The Morning Brief – 09.09.20

By Bruce Carson


To Go to an election –or not to Go?  (Part 1)

The Search for a Legacy by Prime Minister Trudeau

Will the next election, whenever it comes, be Trudeau’s Last?

Three Possible Election Windows

One of the favourite parlour games in places where there are still parlours is said to be guessing the timing of the next federal election. Will it come on the heels of the Speech from the Throne (SFT) set to be delivered on Wednesday, September 23? If not discussed in parlours, the timing of the next election is certainly one of the main topics on all political programs.

Easy to talk about, but hard to pin down, the reality of choices ahead for the government and  opposition parties.

A vote of confidence or lack thereof could by agreement come at any time after the SFT, although seven days, not necessarily consecutive, are allotted for debate on the SFT. Given the number of matters the government has to deal with through legislation when parliament reconvenes, the vote, if it looks like it might cause the fall of the government could come in late September or early October.

There are two precedents that stand out from the last fifteen years that might be useful when attempting to discern what might take place.

In the fall of 2005, the Paul Martin government although ahead in the polls, had been the subject of controversy emanating from the evidence adduced before the Gomery Commission inquiring into the Liberal Sponsorship Scandal.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, then leader of the opposition having fortunately failed in the spring to bring the government down, decided that it was time to try to do that again. Support for a motion of non-confidence was found almost immediately from Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who had decided the Martin government was corrupt and it was time to bring it to an end.

NDP Leader Jack Layton was a reluctant convert to the idea. Layton had obtained concessions from Martin in the spring in exchange for supporting Martin’s budget and Layton wanted to try going that route again. For some inexplicable reason Martin wouldn’t budge and the opposition parties combined to bring the government down in November, 2005 for an election to be held on January 23, 2006.

The other precedent which may be relevant to the facts at hand occurred in the summer of 2008. Stephen Harper, now prime minister decided that early fall would be a propitious time to hold an election which he hoped would turn his minority government into a majority.

Once that decision had been made, two plans were put in place to bring this about; one internal and the other external. Internally, a small group of senior PMO staff became the “clear the decks” committee whose task it was to determine what was left from the 2006 platform to be implemented plus any other promises, to ensure that when the election was called as much work as possible had been done, so that promises made, would become promises kept.

Also internally, platform development was well underway as it had been continuously updated from the time the time the government assumed office. Also scripting for the first part of the campaign to come was underway.

The external plan was to accumulate evidence to develop the argument, so that Harper would be able to claim that parliament was unworkable, and dissolution was needed to be sought from the Governor General.

To do this Harper met one on one with the other three party leaders. At the conclusion of these meetings he was able to declare that no consensus as to how to proceed with the fall session was forthcoming and indeed, parliament was unworkable. The only solution to this dilemma would come in the form of a general election.

The second precedent set out here is probably most relevant to the situation in September, 2020.

At present, there are no meetings that we know of behind the scenes among opposition party leaders, plotting to bring down the government on its SFT. Those meetings may still occur, but after the SFT is delivered.

There seems to be willingness on behalf of the Conservative Party with its new leader proving, so far, to be a steady hand, to wait for the SFT to be delivered before pronouncing on its acceptability. The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh has set out a list of demands which no doubt will be met, at least halfway or more, by the Trudeau Liberals.

The Bloc seems to have backed away from its earlier position advanced a couple of months ago that it would table a non-confidence motion in the early fall. It could be that the Bloc is taking the more traditional approach used by Gilles Duceppe, waiting to see what is in the Throne Speech for Quebec.

The latter scenario of the Liberals preparing for an election behind the scenes seems more likely, but even then it is difficult to nail down with any certainty if this is actually taking place. If they have constituted a “clear the decks” group, it is not readily apparent. There has been some recent positive moves on Indigenous reconciliation, but much more would have to be done quickly if they are to catch up to where they should be on reconciliation.

The government has announced that EI will be expanded to take in those who are running out of support through CERB. This change will have to take place through legislation and if the government is going to fall, this expansion of EI will have to take place quickly to ensure no gaps in benefits.

The commercial rent subsidy program has been extended to the end of this month with vague promises that that it will be revamped and brought forward again.

But there is little evidence of an earnest push to clear the decks for an anticipated election.

The prime minister has three windows of opportunity facing him to call an election. Of course there is always the possibility that the government could fall by accident, resulting in an election.

The first window occurs later this month with Trudeau seeing his government fall on a non-confidence motion or he could declare that the proposals set out in the SFT are so novel that he needs a new mandate to implement them and therefore seek dissolution.

The second opportunity will present itself, probably in October, with a budget presented by newly minted Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Freeland. The budget will set out in some detail the costs of the programs contained in the SFT and the federal fiscal situation. The deficit with new programs could be as large as $500 billion or more with federal debt around $1.2 trillion. Will the budget contain a fiscal anchor or a path to balance?

The vote on the budget will be a matter of confidence.

Finally, the third window will present itself next spring with the tabling of the 2021 budget. The scenario could be as simple as presenting the budget in the House of Commons and then the prime minister visits the Governor General seeking dissolution.

It may be that this third option for an election next spring based on a new budget seems the safest for the government, but in many ways it could be the most dangerous.

Tomorrow The Morning Brief will review the risks and opportunities found in each scenario.

To Come

  • Bank of Canada deals with interest rates—no doubt leaving them as is for the foreseeable future
September 10
  • Speech to be delivered by Bank of Canada Governor Macklem
September 14
  • New Brunswick provincial election
September 15
  • Monthly survey of manufacturing for July to be released
September 15-16
  • U.S. Fed meets
September 16
  • CPI numbers for August to be released
September 23
  • Federal Speech from the Throne to be delivered