After a six-week break, MPs are back in Parliament next week for a Throne Speech in which the Liberals will lay out new plans to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and repair the economic damage it’s caused so far. Canadians will see familiar faces in unfamiliar roles – a new Finance Minister, for instance – and they may hear MPs talking at length about how they don’t want to trigger an election this fall, but they’re ready to fight one if it comes. Here’s a catch-up on the issues Parliament faces and what to expect next.
Glossary of terms
- Prorogation: The temporary suspension of a parliament’s activities. The federal Parliament has been prorogued since mid-August. Proroguing is a routine practice in British-style parliaments to end one legislative session and start another, but since the Harper government’s controversial prorogations in the 2000s, it’s had a mixed reputation in Canada among critics who say it can be abused for political purposes.
- Throne Speech: The statement of goals a government gives when a new session begins. The Governor-General’s delivery of the speech is the main event when Parliament resumes on Sept. 23. MPs get to vote on the speech, but not necessarily soon: The last Throne Speech was given early last December, but wasn’t passed until late January.
- Confidence vote: To govern, the party with the most seats in a minority Parliament needs to show it has the confidence of the House. There are two ways to show that confidence has been lost, each of which can be considered confidence votes: The defeat of a Throne Speech or budget, or the success of a motion of non-confidence in the government. Either would result in the dissolution of Parliament and a new election.
- Hybrid model: An arrangement in which some MPs are physically present in the legislature for votes and debates, while others take part virtually. Various parliaments, including Britain’s, have tried forms of this to keep legislators safe from COVID-19. Over the summer, Canadian MPs could speak in debates remotely, but only the ones in the House could vote; Mr. Trudeau wants all MPs to be able vote electronically, but the Conservatives oppose that.
What’s new since August, and what isn’t
Changes at the top
The Throne Speech will be Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s parliamentary debut as the new Finance Minister, a post she was appointed to last month. Her predecessor, Bill Morneau, quit as a cabinet minister and MP after reports of disagreements with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (which he denies), and amid an investigation of his role in the WE Charity controversy (more on that later). As for the opposition, the Conservatives have a newly elected leader, Erin O’Toole, who ran as a more right-wing candidate than his leading opponent but has since sought to appeal to a wider constituency of Liberal and NDP supporters.
The pandemic and the economy
When Parliament was last in session, Canada’s COVID-19 caseload was declining and some of the summer’s relief measures, like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, were in the process of winding down. Now, infections are rising again in parts of Quebec and Ontario and the federal government has decisions to make about how to manage new lockdowns while keeping Canadians employed and the economy afloat. With this year’s federal deficit nearing $400-billion, the government is also under pressure from the opposition and economists to spend less freely than they did in the initial months of the pandemic. Ms. Freeland has promised a “wise and prudent” economic plan in the Throne Speech, while Health Minister Patty Hajdu says Ottawa is working with provinces on a “much more surgical approach” to COVID-19 restrictions than the broad lockdowns Canadians endured over the summer.
The WE Charity affair
Three parliamentary committees – finance, ethics and government operations – are looking into conflict-of-interest allegations against Mr. Trudeau, who took part in a cabinet decision to hire WE Charity to administer a student grant program despite his family’s past paid work at its speaking events. All committee hearings were put on hold by the prorogation, but not independent federal watchdogs like the ethics and lobbying commissioners, each of whom is now investigating the WE affair separately. As for WE Charity itself, it said on Sept. 10 that it would shut down all Canadian operations and its co-founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger, would step aside.
The China file
Sino-Canadian relations have been at a low point for the past two years thanks to the Meng Wanzhou case (and China’s retaliatory detention of two Canadians), the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, and trade disputes. Parliament set up a special committee last winter to explore the China file, but the prorogation cast doubt on its future: Once MPs return, they have to vote the committee back into existence before it can continue. This time, the Conservatives will have an even more China-skeptical leader than last year: Mr. O’Toole likens the West’s relationship with China to a new Cold War and has said Mr. Trudeau’s approach to Beijing is “fawning.”
Why are we talking about elections?
During the prorogation, the NDP and Conservative leaders have been mobilizing for a possible election, while also denying that they plan to trigger one themselves, suggesting that Mr. Trudeau might do this for his own gain. Until the Throne Speech comes to a vote, it’s too early to tell how much of the election rhetoric is genuine and how much is brinkmanship to influence the Throne Speech’s contents. Until then, here are some examples of toppled minority governments that Canadians can consider to guess what might happen if an election is called.
Opposition tries and succeeds
The last time the opposition brought down a federal minority government and then defeated it in an election was in 2005-06. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, Jack Layton’s NDP and Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois passed a non-confidence motion in the Liberal government of Paul Martin, accusing the Liberals of corruption after the findings of a public inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. The election gave Mr. Harper a minority, as did another election that he triggered himself two years later.
Opposition tries and fails
In the winter of 2008, the Liberals, Bloc and NDP proposed ousting the Conservatives and forming a coalition themselves. Mr. Harper stalled them by convincing the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament. By the following year, the Liberals had a new leader, Michael Ignatieff, who gambled on a non-confidence motion, but in very different circumstances: The NDP now wanted to protect the Conservatives and win concessions on legislation, so they abstained and the motion failed. When another election arrived in 2011, the Liberal seat count hit a historic low and the Conservatives had a majority.
Opposition tries, succeeds, then fails
Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, had his minority government toppled in 1974, when the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats joined forces to reject a budget they didn’t think was effective enough at curbing inflation. But it backfired: Gaffes on the campaign trail dented PC leader Robert Stanfield’s public image, every opposition party lost seats and Mr. Trudeau won a majority.
Elections and COVID-19: A brief history
COVID-19 makes elections harder to organize safely, but that hasn’t discouraged governments from going ahead with them. In New Brunswick, Premier Blaine Higgs triggered an election over the summer, saying the legislature (which his Progressive Conservatives then governed as a minority) needed more stability for its COVID-19 plans. The opposition hoped to turn the public against Mr. Higgs for sending them to the polls in a pandemic, but when New Brunswickers voted on Sept. 14 – at physically distanced polling places where their hands were sanitized on entry – they gave a majority to Mr. Higgs, who had strong approval ratings for his pandemic response. The political and practical lessons of New Brunswick’s election were closely studied in B.C., where Premier John Horgan has called his own snap election for Oct. 24, and Saskatchewan, which holds a vote on Oct. 26 that was scheduled under fixed election-date laws.
For Canada’s federal parties, another comparable example is New Zealand, which holds general elections on Oct. 17. New Zealand elections are required every three years; this year’s had been scheduled for Sept. 19, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delayed it as Auckland went back into lockdown to contain new outbreaks. Polls suggest a favourable outcome for Ms. Ardern’s Labour-led coalition, whose success in temporarily eliminating COVID-19 from New Zealand was praised internationally. But the opposition National party – which, like Canada’s Conservatives, changed leaders during the pandemic – hopes it can change New Zealanders' minds by October.
Opinion and analysis
The editorial board’s view
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Kristy Kirkup, Bill Curry, Steven Chase, Robert Fife, Evan Annett and The Canadian Press
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