Parliament rises for the summer — As election speculation ramps up

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June 28, 2021

Parliament rises for the summer — As election speculation ramps up

Introduction

The House of Commons rose for its summer hiatus on June 23, closing out a sitting increasingly marked by the escalation of political partisanship, closure on debate for key bills, and the usual allegations of parliamentary dysfunction among the parties in the race to the legislative finish line. The Senate will continue sitting a bit longer to deal with the legislation it received from the House just prior to adjournment. The end of sitting time crunch was particularly acute this year as the threat of a fall election call looms, meaning that this adjournment might not have been just for the spring season, but perhaps for the 43rd Parliament as a whole.

Pandemic management and the federal agenda

When Parliament returned from its holiday break in late January, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic had peaked and was receding rapidly while the initial vaccination rollout had begun. The federal government anticipated being able to focus on charting the course for economic recovery during the first half of 2021 and beginning to return to its wider agenda.

February and early March saw vaccine deliveries all but stop due to supply issues and by the end of that month, a third wave was gaining strength across the country, fuelled by new variants. As hospitalizations and ICU admissions jumped, governments implemented aggressive lockdowns and public health restrictions in the worst affected provinces, seriously curtailing economic activity, delaying the start of recovery and forcing the federal policy agenda back to pandemic management.

As the upcoming summer unfolds, pandemic issues will continue to command centre stage, with caution being prompted by the rapidly emerging Delta variant:

  • With first dose coverage nationally at 75 per cent, more than 20 per cent of Canadians fully inoculated as of June 21 and June/July vaccine shipments plentiful, all provinces are giving urgent attention to completing their first rounds of vaccinations and advancing second shots.
  • As the third wave of the virus recedes, provinces are continuing to announce the easing of restrictions and the reopening of specific economic sectors—with some moving faster than others.
  • At the recent G7 meeting in the United Kingdom, Canada committed to send a total of 100 million doses to second and third world countries. Eighty-seven million of the doses have already been committed through previously announced funding and the remaining 13 million doses were purchased earlier by Canada from COVAX, the global vaccine sharing program, and will be returned to that stockpile.
  • Effective July 5, fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents will be able to enter Canada and not need to quarantine. Travellers will be required to enter their inoculation information into the ArriveCAN app before arriving, meet testing requirements, be asymptomatic and have a suitable quarantine plan, should it be required.
  • Additional border reopening steps will wait for several more weeks. Restrictions on non-essential international travel were recently extended until July 21, though there is growing impatience in both Canada and the United States to see governments release explicit plans for the reopening of the land border between the two countries. Expect additional announcements on a phased reopening of the border just before July 21.
  • Public pressure is building for Canadian governments to make clear their plans for proof of vaccination. Despite repeated calls from the provincial premiers, the federal government recently stated it would not have a centralized vaccine confirmation system operating before the fall. The situation is complicated by several U.S. states that have banned the use of vaccine passports. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has already said his province will not use them.
  • Public health officials continue to watch closely the development of the Delta variant, while researchers are assessing the degree to which it is prevented and/or controlled by existing vaccines. The initial evidence looks promising.

 

Budget 2021

By the time the Trudeau Liberals presented its April 19 federal budget, it faced the need to address several issues concurrently:

  • Provide additional financial supports for those sectors, companies and individuals hardest hit by the third wave of the pandemic;
  • Present a credible plan for post-pandemic economic recovery while addressing the many inequities in Canadian society exposed by the virus, all within sustainable deficit and debt levels; and
  • Continue to make progress on the key priorities the Liberals campaigned on in the 2019 election.

The result was a highly ambitious plan with an enormous amount of discretionary spending. In addition to extensions to pandemic assistance programs costing roughly $16 billion in the current fiscal year, the budget included roughly $75 billion in non-COVID spending on no less than 270 specific initiatives.

The centrepiece of the budget was a major commitment on childcare supported by up to $30 billion over the next five years plus $8.3 billion in ongoing funding for the program. Also included was $18 billion in new funding for Indigenous communities, $16 billion over the next five years to support small and medium businesses, $9 billion over six years for low wage workers, and more than $2 billion over seven years towards growing the life sciences sector.

