Parliament returns, and it’s a bit of a mess

Paul Wells on what to watch for in Ottawa as the three main party leaders stumble back after a difficult summer

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to deliver a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to deliver a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Three travellers meet at the junction of mighty rivers. One is young and strong but his wings are tarnished. A second is younger but he can’t find his wings. The third is tired and nearly done his thankless task. Upon them rests the fate of a nation. What a show.

The venue for all this drama is the House of Commons, where Parliament resumes on Monday after a summer break that will seem, by Wednesday, to have been too short. The eyes of every political junkie in the land will converge on the Commons for Question Period—and the inevitable letdown.

Question Period is rarely much good on the first day back from a long break. This is only human. Too many issues have piled up while MPs were home in their ridings, and a sense of obligation forces opposition leaders to test-drive each of them in turn, once they finally have a chance to challenge government ministers again.

So Question Period lacks focus for a while. Finally, through the play of news headlines, online outrage and telephone calls to MPs’ offices, the country in effect tells parliamentarians which issues have legs. The really epic battles come later.

Further muddying things is the constant distractions of life in a big country’s capital. This week there’ll be at least two of those: the visit on Monday of British prime minister Theresa May and the United Nations General Assembly in New York from Tuesday to the end of the week. Justin Trudeau will speak to the General Assembly and some relevant ministers, Chrystia Freeland and Marie-Claude Bibeau, will be there for most of the week.

But at some point, despite distractions, Parliament will get down to business. The main combatants have each had difficult summers.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have come to realize that, as they sometimes remind one another in meetings, “hard things are hard.” This was the summer of Confederation’s 150th anniversary, and if there ever was a spirit of celebration around that landmark, it’s long gone. In its place are glib promises proving nearly intractable, and an ever-shortening timeline for producing results.

Reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians? Trudeau promised to eliminate long-term boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities. Today there are more than when he started. He’s split the Indigenous and Northern Affairs department in two and shifted an all-star minister, Jane Philpott, to one of the new departments as he doubles down on what was always going to be a difficult file.

READ: The Liberals’ plans for Indigenous reconciliation are just beads and trinkets

The opioid crisis? Trudeau replaced Philpott at health with Ginette Petitpas Taylor, an untested rookie minister in the midst of a public health crisis. Public health activists were unconvinced by Petitpas Taylor’s first interview on opioid overdoses: she said there’s a crisis but couldn’t name anything she’d do differently from her predecessor. It’s more than a crisis. Many thousands of Canadians have lost their lives. It’s hard to imagine the chaos that would befall any government if those deaths had been caused by a communicable disease, or by violent attack.

Military procurement? It’s a farce. A decision on peacekeeping? No time soon. Pipelines? A long list of maybes. Climate change? All the hard work, and the inevitable conflict among provinces with different policies and emissions profiles, still lie ahead. Meanwhile the Trudeau government seems overwhelmed by its own agenda: it has named no new officer of Parliament, and it can’t seem even to name a Chief Science Advisor, which once upon a time seemed like an easy win.

READ: Why military funding in Canada is in such a lousy state

And those aren’t even the riskiest files. The biggest of those seems to be Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s attempt to change the taxation of small businesses, which the opposition Conservatives are depicting as an all-out war on the very middle class Trudeau claims to hold to heart. (The Conservatives’ claims are themselves full of holes, but they have a lot of resources to push their claims, and a lot of support from people who aren’t Conservatives.)

Trudeau’s most successful communications haven’t been crisis communications. When pushed, as he was on electoral reform, he sometimes just folds rather than try to explain himself under fire. So he’s got a tough autumn ahead of him.

So does his leading designated tormentor, Andrew Scheer. Conservatives seemed to hope he’d be different from Stephen Harper in two ways: a nicer guy who’d be more overtly conservative. Those two missions may be contradictory. Barely elected to his new gig, Scheer had to navigate little storms over the party’s relation to the imploding Rebel Media and the precise meaning of his promise to protect free speech on university campuses.

Scheer heads into the fall parliamentary sitting with both lower approval numbers and lower disapproval numbers in polls than his immediate predecessor Rona Ambrose. That’s because a lot more Canadians simply don’t know him yet and don’t think much about him either way. It took Stephen Harper a losing election campaign to get over a similar deficit in 2004. Rookie leaders who defeat majority governments are rare in this country, and the governments they’ve toppled have tended to be measurably more decrepit than Trudeau’s. The young Conservative has his work cut out for him.

READ: Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party’s folksy unifier

The third leader of our major-party trilogy—sorry, Elizabeth May and whoever’s in the Bloc Québécois these days!—is Tom Mulcair. One hardly knows what to say. His party fired him, then asked him to stay around to lead it. At the same convention, the party voted in favour of a national consultation on the Leap manifesto. There’s been no such consultation worth mentioning. Mulcair is a formidable parliamentary fighter, but it is hardly his fault if it is never clear what the party he (still) (sort of) leads wants to be when it grows up.

Mulcair is, for the moment, the guy holding the Schrödinger box: only when it opens will we learn whether the NDP’s next leader is Jagmeet Singh or somebody else. In the meantime, the NDP remains hobbled by its own recent choices and eagerly awaiting the chance to benefit from its next one.



