Moving Forward with Yves-François, Jagmeet and Donald

Column/L. Ian MacDonald

Nov. 6th, 2019

Just as last week’s cabinet unveiling was more like a shuffle than the swearing-in of a new government, so Thursday’s Speech from the Throne was more like an updated campaign platform piece than a vision- -of-Canada document.

It began with the title. The widely panned Liberal platform slogan, “Choose Forward” has been upgraded to a working title of government policy called “Moving Forward Together”.

The speech was packaged with five chapter headings adapted from the campaign: Fighting Climate Change, Strengthening the Middle Class, Walking the Road of Reconciliation. Keeping Canadians Safe and Healthy, and Positioning Canada for Success in an Uncertain World.

These chapter titles were repeated verbatim by Governor General Julie Payette in the text of the speech itself. Right at the beginning, or rather, the Opening.

In case a reader didn’t get it, there were also chapter headings called Opening and Closing.

Seriously. This is what people get paid for in the Prime Minister’s Office and his department, the Privy Council Office, where they hold the pen on the throne speech while supposedly keeping tabs on the cost of every initiative.

In every SFT, there’s supposed to be a governor general’s paragraph, written by the GG and her staff at Rideau Hall. In the case of Payette, delivering her first throne speech, the personal touch was right at the beginning, drawing on her own experience as one of Canada’s famous astronauts.

“We share the same planet,” she declared. “We know that we are inextricably bound to the same space-time continuum and on board the planetary spaceship. If we put our brains and smarts and altruistic capabilities together, we can do a lot of good.”

And in the first sentence of the opening, she made a succinct statement of the perfectly obvious. Canadians “went to the polls. And they returned a minority Parliament to Ottawa.”

The subtext of the speech was the math of a majority, and how to get to the magic number of 170. Beginning from 157 seats of their own, the Liberals haven’t very far to go.

In this House no single party has the balance of power. Either the Bloc Québécois with 32 seats or the New Democrats with 24, can move the government to majority territory.

As such, the throne speech was extremely respectful of Bloc and NDP sensibilities by what it didn’t as much as by what it did say. There was, example, no reference to pipelines or the Trans Mountain

Expansion project, only of the necessity of moving resources to market.

No need to mention that the federal government owns TMX, having bought it for $4.5 billion, with that much and more on the line in the expansion, tripling its capacity to some 900,000 barrels a day of Alberta crude moving to overseas shipping.

Within an hour of the speech, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet happily announced the Bloc would be supporting it, solving the government’s majority problem before the House even got to the debate on the SFT. Never mind all the references to Canadian unity, there were none to pipelines.

And that deprived NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh of the first balance of power card, just as he was getting ready to play it. It wasn’t enough that the Liberals were talking about pharmacare, he said, show us the money.

Well, the provincial premiers have something to say about that, and at their Toronto meeting the other day, were quite unanimous and adamant in demanding more money from the feds for health care before discussing shared drug costs. And then Blanchet pulled the rug right out from under Singh. Sorry, Jagmeet.

There are other realities that play into majority math.

First, the Bloc. For most of them, an MP’s salary of $179,000, is by far the most money they’ve ever made. And then there’s the parliamentary pension, which kicks in after six years. So, two terms and out.

Then there’s the NDP—they’re flat broke and significantly in debt from this campaign. They’re in no position to fight another election before balancing their own books.

As for the Conservatives, they need to resolve the matter of Andrew Scheer’s leadership before taking on the Liberals in another election.
All of which gives Justin Trudeau a thing called time. First, he needs to present himself as a unifying figure—the unity of the federation is the top file on any prime minister’s desk. The election result wasn’t as worrisome for the numbers of a minority House as for the linguistic and regional divisions they represented. English and French, East and West, the Canadian story for the ages.

And then there’s the opportunity for Trudeau to lead on foreign policy, notably Canada-U.S. relations, by ratifying the updated North American free trade deal with the United States and Mexico. The impending impeachment of Donald Trump by the U.S. House of Representatives could delay approval by Congress, but that’s not Trudeau’s or Canada’s problem.

What is a problem for Trudeau in the short term was his cocktail chatter at the NATO summit in London the other day about Trump’s propensity for turning photo ops into long news conferences. It being Buckingham Palace, there were cameras and mics recording Trudeau’s conversation with other NATO leaders and Princess Anne.
Trump, being Trump, dismissed Trudeau as “two-faced” but still a nice guy. No American president has spoken of a Canadian prime minister in such terms since Richard Nixon, on the White House tapes, called Pierre Trudeau “that asshole.”

To which the first Prime Minister Trudeau famously replied: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”

That was then. This is now.

L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine.