Battle Lines Being Drawn – The Road to a Fall Federal Election?

June is often a tempestuous time in official Ottawa, as governments try to accomplish as much legislative progress as possible before a summer break that usually lasts until late September. June also means a last-minute push by Cabinet and Treasury Board to get important decisions made before the House of Commons rises and before the Cabinet agenda slows down in July and August.

This is especially true in minority Parliaments like the one we are currently in, where the government ultimately does not control its own agenda – instead, requiring the support of one or more opposition parties to get its agenda passed. That ultimately leads to accusations by each political party on whether they are “making Parliament work.”

June 2021 has been no different. The governing Liberals have accused opposition parties, specifically Conservatives, of playing politics and “blocking” the government’s agenda. To that end, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been complaining that the House of Commons has seen nothing but “obstructionism and toxicity.” This comment is similar to ones made by Stephen Harper during his minority government in 2008, when Harper accused opposition parties of making Parliament unworkable. It’s a signal that an election might not be too far away.

At the same time, the opposition parties have pushed back, accusing the Liberals of running roughshod over a minority Parliament and shutting down inquiries into the Liberal government’s actions in both committees and the House itself. Ultimately, the four opposition parties never did find an issue of common cause to defeat the government, even in the face of several confidence opportunities this spring.

The 2021 Sitting and Election Talk

After a 2020 where the House of Commons only sat for 86 days due to COVID-19 and a prorogation (reset of Parliament) by the Trudeau government, the House of Commons has been busier in 2021. It has already sat for 76 days, and the Liberal government has brought forward several pieces of legislation, including the first federal budget since 2019. Political watchers saw the budget as a cross between a COVID recovery plan and a pre-election manifesto.

At the same time, the Ottawa guessing game of “will the government be defeated on the budget?” was a key question in the winter and spring but always with the backdrop of rising COVID-19 case counts and the pandemic’s third wave. At the same time, four provincial governments went to the polls in COVID-era elections, with all four incumbent governments returned to power and three moving from minority to majority status.

However, once it became clear that the New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh, would support the government’s budget the key question for political watchers was less about the Liberals being defeated and more about how much of the government’s legislative agenda it would conclude before the June break.

Sidebar: See what Canada’s NDP has in store for the next election

What’s Been Passed this Spring?

Of the thirty-four bills introduced since the return of the House in September 2020, the government’s track record at getting legislation passed has been mixed. Six bills were Appropriation Acts to allow for government to operate, with four bills to enable COVID-19 benefits to proceed. All of these were essentially confidence bills, where defeat would trigger an election.

Seven other bills were also passed by the government, including amendments to the medical assistance in dying legislation and addressing issues of reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians, including Bill C-15 to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Last Minute Push…

Earlier this week, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez outlined four bills that were the government’s priority to pass by the time the House rose on Wednesday. They included:

  • C-30 (Budget Implementation Act – legislative measures to enact certain parts of the spring budget)
  • C-10 (Broadcasting Act amendments)
  • C-12 (Net Zero Emissions Accountability Act)
  • C-6 (restrictions on ‘conversion therapy’)

To achieve this goal, the government employed procedural motions to limit and restrict debate on legislation and ensure these bills passed the House by Wednesday’s adjournment – which the government was able to accomplish with the support of at least one opposition party.

The challenge will be for the Senate to examine these bills in the time left for its session. While the Senate was only scheduled to sit for one more sitting day before their summer break, earlier today it agreed to sit Monday and Tuesday of next week. Bill C-30, the Budget Implementation Act, passed third reading in the House today, with the support of the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP, and has been the subject of considerable “pre-study” by the Senate Banking and Finance and other Senate committees. In addition, news reports indicate that while C-12 may pass, there has been no commitment from Senators to expedite C-10 or C-6.

The Liberals also introduced several new pieces of legislation this week, including strengthening language laws to promote substantive equality between French and English, introducing the new Canadian Disability Benefit, and legislation to protect people from hate speech and online harms. For the Liberals, this is useful for two reasons: a) if there is a fall election, the Liberals have demonstrated the intent to deal with an issue; and b) should we not have an election this fall, the government can continue to pursue its agenda.

