The fictional Star Trek universe made much of James Tiberius Kirk being the first cadet in the history of Starfleet to defeat the Kobayashi Maru simulation of a no-win scenario. In the simulation, a civilian ship is in danger of being destroyed for unintentionally entering the Neutral Zone, established by treaty to keep peace with the Klingons. Any Starfleet ship going to aid the Kobayashi Maru would be in violation of the treaty. Klingon ships lie in wait for an armed Starfleet vessel to take the bait.
It’s a test of character. Will the cadet in the captain’s chair willingly allow the death of innocent civilians? Or will the cadet-captain make a valiant attempt to rescue them, one doomed to fail and justify the Klingon’s launching an interstellar war?
Cadet Kirk became the first cadet to win the no-win. He did so by gaming the system. Kirk surreptitiously reprogrammed the simulator, allowing his ship to rescue the civilians and defeat the Klingons. Starfleet Command awarded Kirk a commendation for original thinking.
Canada’s Parliament is established by constitution and conventions, which are kind of like the programming that cadets encountered in tests at Starfleet Academy. It’s not no-win, but those conventions have purpose. They, too, test character. And, they protect the institutions of our democracy.
The current government is gaming the system. The intended outcome of gaming Parliament’s systems is to hold power for as long as possible, potentially securing a majority government in the process.
The situation in the federal Parliament has been somewhat mirrored by action in the National Legislative Assembly of Quebec.
In Quebec, Premier Legault has a majority government, which he attempted to use to transfer decision making powers for expenditures on infrastructure projects to the executive branch, powers that are conventionally exercised under oversight of the legislature. The opposition parties objected to his sidestepping of conventional requirements for responsible government – responsible to the people who elect all members, not just members of the governing party. Some would argue Legault has a majority, so what’s the difference? The difference is making decisions that can be publicly challenged by the people’s elected representatives, i.e. transparency, or making decisions in private boardrooms and governing by fiat. Premier Legault accepted the objection and agreed to extend the current sitting of the legislature to work with opposition parties to amend the legislation.
In the last federal Parliament, Prime Minister Trudeau’s majority government passed similar infrastructure project legislation, over similar objections. A week ago, the Parliamentary Budget Officer stated concern that, despite repeated requests, the Trudeau Government has not provided accounting for $35 billion in infrastructure expenditures authorized by Trudeau’s cabinet. The Government also reduced the budget of the Auditor General’s office, which, the Auditor General said, makes it extremely difficult to “follow the money.”
In the current Parliament, the minority Trudeau Government has required more Kirk-like stealth. Will Trudeau be rewarded for ingenuity, as Kirk was?
When Parliament adjourned on March 13 for an extended break due to Covid-19, it was anticipated the scheduled return on April 20 would see Parliament, and all Canadians, back at work. That was not the case. With side agreements in place, on April 20 the Bloc Quebecois and New Democratic Party (and non-party status Greens) voted with the Liberal Government to postpone the resumption of Parliament until May 25. In Parliament’s place, a committee of the House of Commons would meet to address Covid-19 issues. As a programming measure, the committee meets in the House of Commons chamber once a week and is chaired by the Speaker of the House. This gives the appearance that Parliament is sitting.
By May 25, the Bloc had a revised understanding of what was happening and voted against the Liberal attempt to continue sidelining Parliament. The NDP, however, cut a second deal and supported the government. Within days, NDP leader Singh was voicing displeasure with Government actions.
Where does that leave our Parliament? (Remember, it is our Parliament to which we send our representatives to make decisions concerning our nation.)
The deals made April 20 and May 25/6 render Parliament almost powerless, called to sit when summonsed by the Prime Minister, and then only to deal with what he places on the agenda, sitting for a pre-established timeframe.
The Government called the House to meet June 10, following that day’s in-person Covid-19 committee, to consider legislating penalties for people inappropriately receiving Covid-19 benefits (which the Prime Minister two months ago said he would not do). In the same bill, the Government combined funding his recent commitment to assist people with disabilities. The opposition parties denied the unanimous consent required to proceed with the legislation within the pre-set two hour timeframe.
Parliament is next scheduled to meet June 17 to vote on spending estimates. Spending estimates are the budgeted expenditures that fund federal government services delivered to Canadians. Ordinarily, these spending estimates would be included in a budget issued in March and voted on before the end of June. No budget has been presented, nor a financial update on the state of the economy.