While economists’ initial reactions to the budget were positive, subsequent criticisms have focused on two areas—the size and scope of the stimulus spending to support consumption and its resulting impacts on the deficit, debt and inflation, and the absence of a disciplined and comprehensive growth strategy to raise productivity and expand the economy’s future capacity to produce goods and services. On May 19, Statistics Canada reported that Canada’s inflation rate increased in April to an annual rate of 3.4 per cent, the highest uptick since May 2011.

The budget’s huge number of specific spending commitments, combined with the likelihood of an election later this year, have presented real challenges for its speedy implementation. The sheer volume of initiatives threatens to gum up the federal system because significant new program terms and conditions, as well as new contribution agreements, require development within very tight timelines. Stakeholders have recently been told by federal officials to get their “asks” and proposals into the government as soon as possible.

 

Federal, provincial territorial relations

The pandemic has required the federal, provincial and territorial governments to work together closely and coordinate approaches as never before. Throughout most of 2020, this forced collaboration resulted in the emergence of a “Team Canada” approach that was generally characterized by friendly and mutually supportive relations between the two levels of government. As of June 17, the PM and the premiers have held separate 32 teleconferences to coordinate Canada’s COVID-19 response.

As the second and third waves raised pressure on provincial governments to reimpose restrictions on economic activity and bring in additional lockdowns, predicable tensions between the two levels have arisen. Delays in federal vaccine procurement, federal calls for national standards for provincially run long-term care homes and disputes over federal handling of pandemic border issues have all contributed to these disagreements.

In response to premiers’ repeated calls for a substantial increase in federal health care transfers, the prime minister has promised more money, but not until after the pandemic has ended. The government’s ability to claim early progress on the recent budget’s signature childcare commitments will be critically dependent on the success of negotiations with the provinces.

The government’s legislative agenda

Under the current distribution of seats in the House of Commons, the minority Trudeau government has only needed support from any one opposition party to pass any piece of legislation, motion or confidence test. Recently, the government had been deploying the tactic of partnering with a single political party to force progress on legislation.

Since the start of the most recent legislative session (beginning in September 2020), the government has passed several measures in response to COVID-19 and updates to Canada’s employment insurance program (Bill C-4, Bill C-9, C-14, C-24), and appropriation bills required to finance the operations of government (C-16, C-17, C-26, C-27, C-33 and C-34) with the full support of all opposition members. The first group of bills benefitted from a unanimity born of political circumstance, and the latter group (all confidence bills) is largely pro-forma and with built-in time limits that make for speedy passage. The House also unanimously passed legislation on sexual assault training for federal judges (C-3).

The government has also passed amendments to the government’s Medical Assistance in Dying legislation (Bill C-7) as required by the Superior Court of Quebec, legislation needed to implement the trade continuity agreement with the U.K. post-Brexit (Bill C-18), and back-to-work legislation (C-29) concerning the Port of Montreal, all with brokered support with at least one partner among the other parties.

More recently, the horrific discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a residential school in Kamloops – and a subsequent discovery in south-eastern Saskatchewan of another 751 graves – has created a renewed pressure for Parliament to pass legislation relating to Indigenous reconciliation and the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In the last few weeks of the Parliamentary sitting, bills delivering on two of the TRC’s Calls to Action (C-5 and C-8) were passed. Additionally, C-15 has now received Royal Assent; the act requires the government to ensure that Canada’s laws be aligned with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In the limited legislative runway it had left as the end of the sitting approached, the Trudeau government prioritized four key pieces of legislation: C-6 (banning conversion therapy), C-10 (modernization of Canada’s broadcasting act), C-12 (setting net zero emissions targets) and C-30 (the budget implementation act).

While the final days of the House sitting were fraught with obstructionist rhetoric and procedural tactics from all parties, all four bills have now made it through the House of Commons and are being reviewed in the Red Chamber. Bills C-12 and C-30, both of which have already received extensive committee scrutiny on the Senate side, are almost certain to pass. Neither C-6 nor C-10 have received the same sort of pre-study in Senate committee, and this fact may impede their progress. The Senate is formally scheduled to sit only until June 29, 2021, although it could choose to extend.

The newfound boldness of the Senate in sending back legislative amendments to the House of Commons suggests there is no guarantee these bills recently passed by the House are a done deal.  In particular, C-10 (the internet bill) had a rough ride in the House and was significantly rewritten.  It is a classic example of the kind of complex bill that the Senate has sought in the past to further amend.  Should it choose to do so, the PM will have to make a call whether to recall the House of Commons to deal with Senate amendments, or to let the bill go unpassed.

