Originally published at Convivium on September 23, 2020.
Convivium contributor Don Hutchinson sets up resumption of Parliament by explaining the historical significance of the Speech from the Throne – and its potential political pitfalls for Justin Trudeau. 7 minute read.
The Speech from the Throne is a key moment in the life of any government. Today’s will be no less important for the minority Trudeau Government, which will seek to balance the confidence of the House of Commons and the confidence of the Canadian people in its stated objectives for a second session of Canada’s 43rd Parliament. Confidence of the House will keep the government in place. Failing to retain MP support, the confidence of Canadians will be required to restore a Trudeau government by means of a general election.
In a long-ago time, the Monarch presented her speech to outline her goals for her realm that she was directing her “first among advising ministers” in her government to implement on her behalf. Of course, that aspect of parliamentary tradition has changed. The First Minister is now responsible for drafting the speech, with input from his advising ministers. In Canada, the federal government is to bear in mind its role as set out in section 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867, “to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada.” The final draft is presented to the Queen’s representative, the governor general, for a few negotiated personal touches before its proclamation to open a new session of parliament.
Historically, those gathered for the Speech from the Throne are tightly packed into the red chamber of Her Majesty’s selected parliamentarians, the House of Lords at Westminster and the Senate in Ottawa, rather than the chamber of the people’s elected representatives, the House of Commons. Along with the Queen or her governor general, 105 members of the Senate and nine justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, along with invited dignitaries, await the ceremonial arrival of the 338 Members of Parliament who are summonsed from the Commons into the Senate chamber to hear the speech. At a later date, MPs vote on the speech to determine whether the government may proceed with its declared objectives or whether the government will fall.
While a parliament is formed on the basis of a general election, a government is formed by the party that has the confidence of the House of Commons, and can hold that confidence of that parliament beginning with a motion following debate of the Throne Speech.
A minority government is in a particular predicament with the speech as it must satisfy enough members of opposition political parties for the confidence motion on the speech to pass. Most minority governments survive the speech opening the first session. Additional sessions of the parliament, following each prorogation and with a new Throne Speech, are trickier.
Perhaps the most notorious recent prorogation and resulting second session occurred during Canada’s 40th Parliament.
Six weeks following the 2008 election, coincidentally the election in which Justin Trudeau first took his seat as the MP from Papineau, the opposition moved a motion of non-confidence in the Conservative government. Before the motion was voted on, they revealed that the Liberals and New Democrats had signed a coalition agreement, with support of the Bloc Quebecois, and thus anticipated a majority of votes in the House. Liberal leader Stephane Dion had resigned a week after losing 26 seats in that election, then struck the deal which gave him one more opportunity to be Prime Minister.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper requested Governor General Michaëlle Jean prorogue Parliament. Six sitting days were missed, avoiding the scheduled confidence vote and acquiring time for a fresh Throne Speech after Christmas. During the break, the Liberals replaced Dion with Michael Ignatieff. Harper’s Throne Speech opening the second session was one of the shortest on record. Gone were some financial measures to which the Liberals had objected. With Liberal support, the Conservative minority government would last another two years before winning a majority in the 2011 federal election.
So, what might today’s speech include? What risks and opportunities might it present for the one party the Liberals require to support the government?
To address those questions the government will place three considerations on the scales.
First, the constitutional factor of peace, order, and good government. In urging us to pray for our leaders, the apostle Paul refers to this responsibility of government as supporting our ability to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I have yet to meet a Canadian politician who, at least initially, does not perceive their motivation for political service as the ability to implement their plans for our good. This first factor may become unbalanced if the desire to serve becomes a pursuit of political power. As Paul alludes in his admonition for prayer, that balance may be restored.
Weighed against service and holding tight to political power will be the desire to seek re-election before potentially being tagged with the scent of another Justin Trudeau scandal by one or more decisions/reports from the Finance Committee, the Ethics Committee, the Ethics Commissioner, The Lobbying Commissioner, the Procurement Ombudsman, the Auditor-General, or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Such a scandal would complement earlier indignities such as the private vacation with the Aga Khan and efforts to influence the attorney-general in regard to a prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. Using the past as possible predictor of the present, here are some thoughts on what that balancing might look like in the Speech from the Throne.
Prime Minister Trudeau has stated he sees the country going in a different direction, starting today.
Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet said his party will no longer support the government. However, a concession or financial reward for Quebec might change his mind. A well-chosen initiative will put him in the position of supporting it or potentially defending in an election why he did not.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has consistently supported the government in the House of Commons, as the government has seeded pandemic relief initiatives with NDP-enticing expenditures. Singh has then clumsily expressed lack of confidence in the government between such votes.
Like the Bloc, the NDP leader could be faced with the option of supporting one or more proposals that are NDP-championed ideas or explaining in an election why he did not. Universal Pharmacare? A guaranteed basic income? Further expansion to unemployment benefits? Enhanced child-care benefits? Or, perhaps expanded green initiatives designed to catch two parties with one election-ready issue? These were promised in the 2015 Liberal platform, and along with a commitment to democratic reform drew voters away from the NDP and Greens securing a Liberal majority. Lack of fulfilment contributed to the 2019 minority. Might Trudeau resurrect them to secure power for a little longer, or bring back these perhaps forgotten promises in preparation for election 2020?
Although the Parliamentary Budget Officer and Canada’s largest lenders have cautioned the government to limit increases in the $1.2 trillion federal debt by stepping away from its pattern of deficit spending, the lure of current political power or another attempt to unite the political left within the Liberal camp might prove too tantalising a temptation.
There are also the aspirants to deliver the opening Speech from the Throne in Canada’s 44th Parliament, the Erin O’Toole led Conservatives. The Trudeau government has shrewdly not declared the pandemic a federal emergency. Free to spend while leaving premiers responsible for public safety, by not declaring an emergency it has also sidestepped the assessment of government actions by parliamentary and public inquiries that would be required under the Emergencies Act.
Will Trudeau be bold enough to put such a review process in the Speech from the Throne, knowing his government will be outnumbered on any parliamentary committee? If so, how might the Tories respond? Is O’Toole willing to risk the advantage of opposition majority on committees investigating the Canada Student Service Grant WE/Trudeau fiasco before documents are reviewed and reports issued?
Prime Minister Trudeau has signalled that he prefers Parliament at a distance, whether by handing him the reigns unfettered, prorogued to halt committee investigations, or, more recently, by means of a proposed voting by app that would keep parliamentarians at an unprecedented separation from the House and Senate chambers.
Will Trudeau use the Throne Speech to recalibrate in an effort to buy time, perhaps even for a winter walk in the snow like his father 36 years ago? Will he try to snooker one or more opposition party leaders into unfastening themselves from their parties’ notable political proposals so Liberals can claim those initiatives as their own in a fall election? Or will peace, order, and good government be prioritized in the balance?
Whether or not the opposition opposes, the speech might be a pivotal moment for Canadians to evaluate whether the introduction to Justin Trudeau’s “build back better” agenda stirs confidence for us.