The three recognized opposition parties have requested the government provide either a budget or a financial update, at minimum a summary of the projected financial context in which the spending estimates will be spent. This is in keeping with parliamentary convention. The Government has said neither budget, update nor summary will be forthcoming. Further, it will not accept any proposals for amendment to the bill it intends to present June 17 for a time-limited four hours of debate.
In the normal course of events, opposition questioning and input would potentially result in amendments to financial legislation presented by a government. Each of the Covid-19 emergency measures passed to date was amended (most agree, improved) before being approved. The opposition removed from the first bill an effort by the Government to secure private boardroom authority over taxation and spending until December 2021, items for which public parliamentary accountability is warranted by both constitution and convention.
Another parliamentary convention will be in play June 17. If the Government is defeated on a vote for the proposed expenditure bill then the Government will be adjudged by convention to no longer hold the confidence of the House, obliging the Prime Minister to resign his government, likely requesting the Governor-General grant permission for an election.
Why would Trudeau take such a hard-line risk in a time of emergency?
Kobayashi Maru. Kirk.
It looks like a no-win situation. But it’s a gaming of the system.
Polling shows the Prime Minister’s popularity is high, although dropping slightly. The NDP is financially unprepared to fight an election. The Conservatives are in the midst of a leadership contest. Liberal commentators note this summer as an ideal opportunity for the Prime Minister to pursue a majority government – high popularity, historically lower voter turnout in summer, and weakened competition.
Trudeau would be running against two leaders who are compromised. Singh, financially. Scheer, a political lame duck, further compromised by his decision to not renounce his U.S. citizenship following resignation as Conservative leader. The Prime Minister would also blame those leaders for an unnecessary election caused by defeat of his Government on a vital spending bill.
A recent Maru/Blue poll suggests a post-summer election might potentially result in a Trudeau loss if Leslyn Lewis becomes leader of the Conservative Party. Politically, Lewis is Trudeau’s most problematic adversary of the four contenders. Dr. Lewis ticks all the boxes one might imagine Trudeau to have for a preferred Liberal candidate in an urban centre like the GTA. An accomplished woman. Black. Immigrant. Unapologetically states potentially controversial policy positions in a manner that diffuses the controversy. Except, Lewis’ policies are Conservative and polling suggests her appeal is national.
If the minority Liberal Government is defeated June 17, a meeting with Governor-General Payette could trigger an election period of 37 to 51 days, landing Canadians in a late July or mid-August vote, just before the Conservative leadership contest is scheduled to conclude.
You will recall, however, that in December 2008 when Prime Minister Harper sought to prorogue Parliament, his trip to see Governor-General Jean* amended June 16, originally stated Johnston was to request a new Speech from the Throne rather than an election. The Governor-General had to assess constitutional and conventional obligations in order to decide whether to grant the request, present an opportunity to the Liberal Party to govern instead, or dissolve Parliament, resulting in an election.
In 2020, the Governor-General will be constitutionally obligated to consider the option of inviting the Conservative Party to form a government. If Mr. Scheer is able to convince her that his party, which did win more of the popular vote than Mr. Trudeau’s, could secure the confidence of the House then, because of the May 25 deal, the next scheduled day for the House to sit, and the confidence of the government to be tested, will be September 21. That date is after the scheduled leadership vote for the new Conservative leader. Scheer could potentially become Prime Minister before the end of June and step down following the leadership vote. A Conservative Government would either face the House in September or ask Governor-General Payette to dissolve Parliament without testing the confidence of the House. Another gaming of the system? Or, as clever a manoeuvre as Kirk’s or Trudeau’s?
Kirk was the first to game the system at Starfleet, but as Star Trek’s fictional universe unfolded, it was revealed he was not the last.
I suspect the briefing papers are being prepared for Governor-General Payette, if not already in place. She may well be hoping that one of the three opposition parties will support the Government on June 17 and a visit from the Prime Minister thus evaded.
In less than a week’s time we’ll see if Trudeau is able to hold on to government or whether he might encounter his own no-win scenario. If the latter, whether Trudeau will be rewarded will not be in the hands of wizened Starfleet leaders considering the arc of history and evaluating the future potential for a cadet-captain. Justin Pierre James Trudeau’s evaluation will be in the hands of the electorate, the very people the conventions of Parliament are designed to protect from gaming the system.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” – 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (ESV)
*amended June 16, originally stated Johnston