Meanwhile, legislation to overhaul the Privacy Act (C-11), amend Canada’s election laws to respond to the pandemic (C-19) and update the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (C-28) were left to languish on the Order Paper.  Bill C-21, gun control legislation introduced by the Liberals in the wake of the Nova Scotia shooting tragedy, has also been left unfinished, though Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has announced that the government is moving forward with expanding mandatory firearms licence background checks to cover the lifetime of an applicant.

In the final days of the sitting, the Trudeau government also tabled two new pieces of legislation: C-35 (a bill to establish a new Canada Disability Benefit) and C-36 (a bill to better protect Canadians from hate speech and online harms). Bill C-36 is expected to be one part of a broader legislative package yet to come, aimed at tackling online harm. If the House of Commons resumes sitting on September 20, 2021, per the parliamentary calendar, any unpassed legislation can be picked back up at that time. If an election is called before Parliament returns in September, any outstanding bills on the order paper will die, although they could be reintroduced as new bills after the election.

Not to be forgotten, several private member’s bills have also made their way through both Houses including C-218 (sports betting), C-220 (bereavement leave) and C-237 (national framework for diabetes).

 

Indigenous issues

The recent shocking disclosures by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia and the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan of what are believed to be the remains of hundreds of children in unmarked graves at former residential schools will have a significant impact on the national policy agenda for the foreseeable future.

For the federal government, a harsh light has been shone on delays in implementing the many calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reported in 2015. As noted above, government moved quickly with legislation on two of the TRC’s recommendations, and has already been spurred to respond on additional files:

  • On June 3, the federal government released its response to the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) tabled two years ago and the Prime Minister pledged $2.2 billion in new spending over five years to implement ambitious new programming.
  • Also in June, a settlement was announced on the “day scholars” issue: those students who attended residential schools during the day, and who had earlier launched a class action lawsuit seeking inclusion in the pay-out agreement covering residential students. The federal government has now offered $10,000 per student to the day scholars.

The issues unleashed by the Kamloops and Saskatchewan disclosures will continue to be politically difficult and socially painful. The federal government and some provinces have begun flowing funding to Indigenous communities for similar identification projects and will also face calls for financial assistance in carrying out the archaeological searches necessary on sites suspected to contain children’s remains. In addition, there have been calls for a formal inquiry and for the sites of the discoveries to be designated crime scenes.

For the Roman Catholic Church, there is contentious unfinished business left over from the residential school experience and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On June 5, the prime minister said he was “deeply disappointed” at the lack of a formal apology from the Pope and at the church’s “resistance” to releasing certain records on the schools. Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins quickly shot back that the PM’s comments were “unfair” and “misinformed.”

 

Climate change and the environment

Starting in Fall 2020, the government introduced Bill C-12, the Net Zero by 2050 legislation and made a down-payment of $6.64 billion on clean growth investments in the Fall Economic Statement. An additional $17.6 billion was added in Budget 2021 to support an $8 billion Net Zero Accelerator (ISED) and a wide range of programs that will fund renewables, hydrogen and low-carbon shifts in energy production as well as manufacturing, electrification of vehicle fleets and lowering emissions from buildings, including investments in energy retrofits for homes.

The Canada Infrastructure Bank also became a key tool for the greener future with the major focus of its investments now directed to green electricity, broadband (digitization has climate benefits) and transit/electric transportation. In addition, there are consultations currently underway on a tax incentive program for Carbon Capture, Use and Storage (CCUS) and producing bio-fuels to meet the Clean Fuel Standard.

These moves by the federal government also reflect a broader shift in markets to steer away from long-term climate risk and toward more sustainable, ESG infrastructure and industries. Many of the green program elements outlined in Budget 2021 will not be fully authorized and implemented until after the expected fall election. But it is clear that the focus for government, businesses (many of whom have also declared Net Zero by 2050 targets) and investors has turned from rhetoric and policy debates to implementation and transformational investments.

During the recent sitting, the Liberals also signalled their intention to focus on changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) legislation, a reduction in plastics use and shifts to a circular economy.

There has never been more federal money in Canada dedicated to transitioning to a Net Zero future. The question is how government can leverage its investments to help spur trade and investment to achieve its ultimate Paris Agreement targets. With the COP26 meeting scheduled for Glasgow in November, whoever wins the reasonably likely fall election will have to show up with a plan to match the ambition of the Biden administration and the global momentum to make significant strides to tackle climate change in this decade and beyond.

