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

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.

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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.