Jockeying for Position

Over the course of the spring, all political parties have sought to find the proverbial political “sweet spot” that might improve their standing with voters. However, in each party’s case, it has not been entirely smooth sailing, with the ongoing pandemic challenges and the disruption of “Parliament by Zoom” impacting how they operate.

For Liberals, the key objective was to deliver the first budget since 2019 and use it to provide a pathway to recovery and re-establish credibility amongst voters on economic issues. But issues around vaccine delivery earlier in the year and, more recently, questions on how the government handled accusations of sexual misconduct within Canada’s military knocked the government off message for parts of the spring.

For Conservatives, the goal of establishing leader Erin O’Toole as the alternative to a Liberal government faced roadblocks, including internal dissent on the management of issues such as the removal of social conservative MP Derek Sloan from Caucus, the launch of O’Toole’s new environmental plan (which includes carbon pricing), and how Conservatives should respond to Liberals on management of the vaccine rollout. Any bounce out of last August’s leadership for O’Toole is now history, and, combined with the pandemic restrictions, has challenged O’Toole’s ability to introduce himself to Canadians.

For the Bloc Quebecois, the challenge was to remain relevant and be able to retain the seats that it gained in 2019. A number of these seats are in marginal ridings, many of which have been represented by Blocquistes, Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats over the past 15 years. Liberals may see a path to a majority by recapturing some of these seats in the next election – so the Bloc has been trying to demonstrate to voters in Quebec that it is the true standard-bearer of Quebec’s interests.

For New Democrats, their goal has been to ensure Jagmeet Singh as the true carrier of the progressive mantle in Parliament, while ensuring that progressive voters don’t turn to the Trudeau Liberals. After all, Singh and the NDP have ensured that the Liberals’ agenda has largely been able to pass this spring, with little threat of an election. However, stronger than expected fundraising, coupled with a leader who now has more experience may result in more pointed opposition from the NDP as election speculation continues.

As for the Greens, internal party fighting over Middle East foreign policy, coupled with the defection of one of their sitting MPs to the Liberals mean that all is not well. New party leader Annamie Paul continues to face internal challenges to her leadership, while accusing the Liberals of actively undermining her leadership by actively courting an MP defection. For the Greens, two big questions for relevance remain – can Paul win a seat in Parliament, and can they hold on to the two other seats they have in British Columbia?

The Million-Dollar Question: Fall Election, Yes or No?

Of course, what those who follow Canadian politics closely want to know is whether we will have an election this fall.

There was obviously a lot of speculation over the spring on whether the Liberals would use the budget as a trigger to be defeated. However, as the third wave of COVID-19 spread across the country, election speculation substantially decreased and the usual accusations of “the opposition is blocking our agenda” vanished from the government’s talking points. Since we are now hearing the familiar refrain of Parliament no longer works from the Prime Minister and his colleagues over the last two weeks, the Liberals may now be considering going to the polls.

Sidebar: One of Canada’s leading journalists, Paul Wells, talks with the StrategyCorp Institute about the looming election.

Of course, Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals’ ultimate goal is to turn their minority government back into a majority. They will no doubt be spending July and early August polling and possibly testing draft messaging. The political calendar also gets complicated later this year with municipal elections in Quebec (a key battleground for all parties), where federal and provincial politicians tend to avoid overlapping electoral campaigns. If the Liberals wait until 2022, there will be a June election in Ontario and a fall election in Quebec, two more election cycles that governing parties usually try to avoid.

The choice for the Liberals is this – depending on their level of support in the polls and the rate of vaccination in Canada, do they ask the Acting Governor General for a dissolution of Parliament in late August/early September for a general election that would be held in early to mid October? Or do they continue to pursue their agenda as far as they can with their minority position?

In any of these cases, there is no easy answer, and you can bet that the governing Liberals, as well as the opposition parties, will be spending the weeks leading into August making hard decisions.