The political parties

 

The Liberals

As vaccine shipments have ramped up recently, public perceptions of the Liberals on pandemic management have improved. While the federal budget quickly faded from public attention, its many commitments and initiatives remain available to be retooled into platform promises for a possible fall election. The prime minister recently survived his third formal investigation by the federal Ethics Commissioner (the latest prompted by the WE Charity/Foundation controversy) and fallout from that issue has quieted.

Over recent months, the ongoing sexual misconduct crisis within the Canadian Armed Forces has deepened, with more revelations leading to additional resignations among numerous very senior military officers. Despite two detailed reports from retired Supreme Court justices, the government has been slow to bring in changes to the military justice system to enable it to deal more effectively with allegations of sexual misconduct and to respond to the rights and needs of victims. This reticence presents a direct challenge to the prime minister’s bona fides as champion of women’s and feminist issues – particularly with suggestions that the defence minister chose not to be informed of sexual misconduct allegations.

On June 18, a majority of MPs voted 169-151 to formally censure Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over his handling of the ongoing sexual misconduct crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces and other perceived failings in his six-year tenure as minister. Four days later, military ombudsman Gregory Lick released a scathing report firing salvoes at Minister Sajjan, complaining about the government’s “inaction” in addressing the sexual misconduct crisis and arguing that internal mechanisms meant to support victims of misconduct have gone from “broken” to “collapsed.”

The government received a symbolically significant rebuke by the House of Commons. By a majority vote supported by MPs of all parties, the House found the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in contempt of Parliament over its refusal to release to Parliament unredacted documents on the firing on two China-connected scientists formerly employed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. In response, Conservative Leader O’Toole withdrew Conservative members from participation in the House National Security and Intelligence Committee.

On June 21, PHAC president Iain Stewart was called to the bar of the House to be formally reprimanded by the Speaker; on advice from the Department of Justice, he again refused to produce the documents. The federal government has since filed an application in Federal Court to try to force House Speaker Anthony Rota to require the documents to remain secret.  Meanwhile the latter was asked to order a fresh resolution (which would be the fifth House of Commons order in this case): this time to order a seizure of documents PHAC has refused to hand over voluntarily. The summer adjournment came just before the Speaker was set to rule on this potential search and seizure order.

The Conservatives

At the Conservatives’ March policy conference, leader Erin O’Toole was embarrassed by party members who voted down a resolution affirming that “climate change is real.” In April, Mr. O’Toole announced a new set of climate policies that dropped his party’s opposition to carbon pricing and promised to retain the Liberals’ Output-Based Pricing System for large emitters, the existing Clean Fuel Standard (under another name) and the zero-emission vehicle mandate.

While the policy change earned generally favourable reviews from environmental groups and the media, it did not go down well with many party supporters. Not helpful was the fact that the leader and his office did not consult caucus members in advance of his announcement.

Mr. O’Toole’s attacks on the prime minister’s competence in managing the pandemic have wilted as vaccines have become plentiful and Canadians have lined up in their millions to get their shots. Elsewhere, the party has continued to struggle in accommodating its social conservative wing, whose caucus supporters persist on pressing hot button issues that other parties will gladly use against the Conservatives in the next election campaign.

Overall, Mr. O’Toole has had a difficult spring, with challenges to his leadership coming from multiple quarters – from convention delegates to pot-stirring from within caucus.  This phenomenon raises the stakes on his performance at the next election.

The NDP

Throughout the sitting just ended, the NDP continued to be a reliable “dance partner” for the government on numerous key issues, trading their support for pandemic assistance programs while urging additional action on those social issues about which the party cares deeply, such as Indigenous reconciliation, combatting racism and pharmacare.

These initiatives have enhanced NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s profile on “progressive” and compassionate issues in the public mind. Mr. Singh can also take comfort from the recent turmoil in the Green Party over the management of conflicting party views of Israeli/Palestinian dynamics. The NDP itself has faced similar splits among its members in the past but has the maturity and experienced staff to enable it to smooth over dangerous divisions that are not material to its principal policy concerns.

