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Paul Wells: The Prime Minister calls this a time of ‘unprecedented opportunity.’ Will Canadians agree?

Welcome back to Parliament or, as we like to call it when no party controls a majority of seats in the House of Commons, Election Speculation Season. MPs will reconvene in Ottawa on Sept. 23 for another Speech from the Throne. After that, the fun begins. Or whatever word you prefer.

Election Speculation Season is infinitely elastic. If there’s no election this fall, we’ll be ready for one in the spring. If there’s none in the spring, we’ll be full of hopes for next fall. Speculation also knows no season, so even in winter and summer there will be quiet-day columns wondering whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will fall or jump into voters’ embrace.

This corner prescribes a hefty grain of salt for use with all election speculation. Journalists like to speculate about whether an election is in the government’s interest, or the Opposition’s. We forget to mention that an election is always in our own interest. Political journalism matters during a campaign. Tight newsroom budgets loosen up. Limited airtime expands. It’s intoxicating. So we will always be sure a campaign is about to happen, and we will never learn from being wrong. Take that into account.

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However long it lasts, this Parliament will feature all sorts of novelty—a new government plan in the form of a Throne Speech; a new Opposition leader, Erin O’Toole, the mildly surprising winner of the Conservative party’s August leadership contest. And a new context: federal politicians are no longer finding their way out of the last election campaign, they’re framing the next.

However long this Parliament lasts, Justin Trudeau will need to govern. What is he planning? He gave his most complete answer the day after he fired Bill Morneau, his finance minister, for no comprehensible reason.

The Prime Minister was holding a news conference with Morneau’s inevitable successor, Chrystia Freeland, who changes jobs so frequently these days nobody has time to measure her effectiveness. But I hear she’s doing great. Trudeau said he had asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until late September, when she will read a new Throne Speech listing the government’s new plans.

READ MORE: The rise and fall of WE

As he talked about the Throne Speech, the Prime Minister sounded chuffed by the novelty of a global public-health catastrophe that has cut 10,000 Canadian lives short and sent a wrecking ball through the economy.

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“We can choose to embrace bold new solutions to the challenges we face and refuse to be held back by old ways of thinking,” Trudeau said. “As much as this pandemic is an unexpected challenge, it is also an unprecedented opportunity. This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada, a Canada that is healthier and safer, greener and more competitive, a Canada that is more welcoming and more fair.”

All righty, then. One of the questions about Canadian politics this autumn will be whether Canadians hear anything resembling their own thinking when they see the Prime Minister calling this a time of unprecedented opportunity. Trudeau’s predecessor once called a milder global financial crisis an excellent buying opportunity. It didn’t go over well. Maybe this is different?

Another question is whether the government can explain why it’s only now pivoting toward resilience, health, safety, greenness and competitiveness. Were the last five years about fragility, sickness, danger, waste and sloth?

The Prime Minister’s eagerness to abandon “old ways of thinking” may worry some observers. Rejecting old thinking hasn’t often improved results for this government. The notion that the attorney general is better able to evaluate the soundness of a criminal trial than the finance minister’s political staff, for instance, is old thinking. Taking only those Christmas vacations you can justify in public is old thinking. Still a good idea.

The millenarian sugar high that characterizes the Prime Minister’s descriptions of his fall agenda closely matches recent public pronouncements by one of Trudeau’s new advisers, Michael Sabia. The mandarin and former CEO of Bell Canada Enterprises left Quebec’s Caisse de dépôt pension fund last year. In April, when the current unprecedented opportunity had barely begun racking up its body count, Sabia was appointed chairman of the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s board. His predecessor and the bank’s CEO were given their walking papers on the day his appointment was announced.

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A bit of background: Bill Morneau announced the infrastructure bank in 2016 and set aside $35 billion the following year to fund it. The original idea came from Michael Sabia. It’s a funny world. The bank is supposed to identify big new things that should be built, and to spend large amounts of money in ways that attract even larger amounts from big institutional investors, like pension funds. It was a bold new solution. It hasn’t been working.

Sabia continues to refuse to be held back by old ways of thinking. In June he was on a web panel for Corporate Knights, a clean-tech magazine that has morphed into a sort of progressive business think tank. The topic was “Building back better by moving forward together.” Diana Fox Carney, a climate activist whose husband sometimes takes Trudeau’s calls, was the moderator. Navdeep Bains brought greetings from the government.

“These times both demand creativity and they encourage creativity,” Sabia said. “For the first time in living memory, so many of the standard operating procedures that are so often a straitjacket and a constraint on creativity are essentially gone.” As an example, Sabia mentioned the very Zoom call that he and the others were on. “That’s a rare window. And it’s a window that’s not to be missed.”

Um. Concretely, what does that mean? Sabia said the bank should be in the business of “broadening what we mean by infrastructure. It’s not just roads and ports. It’s not about the past. It’s about the future.” What will infrastructure look like in the future? “We’re very interested in different power systems and improving the east-west functioning of the electricity grid,” Sabia said. “Lower-carbon-intensity forms of transportation. Cities as a platform for lower-carbon growth. Digitization.”

Backing slowly away from the man on my screen spewing jargon, I recalled my many conversations with the people who developed the infrastructure bank in 2016. None of them thought infrastructure was just roads and ports. They were interested in different power systems and cities as platforms. Nothing Sabia was saying was actually new.

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A few weeks after the Corporate Knights panel, Sabia was on another web panel for the Globe Series, a Vancouver clean-tech conference that’s gone virtual for obvious reasons. The other guests were Catherine McKenna, the federal infrastructure minister, and Jennifer Keesmaat, a former Toronto chief city planner who ran for Toronto mayor and lost in 2018. Sabia emphasized the same themes: everything is possible, old rules don’t apply.

“Infrastructure’s not about paving roads,” he said. “Infrastructure is about the circulatory system of an economy. Because that’s really what infrastructure is.”

And how about the standard operating procedures? “We’ve thrown a lot of standard operating procedures out the window.” Is that a good thing? “And that’s a good thing.” Why? “Because standard operating procedures are generally the enemy of creativity. They’re sort of the prison of the imagination.” So they’re gone, and that’s a good thing? “So they’re gone, and that’s a good thing.”

I began to hope Sabia would get more specific and granular. He offered to get “more specific and granular” and listed a bunch of projects that have been part of the vocabulary of infrastructure wonks since the 1960s: “Renewable power, cleaner commutes, zero-emission buses, more electrified transit.”

If I were a member of Parliament, I’d be thinking about getting Sabia in front of a committee to ask him which “standard operating procedures,” precisely, have exited through which window. I would ask whether the auditor general, the parliamentary budget officer, the official languages commissioner and the overworked ethics commissioner agree we’re well rid of those procedures. It also wouldn’t hurt to ask why, five months after Sabia’s arrival caused the departures of the bank’s previous board chair and CEO, no new CEO had been hired. And why the bank’s latest quarterly “progress update” was, by the end of August, two months late.

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This may sound like nitpicking. It’s not nitpicking. I get worried when I hear the Prime Minister mimicking snake-oil pitches. This government—this Prime Minister—reliably do their worst work when they become so passionate about something they decide they needn’t fill in the details for anyone. Accountability doesn’t mean shouting buzzwords over your shoulder while you sprint. It is tiresome to have to repeat this.

One reason the election speculation will never stop is that by now it’s obvious that the Prime Minister is always happier campaigning than governing. Paradoxically for Erin O’Toole, the new Conservative leader, job one is to keep the Liberals governing for a while. The party O’Toole inherited is a fixer-upper. It will keep the new leader plenty busy while the Liberals test their grand plans against unforgiving reality.

O’Toole can’t imitate Stephen Harper and shouldn’t try, but he’s allowed to notice that the Harper Conservatives won as long as they concentrated on (an often idiosyncratic reading of) the whole country, and lost as soon as they devoted themselves full-time to flattering their most zealous donors and volunteers. Harper in 2004 and 2006 was more accommodating to Quebec nationalism than Paul Martin’s Liberals. In 2008 and 2011, his best lieutenant, Jason Kenney, courted visible-minority voters more actively than the Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff Liberals. In 2015, Harper ran on resentment and suspicion.

He campaigned in 2006 with Bill Davis, the famously bland former Ontario premier, and posted big gains in Ontario. In 2015, he campaigned with Rob and Doug Ford and lost Ontario. When I point this out, Conservative Twitter says I don’t understand Conservatives. Fine: it’s your dime, Conservatives. Do what you want.

O’Toole carries less baggage than Andrew Scheer did. As far as anyone knows, he only has one citizenship: Canadian. He can account for his whereabouts before he became an MP. He says he is personally pro-choice and would be game to begin marching in Pride parades. His wary attitude toward the ruling regime in China is closer to mainstream opinion in Canada than the Liberals’. There’s potential here.

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But no Conservative leader can take the big cultural debates of the 21st century off the table because no leader of any party can do that. Scheer was always astonished when anyone questioned his credentials as a feminist, his openness to diversity, his claims to believe in climate change and his own proposals for combating it. O’Toole had better not be surprised by the questions. He’s free to have his own answers, but he won’t make the questions go away. Those questions are only the most genteel leading edge of a cultural conflict that challenges basic assumptions underpinning the Canadian project.

That conflict began to overtake everyday matters of pubic administration during the last years of the last Conservative government. It picked up steam with Brexit and Donald Trump. These days the low-key culture war is a subtext for any debate about anything. Why has Liberal support proved stubborn? Because a lot of people are less interested in how they feel about grants administered by a supposed charity than they are about a guy who stood at the door of Catherine McKenna’s constituency office shouting obscenities. Or about the fellow who rammed the gates at Rideau Hall in a truck carrying four guns and more than 400 rounds of ammunition.

When Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay writes on Twitter that “the closeness” of Chrystia Freeland and the billionaire investor George Soros “should alarm every Canadian,” before erasing the tweet and apologizing vaguely, how does that compare to the things that actually alarm Canadians? Some voters find guilt by association and clumsy conspiracy theorizing plenty alarming.

It’s galling to watch Liberals make mercenary use of such questions after their leader spent decades compulsively wearing blackface, after he inappropriately pressured and then sidelined the country’s first Indigenous attorney general. But after identity politics consumed campaigns in the U.K., the U.S. and France (home of the original “yellow vests”) it would be Pollyannaish to hope Canada would be spared. I worry about Trudeau’s vapid “build back better” sloganeering because I care about competent public administration, no matter which party is in power. But whenever an election campaign does begin, it’s likely to be fought on tougher, nastier ground than infrastructure policy. With fundamentally unpredictable results. Anyone who thinks they’re looking forward to that fight will have time later to regret their haste.


This article appears in print in the October 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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