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Speech from the Throne analysis: A prelude to the next federal election

Photo Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Photo Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The Liberal government’s Speech from the Throne, pronounced through Governor General Julie Payette Wednesday in Ottawa, made one thing crystal clear: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is already gearing up for the next federal election.

The backdrop

By any objective measure, the Liberal government appears more resolute than ever to forge ahead with its agenda, which includes leaning into continued spending and new support programs with respect to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Prime Minister reinforced these messages in his address to the country Wednesday night, warning Canadians that a second wave is a reality we must face head on.

Notwithstanding the immediate challenges posed by COVID-19, the Prime Minister simultaneously delivered a clear message to its chief opposition, the Conservative Party: pre-electoral season has officially started.

The Throne Speech was notably focused around resilience. This doubles as a theme for the Liberal’s intended political survival, as all parliamentarians will vote on the Throne Speech—and, by extension, on the future of the Trudeau government.

The Liberals have carefully chosen to double down on COVID-19 spending and support, promising a myriad of new measures to support Canadians—whatever it takes. And on key fronts such as health, the economy, equality and the environment, “bold action” was promised.

Indeed, through the vision and the tone that were put forward to carry the government’s message, Canadians were provided with glimpses of an unofficial campaign platform. The Liberals are doubling down on their agenda, and they are betting that Canadians will once again side with them when this is all done.

Key commitments

Ottawa will continue to support provinces, to the tune of $10 billion to help them acquire personal protective equipment and improve testing capacity. Meanwhile, it will accelerate efforts to secure a vaccine, the only way our country will successfully conquer the pandemic.

In what was perhaps the Speech’s most emphatic statement, the government boldly indicated that “Now is not the time for austerity”. The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) will be reconducted until next summer; the Canadian Emergency Business Account will be enhanced; Canadians transitioning out of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit will not only have access to Employment Insurance, but also skills training programs. In other words: federal coffers remain wide open—and will remain so until the pandemic becomes a distant memory.

The Speech from the Throne was also a throwback to Trudeau’s majority days. It contained language around building the Canada of the future:

  • A cleaner, greener society that is still committed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, to ban single-use plastics in 2021 and to make zero-emission vehicles more affordable.
  • More support and protection for the most vulnerable (Indigenous communities, seniors, racialized Canadians), with policies like a national pharmacare framework and new national standards for seniors care, and steps to address systemic racism.
  • A country that tackles the COVID-19 “she-cession” through a feminist lens: the Speech’s signature announcement was the pledge to establish a national childcare program, to ensure that mothers don’t face additional barriers to the labour market.

Through these commitments, all the core segments of the Liberal voting constituency were clearly targeted. And the government remains singularly focused on securing the centre-left both now and into the next election. This is a consistent strategy that dates back to the 2015 federal campaign. Simply put: the Liberals know where—and with whom—their path to victory lies.

Leaning in

What is perhaps most striking about this speech is the sense of defiance exhibited by the government. The Throne Speech will simply not quell the multiple political pain points of the opposition and provincial premiers. Notably:

  • The ethical mishaps of this summer did not cause the government to second-guess itself. Far from it. The Liberals gave virtually no concession to its chief opposition, the Conservative Party: no relief measures for the struggling oil and gas sector (loudly criticized by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney Wednesday night), no policy targeting small businesses, and very little mention of the agriculture sector.
  • As NATIONAL expected, the Conservative Party has already indicated that it would not endorse the Throne Speech, which was expected: the absence of a real roadmap to fiscal balance, coupled with the lack of support for the oil and gas and sector will likely lead to contentious debates in the weeks to come.
  • Ottawa seemingly picked a fight with provinces and territories. Indeed, Prime Minister Trudeau has seemingly ignored the very public plea made by Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba to enhance federal health transfers, with no conditions. Yet this debate is not closed. Ontario Premier Doug Ford certainly noticed this omission: “Today the federal government missed a critical opportunity to commit to a desperately needed increase to the Canada Health Transfer. I will continue to work alongside my provincial counterparts to advocate that the federal government invest its fair share in healthcare.” On this front, a deal with the provinces is likely in the coming weeks.
  • Furthermore, with the imposition of a pharmacare framework and new national standards for seniors care, the Prime Minister is likely heading towards a showdown with Quebec Premier François Legault, whose immediate reaction to the Speech on Twitter was: “Disappointing Throne Speech for Quebec. Does not respect provinces’ jurisdiction over health.” That reaction should pretty much seal the Bloc Québécois’ opposition to the Throne Speech.
  • The costs for these measures will be immense, yet this aligns with every federal budget announced by the Liberals since taking office. They have not, nor will not, shy away from staying in the proverbial “red”—certainly not now.

What’s next

All eyes will be on the NDP, the party whose agenda is most compatible with the government. Party leader Jagmeet Singh called for the extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and provisions offering paid sick leave to every employee across the country as conditions for endorsing the Speech, and the Liberals seem amenable to that. This should help them fend off the Conservatives and the Bloc, allowing then to retain power for now.

But make no mistake: regardless of the immediate future of this legislature, pre-electoral season has started in Ottawa. And the Liberal government just fired the opening salvo, exhibiting relative comfort in going to the polls if necessary. It is now incumbent to opposition parties to respond in kind.

The next fiscal update—announced for this fall as part of the Throne Speech—will be another key test for this government. Other tangible next steps are still an open question: new mandate letters for cabinet ministers could be drafted. And a cabinet shuffle should not be excluded.

More importantly, the immediate question is: how will the second wave of the pandemic impact the legislative agenda? And, by extension, will it end this minority parliament?

NATIONAL’s bilingual roster of season government relations experts will continue to monitor the breaking news, milestones and trends inherent of the beat of this 43rd legislature. Stay tuned.