The Bloc Quebecois

As the sitting moved towards its close, the Bloc forced a vote on Quebec’s Bill 96. The bill was introduced by the Legault government affirms that Quebecers constitute a nation and declares that French is the only official language of Quebec. The bill also curtails some Anglophone and Allophone language rights. The Bloc motion to endorse Bill 96 passed the House of the Commons on June 15 with a vote of 281-2 and with significant abstentions: Liberals – 29, Conservatives – 19, NDP – 5, plus Green Party MP Elizabeth May.

The Bloc’s objective in proposing the motion was to pressure the other parties in the Commons to declare themselves on Bill 96. Sensitive to the widespread support for Bill 96 among Quebecers, the Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green leaders have all been cautious in their responses and to the criticisms of the legislation by Quebec Anglophones and Allophones.  It remains something of a debate whether the government of Quebec has the unilateral jurisdiction to amend the Canadian constitution, which Bill 96 seeks to do in some respects.  This means a potential court challenge down the line.

The Green Party

In the waning days of the sitting, an acrimonious public dispute broke out in the Green Party over the leadership of Annamie Paul. It began over comments made by Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin that were strongly in support of Palestinians in their recent conflict with Israel. Ms. Paul’s then acting director of communications, Noah Zatzman, responded intemperately that he would work towards Atwin’s replacement as a Green Party candidate and her defeat in a possible election. Atwin subsequently left the Greens and joined the Liberal caucus, after which she quickly softened her earlier pro-Palestinian comments.

After an emergency meeting held June 16, the party’s governing national council threatened Ms. Paul with a non-confidence vote if she failed to repudiate Mr. Zatzman, whom many party members blame for Ms. Atwin’s defection to the Liberals. The leader then responded with an inflammatory news conference in which she accused national council members of racism and misogyny in their criticisms of her leadership, and scathingly attacked Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as the Prime Minister’s “female shield” against the PM’s sub-par performance on women’s issues.

Clearly, the Green Party’s leadership turmoil is far from finished.

 

Towards an election?

The polls

The CBC Poll Tracker presents the average of recent national public opinion polls. Since the start of the year, the tracker shows that shifts in support for five parties have been marginal, but there have been some notable recent trends, and there are variations among the pollsters:

  • Liberal support has been relatively stable but has recently moved up to an average of 35.2 per cent, ahead of the 33.1 they received 2019. Two recent Nanos and Abacus polls show the Liberals at 37 per cent in support.
  • The Conservatives’ average support has slipped back to 29.8, markedly lower than the 34.3 per cent they received in the last election. Nanos and Abacus recently measured the Conservatives even lower, at between 25 and 27 per cent.
  • Throughout 2021, the NDP has remained relatively stable at 17 to 18 per cent, but some recent polls show the party jumping to 21 per cent.
  • There have been no appreciable changes in support for the Bloc Quebecois and the Greens.

In a House of Commons with four significant parties, handicapping a possible election outcome requires a far closer look at the regional breakouts to assess potential battlegrounds as well as the “efficiency” of party votes—the degree to which a party’s support is heavily clustered in regions where it can lead to “wasted votes” or is more evenly distributed throughout the country.

According to a recent poll from Abacus, the Liberals enjoy solid support in both Ontario (42 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (44 per cent), the Conservatives remain strong in the prairie provinces despite NDP gains, and British Columbia is highly competitive with the Conservatives in the lead at 34 per cent, the NDP at 30 per cent and the Liberals at 28 per cent. In Quebec, Abacus found the Bloc marginally in the lead at 35 per cent, the Liberals at 34 per cent, the Conservatives at 14 per cent and the NDP at 10 per cent. These results are close to the 2019 results in Quebec, although the Bloc is slightly stronger currently at the apparent expense of the Conservatives.

All in all, the current polling suggests the Liberals are currently inching towards majority territory, but their achievement of that goal is not a sure thing.

Perceptions of the leaders

Recent polls also show Justin Trudeau continuing as the preferred choice as prime minister, but the public’s impressions of the leaders offer some mixed signals and cautions, as well as indicating a political environment that is quite competitive. According to Abacus, the public is significantly split on the Prime Minister, with positive and negative views of him tied at 39 per cent, and 19 per cent reporting being undecided.

The public is distinctly reticent on Conservative leader O’Toole, with 45 per cent being “undecided” or “don’t know,” 36 per cent negative and only 19 per cent positive, indicating that he has not grown his support beyond his base during his tenure as leader. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh currently enjoys a positive rating among 32 per cent against negative views of 26 per cent of voters, with 42 per cent remaining undecided. Abacus also recently found that Mr. Singh is the first choice of voters under 30 and the second choice of voters aged 30-44.