Parliament returns, and it’s a bit of a mess

  1. I truly hope Trudeau is a one-shot wonder . There’s so many things he has po’d Canadians about. True we aren’t cozy with Scheer yet but I’d vote for him anyway to be rid of the Liberals. LOL, Jr.may be suffering from PMS, as in Prime Minister Scheer in the foreseeable future

    • You know very well that Trudeau and the Libs are vastly ahead of the Cons in the polls.

      • I just read somewhere that the Libs lost 10-11 points over the summer.

        • Musta been Mad Magazine. LOL

        • You must have gotten that little nugget from Rebel News, you know that one, ‘The Voice of The Fake News’. Ezra needs the ratings too, he is falling like a stone, and now that the cons ‘Bull Horn’ has gone silent, better start to attack CBC News again i guess, makes for good fund raising. Just imagine the cons finally have lost the Sun News Network and Rebel News, no more Bull horn, don’t know how the cons will get to dog whistle their base again. Here is an idea, maybe Harper can start up that 24/7 propaganda machine he used when he was dear leader of our country, apparently he had a huge following, about 1500 people an episode.

          • Well I can honestly say it was not the Rebel Media — I have never even been to the Rebel website.

            However — it was our beloved CBC — and it was the APPROVAL ratings. Sorry — no intention to mislead. On average JT’s approval ratings fell by ~10 points over the summer. His DISAPPROVAL rating actually went up to — by around 6%.

            His polling rate did fall by 9% before the session ended but it looks like it’s gain 6% since. Congratulations! Funny how Macleans just did a followup story on our Indigenous people. You may remember that JT, to the chagrin of SH, accepted ALL 91 truth and reconciliation recommendations while he was leader of the opposition. How many of the 91 T&R recommendations have been implemented by JT?

            None, Zero. That JT is like Teflon. Just one example of the Feds doing nothing and they gain points over the summer.

    • What kind of drugs are you on man, you are one of the voters who would vote for a peanut as a leader in the conservative party. Sheer is way to young, Trudeau is about to be the oldest of all the leaders, next to Liz May. Mr Singh or Mr Sheer will have to sit out this next election and hope for a better chance of the next one in 2023. Trudeau may even call an early election after next year if his numbers stay the way they are, maybe a snap election, when he sees the opposition in a weak moment(they seem to be having a lot of them lately), so there is no slack for the newly minted leaders from this point on. I would like to be clear about the wearing of religious symbols by a PM in this country, i would never vote for symbols that are related to anyone’s religion, I would not vote for a man or women who wants to be PM in this country if they wore a white collar around their neck, whether a pastor, priest, Muslim or reverend. I don’t believe in religious symbolism or religious ideology, does that make me racist, no it doesn’t, it make me a person who doesn’t believe in faith, that’s why i would never vote for a PM who wears a religious symbol, who represents a democracy and show the world the religion doesn’t have a place in politics, that’s why i will not vote for a PM in the future or next election who wears any religious symbols, not because i am racist, it’s because i am a realist. I will not vote Mr Singh, not because i don’t think he is unqualified, or because is not an energetic or charismatic politician, i would vote for him as MP, but i would not vote for him as PM, because i don’t believe ideology or religion should be aloud to be used as a symbol, of our head of state of government. Final factor, i don’t want religion flashed my eyes everyday in politics.

      • Religion and Ideologies tear countries apart.

      • With that type of rambling — you should consider being an adviser for your local Liberal club.

  2. The mainstream media is in a precarious position. They risk exposing how deeply they are in the tank for Trudeau, the Liberals, and the establishment with how they blindly parrot Trudeau’s talking points on the small business tax grab. The same mainstream media which is asking for even larger subsidies from Trudeau paid for by the public taxpayer.

    The small business people being targeted by Trudeau and Morneau, till now, may have mostly unaware of half truth narratives the Trudeau Liberals and the mainstream media construct. But since they are the people directly targeted now, they will become aware of the false media narratives that are continually being spun.

    And their good opinion of the media, once lost, may be lost forever.

    It is easy to “lie” about the fringes and get away with it. But the people being targeted this time as “tax cheat” are not on the fringe. They are at the vital centre of the Canadian economy.

    And especially when Trudeau and Morneau are about to gift risk free rentier streams from tolls and user fees on public infrastructure on the global 0.1%’ers (i.e. Dominic Barton’s friends), also at taxpayer expense.

    And not to mention the asset-stripping of Canada that will accompany this activity with the Privatization Bank.

  3. So Trudeau has been in the public eye since the photo coming out of the hospital as a baby.
    More recently a few years as Leader of the Opposition, then a national federal election campaign against two experienced proven leaders.
    Now two years are Prime Minister. Two years.
    He’s handled national crises and pursued a forward looking agenda.
    He attended important summits, made what outsiders have thought were important international speeches, and been recognized as a world leader of some consequence.
    Do you think it’s possible that any member of the Ottawa reporter or pundit class could ever bring themselves to say, “you know this guy is really doing a pretty good job.” Oh the bubble. Picking at the minutiae, The panels, around and around on the perceived crucial issues and scandals over and over again. Big story of the week. We’ve got you this time Justin.
    It’s getting a bit tedious.

  4. Interesting that Sheer, who knew that Theresa May was coming to meet Trudeau to discuss their mutual interest in protecting Bombardier jobs in the face of attacks from Boeing, would also choose to attack Bombardier during Question Period.

    • One can bail out Bombardier without bailing out the Liberal 0.1%’er family that owns it. One could have forced the elimination of the dual class share structure. The bailout of a company should NOT be the bailout of a single plutocratic family.