.
While the Grits are trying to turn the page from uncomfortable conflict of interest questions about WE, they have also sought to change the channel from a non-confidence motion the Bloc said it planned to introduce.
A throne speech is a roadmap about the government’s agenda, so it is easily the broad strokes of a campaign platform. With the Liberals still riding high in public opinion polls, a new Conservative leader to be selected Sunday just gathering his or her bearings, and Donald Trump still in office in the United States, could this be the right time for the Liberals to pull the plug?
Trudeau insisted this week he does not want an election.
“No, I don’t want the government to fall on the speech from the throne,” Trudeau told reporters Tuesday. “I think Canadians expect their parties in Parliament to work together to respond to the real challenges they face … but we are in a minority government and it will be up to the opposition parties to decide if we go into an election this autumn or not,” he said, in French.
Whether he wants one or wouldn’t mind one, it could all come down to the numbers. For months, the House of Commons has met in reduced numbers, with all parties agreeing to a set number to ensure the balance of representation remains the same in the chamber. Those negotiations haven’t yet started for Parliament’s return next month.
But what if fewer Liberals show up? Or more Conservative or Bloc MPs choose to take their seats and vote non-confidence?
With a minority and a pandemic, there is a lot of uncertainty. But Trudeau has shown this week that one thing remains the same: it’s politics as usual.