As we inch closer to the end of 2019, the first two weeks of parliamentary proceedings in Ottawa gave Canadians a preview of what to expect in 2020—a year that should prove pivotal for all the major forces shaping Canada’s political scene.
A busy agenda for the Liberal government
Pressed by his provincial and territorial counterparts to strengthen national unity, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will likely dedicate a lot of energy trying to reach more consensus among partners in the Confederation. He has already made some key moves to maximize his chances of success. To this end, the content of the Cabinet mandate letters is rather telling.
For example, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland will be more than a “second-in-command” in the new Trudeau administration: she is now a full-fledged Super Minister, tasked with overseeing the work of all the departments. Health transfers, pharmacare, pipeline proposals, climate change, CUSMA—Ms. Freeland will be front and centre on all these files. She is without question the best negotiator amongst the Liberal ranks, as evidenced by her steering of the new NAFTA, and this skill should come in handy as the government tries to soften some of the mounting tensions between Ottawa and the provinces.
Looking at the mandate letters overall, the Liberals have abandoned the “deliverology” approach they had espoused in their previous mandate, delivering routine report cards on the progress of major commitments. This approach would be next to impossible to pursue in a minority context, where mandate commitments can be viewed as more of an overall roadmap for their policy blueprint, rather than a prescriptive list to check off. The challenge for the Liberals will be to govern on an issue-by-issue basis, looking left and right as they move forward on securing opposition support. Certain commitments will fall to the side in this process, and political decisions within PMO will be required to either double down in certain files or choose the path of least resistance in others. This is the reality of a minority environment.
The Trudeau government will have to deal with its share of risks, but the state of the economy should prove to be the greatest. Whispers about a potential recession for Canada have become louder after the recent loss of more than 70,000 jobs in November. Indeed, a sizeable number of Canadians feel anxious about the current state of the economy, and fear that the country is not equipped to deal with a serious economic downturn. How can the Trudeau administration reassure them that the significant spending it has committed to (which has effectively elevated the deficit to more than $150 billion) will yield tangible gains and shield them from a domestic or a global recession?
Finally, how will parliamentary committees cooperate? Will they at all? Opposition parties now hold the plurality of seats, making the study of government bills a tedious affair. Will this situation significantly slow down the government’s agenda?
The Conservative Party in soul-searching mood
The bitter election that saw the Conservatives win the popular vote, but ultimately lose to the Liberals, was followed by the internal feuds that weakened Andrew Scheer’s leadership. Reeling from attacks from party organizers, past candidates, organized groups and even party dignitaries, his sudden resignation on December 12 (months before his leadership review) ended a tumultuous term at the helm of the CPC. Scheer’s inability to take advantage of a weakened Liberal leader, coupled with his stumbles on controversial social policy and personal mishaps, did not do him any favours. He will, however, stay on as leader until the conclusion of the party’s leadership race.
While awaiting its new captain, the Conservative Party still sits as the official opposition, a crucial role, even more so in a minority government setting. The challenge will become ever more daunting, as leadership races often have a way of airing dirty laundry in public. Will the Conservative Party maintain a united front as it tries to keep the Trudeau government in check? And can an embattled Andrew Scheer carry on his duties will the full backing of his caucus?
Third parties face their share of questions
The Bloc Québécois took advantage of its ideological symbiosis with the renewed nationalism currently sweeping through Quebec. In the process, it managed to convince Quebecers of its allegiance towards the policies put forward by Premier François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec. However, both parties have significant differences, especially on the question of sovereignty. The Legault administration wants to collaborate with Ottawa, while the Bloc Québécois has stated many times that it has no interest in improving the Confederation. These diverging opinions were exposed in a major way last week over the newest version of CUSMA. It was lambasted by the Bloc Québécois for its alleged breaches to Quebec’s aluminum and dairy sectors, yet lauded by Premier Legault as a good deal. Mr. Legault even went as far as asking Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet not to delay the ratification of the new deal. This dynamic will be one to watch in the next year.
For the NDP, the year 2020 will be an attempt to forge a new path and rebuild its foundations through its grassroots members. After losing nearly 50% of its caucus, the party found consolation in holding the balance of power in this new Parliament. They will likely work with the Liberals to advance common interests … and endorse the government’s agenda in the process. Can they effectively work with the government when necessary, all the while remaining a credible opposition on other files? And can they finally use Jagmeet Singh’s larger-than-life personality as a tool to leverage funding and to sign up new members?
As for the Green Party, it is now facing the prospect, for the first time in decades, of life without Elizabeth May. After a disappointing campaign that netted only three seats, Ms. May resigned in early November. The environmental cause did become top-of-mind for millions of Canadians, but this failed to translate into seats for the Greens. Will a new leader infuse some much-needed momentum, paving the way for future electoral success next time around?
2019 was indeed a busy year filled with plot twists and turns in Canadian federal politics. Canadians appear more divided than ever, and failed to truly determine whether they wanted to stay the course or move in a different direction. Instead, they settled for more vigorous checks and balance on the Trudeau government. The NATIONAL team looks forward to closely monitor Ottawa’s “new normal” in 2020.