Election timing

Between 1963 and 2019, Canada had seven minority governments and their average lifespan was 24 months. The current Parliament will reach its second birthday on October 21.

Based on the tracking of public opinion – in particular with regard to the pandemic – there is a reasonable likelihood of national election call for this fall.  If that does occur, it would be triggered by government itself – the prime minister asking the governor general for a dissolution of Parliament.  Given the state of election planning, it is foreseeable that this could occur as early as mid-August.  The minimum election period is 36 days.

Party election preparations

As of June 25, 514 candidates have been nominated from all parties, including incumbents, for the upcoming election, whenever it does occur. Each party has allowed incumbents to be automatically nominated, with some conditions. To date, 18 incumbent MPs have confirmed they will not seek re-election.

So far in 2021, the Conservatives lead all parties in fundraising with $8.4 million raised from more than 45,000 donors in the first quarter of 2021. The Liberals trailed with $3.5 million from more than 33,000 donors.

Here’s where the parties currently stand on nominations:

  • The Liberals have nominated 175 candidates, including 130 incumbent MPs. To date, seven Liberal MPs have confirmed they will not seek re-election. The Liberals recently triggered the “electoral urgency” rule for nominations, allowing the party to change any rules governing candidate selection and speed up the pace of nominations.
  • The Conservatives have nominated 201 candidates, including 113 incumbents. Incumbent MPs are protected from a nomination challenge provided they meet pre-determined fundraising goals. Six incumbent CPC MPs will not seek re-election.
  • The NDP has nominated 91 candidates so far, including 22 incumbent MPs, with 33 additional nominations scheduled to be confirmed before July. A $22 million loan will finance the $24 million election budget.
  • The Bloc have officially nominated 43 candidates, including incumbent MPs.
  • The Green Party has confirmed four candidates to date, including their two remaining incumbent MPs. Party leader Annamie Paul will run in her home riding of Toronto Centre once again, after falling short to Liberal Marci Ien in last year’s byelection. Former party leader Elizabeth May has indicated she will run again in her current riding of Saanich Gulf Islands.

Possible election themes

It is exceedingly risky—some would say foolhardy—to predict in advance how elections will play out. Some are boring and relatively uneventful, while others are hijacked by mistakes, accidents or unforeseen issues that catch fire and dominate the narrative.

The Liberals will presumably campaign on their pandemic record and their success in supporting Canadians and managing the country through a very difficult and challenging time. They will hope that voters are in a mood to reward that record and not dwell on its faults. They can be expected to emphasize the economic recovery plan from Budget 2021 and stress their recent climate change initiatives and future plans. When they are on the defensive it will be due to their ethical lapses, their lacklustre record on Indigenous reconciliation issues and past commitments and their lack of response on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces.

As a new leader facing his first national election and heading a less-than-united party, Erin O’Toole is in a make-or-break situation. The Conservatives have yet to settle on a narrative that advances a comprehensive alternate plan for governing. Mr. O’Toole’s recent conversion to carbon pricing could help his party in urban Canada, but given the number of social conservatives in his caucus and the continuing tendency of some to play to their base, his party remains vulnerable to predictable Liberal, NDP and Bloc attacks on alleged “hidden agendas” – a common attack that has worked effectively in past elections.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh proved to be an effective campaigner in the 2019 election. This time he has the added advantage of having been a champion for Canada’s most vulnerable communities throughout the pandemic and having delivered more and better supports through the party’s positioning on key government pandemic support legislation. Mr. Singh will likely seek to parlay this record to contest the prime minister for increased support among progressive voters. He can be expected to press the Liberals on housing.

The Bloc Quebecois will make Quebec’s Bill 96 their principal campaign plank, attempting to taunt the leaders and candidates of the federalist parties to abandon caution in reacting to the bill’s negative impacts on Anglo and Allo-Quebeckers.  With roughly a million English-speaking Quebeckers centred in 24 federal ridings, the pressure on Liberal and NDP candidates to decry the provisions of Bill 96 will be fierce.

