In 2013, Canadian politics came packed with more surprises that a truck load of Cracker Jack boxes. Who would have guessed that the Mayor of Toronto would become the country’s most successful reality-TV export, his stand-up routines dominating American late-night TV throughout the fall? Who would have thought that what started out as a disagreement over Senate expense claims would grow into a scandal threatening to engulf the government, and which might even lead to constitutional change? Or that Stephen Harper’s poll numbers would fall to unprecedented lows, while the Liberal Party, left for road kill in 2011, would rediscover popularity under Justin Trudeau? Or that, just before Christmas, the Supreme Court’s decision on the law surrounding prostitution would gift Parliament with a pile of unwanted homework, and give it just 12 months to finish the job?
So, welcome to 2014: Where many of this year’s top stories promise to be sequels to last year’s biggest blockbusters.
Take Rob Ford. (Please?) Expect the confusing situation of a mayor stripped of much of his job but not his title, and a deputy mayor raised to the status of almost-mayor, to continue until October 27. What happens then? An election.
It’s not yet settled who will run, or how the field will shake out. It can be predicted with some confidence that, thanks to his unique comedic talents, Mr. Ford will continue to be the winner in U.S. television airtime and YouTube hits. Winning the election will be more of a challenge, though in spite of everything he remains popular with a sizeable minority of voters. Which is a shame because, leaving aside the crack and the questionable associates and all the rest, what Canada’s largest city needs is a mayor who can offer a vision that is not either right vs. left, or rich vs. poor, or centre vs. suburb, and who can get beyond the tired, me vs. the elites clichés that Mr. Ford exploits.
Toronto will have a general election in 2014, but Canada will not. Polls can sting the Harper Conservatives, but by themselves they can’t change the balance of power for a majority government. The next federal election is not until October, 2015. The government is looking for a quiet year, setting things up for a budgetary surplus and a campaign budget, next spring. The opposition will conspire to throw off that timetable. Events may help.
The Conservative government has just under six months to decide whether to give the green light to the Northern Gateway pipeline, a project that has generated considerable opposition (and support), and into which the government invested substantial political capital. It’s the most novel and controversial of the various major pipeline plans on the table, and it’s bad luck for the government that the hardest sell is the first one through the review process. What’s more, all of this is taking place while the Obama administration’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in still pending. The Northern Gateway decision will not be politically painless for the Harper government.
In a few months, MP Michael Chong’s bill to reform parliament – aimed at weakening leaders and parties vis a vis their MPs – will also head to a vote. It need not be a challenge to the government: This is a bill from a Conservative MP, pushing ideas that many Conservatives have long favoured. But many in the opposition and on the backbenches are also comfortable with Mr. Chong’s proposals. The government hasn’t been enthusiastic. A vote could put the cat among the pigeons.
There’s also the Supreme Court’s prostitution decision, which came down late last year. The court told the government to rewrite three unconstitutional laws, but provided little guidance on what new rules might be constitutional. The court also appeared to leave the door wide open for the government to make prostitution itself a crime, something it currently is not. The government has to figure out what it can sell to the court, but more immediately, it has to craft something that will appeal to voters. The same goes for the opposition. The court gave Ottawa 12 months to write new laws, before the old ones cease to exist.
The court could also render a decision in the Senate reference case, where it was asked to lay out rules on reforming the Senate. What can be done by Parliament alone? What takes seven provinces with at least 50 per cent of the population? Would abolition need unanimous consent? Depending on the answers, Senate reform could be back on the agenda. The Senate expenses scandal, and the unanswered questions about the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office, will remain on the agenda.
And there are the polls. They can’t change the government, but they can change how it governs. They can also change who in the governing party does the governing. But opinion surveys taken in the tall weeds between election seasons don’t necessary bear out once the campaigning begins. Before Justin Trudeau can translate last year’s polls results into next year electoral success, he’s got to start putting some policy meat on that celebrity body.