The Green Party turmoil has quieted for the moment, but most observers expect the party’s troubles are not over. The Greens typically poll in the range of 7-8 per cent, which is not huge, but they are strong in a handful of ridings. If their problems release potential votes to support other parties, that could be influential in influencing splits in close races. Presumably, the benefits would flow to the Liberals and NDP.

 

The mood of the country

Over the past fifteen months, Canadians have lived under an unprecedented level of government interference. The work and personal lives of millions have been put on hold and seriously disrupted, businesses and jobs have been lost and personal freedoms have been curtailed, all to combat and curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

While the federal government can be fairly credited for acting swiftly and generously to protect Canadians from the economic consequences of the pandemic, governments at all levels have been criticized, bitterly on occasion, for being acting too slowly, too quickly and harshly or incomprehensively in restraining the virus to protect the public. The federal government has also been guilty of initially missing the signs of danger and poor preparation (failing to close the border, the personal protective equipment disaster, and misunderstanding how the virus spread) and offering conflicting advice to the public (confusion over the effectiveness of masks, and repeated disagreements between the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and Health Canada respecting the efficacy, use and dangers of the AstraZeneca vaccine, for example).

The pandemic has also exposed significant negative equity impacts on many vulnerable groups in society, including women, young people, Indigenous and bi-racial Canadians, people with disabilities and residents of long-term care facilities, to name but a few. For every Canadian jubilant at the “light at the end of the tunnel” there is another whose business has been shattered by forced lockdowns, or who had to give up a job to tend to children whose school was shuttered.  The public’s post-pandemic mood is mixed and complex.

The disclosures of hundreds of unmarked graves of children have made real the horrific legacy of residential schools to millions of Canadians as never before. And the recent murder of four Canadian Muslims in an apparent targeted racist and terrorist attack has reminded us all that Canada is not the island of peace and harmony we all hoped and believed it was.

How all these concerns and irritations will play themselves out in the upcoming election is difficult to forecast, but it is safe to say that frustration could exacerbate electoral volatility and ignite as a result of the heated rhetoric in an election campaign.

Finally, it is useful to remember the risks to all parties of elections. Years ago, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was asked by a reporter what was most likely to knock governments off-course. His famous response was, “Events, dear boy, events” – indicating that it is the unanticipated issues that can surprise and confound leaders and their parties.

 

The Caretaker Convention

The convention is a set of rules and guidelines that limit the actions a sitting government can take in managing the affairs of the nation during an election period. It takes effect once the current Parliament has been dissolved and remains in effect until a new government is sworn in or when an election result that returns an incumbent government becomes clear.

“To the extent possible, however, government activity following the dissolution of Parliament – in matters of policy, expenditure and appointments – should be restricted to matters that are:

  • routine, or
  • non-controversial, or
  • urgent and in the public interest, or
  • reversible by a new government without undue cost or disruption, or
  • agreed to by opposition parties (in those cases where consultation is appropriate).”

“More specifically, while the convention is in effect, Ministers must:

  • defer to the extent possible such matters as appointments, policy decisions, new spending or other initiatives, announcements, negotiations or consultations, non-routine contracts and grants and contributions;
  • work with deputy ministers to ensure that routine departmental activities are carried out in a low-profile manner; and
  • Avoid participating in high-profile government-related domestic and international events, including federal/provincial/territorial events, international visits, and the signing of treaties and agreements.”

Until the election writ is issued, the government is operating normally, and is working at full speed to implement the promises and programs outlined in the April budget.

This summer will be a critical period for clients and stakeholders to advance files and decisions that were included in the budget with federal decision-makers on both the political and bureaucratic sides. If these files involve provincial governments, the upcoming period will be especially important for clients to encourage them to work with their federal counterparts to advance key issues and decisions. Some clients will also want to make their policy views known to those officials who are writing the various party platforms.

During an election period, departments do not launch new regulatory initiatives, or proactively engage stakeholders on regulatory development. For regulatory proposals that are already announced, departments may receive comments from the public and stakeholders for the entire duration of the comment period. More consultations could be initiated in the coming weeks, before the convention comes into effect. Therefore, the summer could be a good time to develop responses to regulations as well as building coalitions among like-minded stakeholders for future consultations.

Into the summer

With vaccinations rising rapidly and the virus on the wane, it is impossible to imagine a summer more anticipated than the one that began on June 21. We at Earnscliffe stand ready to assist you with your government relations, communications and public opinion research needs over the summer, and to provide advice and analysis on whatever the coming fall brings.