Parliament Returns: What to Look for This Spring

As the House of Commons returns, the political landscape remains as volatile as it ever. Each of Canada’s political parties faces some key challenges:

  • the Liberal Party is trying to turn around their lagging popularity,
  • the Conservative Party is trying to maintain their advantage,
  • the New Democratic Party is trying to remain relevant, and
  • the Bloc Quebecois is trying to decide how to manoeuvre the new CAQ/PQ dynamic in that province.

The spring sitting, between now and June 2024, will certainly help shape the road to the next election, whenever that may be.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals

2023 was a tough year for the Liberal Party of Canada.  Issues like affordability, cost of living, and housing remain top of mind for most Canadians. But after eight years, it is not uncommon for incumbent governments to take a lot of heat – whether it is deserved or not.

Despite these challenges, the biggest variable that Justin Trudeau really controls right now is time.  Ultimately it will be up to him (and to some extent his NDP partners) when the next election will be.  And time is an extremely valuable commodity for any political leader, especially when a week can be a lifetime in politics!

Three Things We Are Watching For:

  1. Spring Budget, Fiscal Faceoff: Since the fall, Liberals have tried to recapture the narrative on issues like housing, with Minister Sean Fraser announcing Housing Accelerator Fund deals with cities across the country and is expected to announce a ‘Housing Plan’ before the next budget (It’s unclear what that might contain). They’ve also tried to focus wider issues around the cost of living, having announced national summits on grocery pricing and auto theft.  The challenge will be for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to turn these policy areas into clear deliverables in the spring budget as part of the “sales pitch” to Canadians, at a time when a freewheeling, free-spending budget is unlikely.
  2. Refreshing the Approach to Face Today’s Challenges: Liberals have noted the need to pivot, rebrand and refresh to get ready for the next election. Influencing this are:
    1. a Liberal Caucus calling for changes in how the Cabinet and Party communicate with Canadians;
    2. a new executive director of communications with deep experience in marketing; and
    3. several by-elections in traditional Liberal seats and a desire for the Party to recruit fresh faces for the front bench.
  3. Sleeping With a Cranky (American) Elephant: Pierre Trudeau once commented that living next to the United States is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant – no matter how friendly it is, one is affected by every twitch and grunt. With the US Presidential Election likely a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the Liberals will certainly have one eye on preparation for both scenarios in November, having already announced a re-launch of their “Team Canada” approach used in the NAFTA renegotiations in the first Trump Administration. At the same time, Liberals are trying to tie Conservative Leader Poilievre to Donald Trump and “MAGA Republicans” – will it work?

Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives

Since the summer of 2023, the Conservative Party has had double-digit leads in virtually almost all national polls.

While being a front-runner is always nice, it’s never wise to rest on a lead.  With the likelihood that the next federal election is not for another 12 to 18 months, it means that the Conservatives will have to be increasingly focused and disciplined as a Caucus, and a party, to demonstrate to Canadians that they are a government-in-waiting.

Three things to watch for:

  1. Conservative candidate nominations: The party is starting to ramp-up nominations. Former National Post columnist Sabrina Maddeaux, Ontario cabinet minister Parm Gill, and sitting BC United MLA Ellis Ross have indicated they will be standing for nominations in the GTA and in northern BC respectively.  Will Poilievre and the Conservatives be attracting more star candidates in the coming months? And how will they manage tensions with provincial parties when accused of poaching politicians?
  2. Poilievre’s Social Media and Communications Game: Prior to the holidays, Pierre Poilievre released a 15-minute video, Housing Hell, which targets housing affordability and now has millions of views.  The video is built on successful lessons from YouTube content creators and its’ likely that we’ll see more of this approach as we head into the next election.
  3. Platform Time: Now that Poilievre is 18 months into his leadership, Conservatives are on the cusp of releasing a platform that will form the basis of their push toward the next election. This will set the shape and tone of their effort to define themselves as the choice to replace the Trudeau Liberals.

Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats

Much of the narrative around Jagmeet Singh and the NDP centers on the status of their 2022 Confidence and Supply Agreement (CSA) with the Liberals. The agreement essentially allows the Liberals to govern like a majority in exchange for implementing certain NDP-backed policies and programs.

While this arrangement gives the NDP the potential for key wins, the challenge remains making sure the public sees them in these decisions instead of just crediting the Liberals for a job well done. In addition, with multiple NDP-CPC contested ridings at play, they’ll need to tackle Pierre Poilievre’s lead on affordability issues.

The question remains how do the NDP give themselves enough space in the run-up to the next election that they are seen by voters as distinct from the Liberals, better than the Conservatives, and overall a viable choice?

Three things to watch for:

  1. Pharmacare, Pharmacare, Pharmacare: in December 2023, an agreement to extend the deadline for the Liberals to produce pharmacare legislation was extended to March 1, 2024. The NDP emphasized they would rather work to get the proposed bill right, than accept half-measures.  Given the cost to the fiscal framework, there remains lots of questions on how pharmacare might work and who may or may not qualify, but like the recent agreement over dental care, this is a major focus for the NDP this spring.
  2. Organization and Fundraising: The party recently made some major changes to its leadership team, with longtime NDP stalwart and former Chief of Staff to Jack Layton, Anne McGrath, shifting from national director to serve as Singh’s principal secretary. Well-respected and long-time senior NDPer, Lucy Watson will take McGrath’s place at the party and will have a major role in setting up the play for the next election.
  3. Separation Anxiety: New Democrats have supported the Liberals not just on major issues as contained in the CSA, but also in places like House of Commons committees on a variety of issues. As we get closer to an election, the internal debate on “how close is too close” will certainly be something we have our ears to the ground on.  Should the Liberals fail to deliver on any of the NDP’s key demands, they could leave the Confidence and Supply Agreement without triggering an election – simply deciding to vote with or against the Liberals on a case-by-case basis.

Yves-Francois Blanchet’s Bloc Quebecois

Three things to watch for:

  1. Legault Feet of Clay?: For half a decade Quebec Premier Francois Legault was seen to have an almost magical political connection to francophone Quebecers, a political hold that detached the Bloc Quebecois from their traditional PQ allies in Quebec City and had them following the drum of the CAQ Premier. However, like Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, Legault suddenly looks very human. Failures to be able to issue driver’s licences with a new IT system, a high-profile flip-flop on the “third link” in Quebec City, and large public sector strikes all combined to erode the aura of invincibility around Legault and the CAQ party he brought to government.
  2. Revival of Parti Quebecois: While Legault flounders, the main beneficiary is a revival of the Parti Quebecois under Paul St-Pierre Plamondon. This shift in the electoral dynamic provincially is already impacting policy as Legault targets English-language universities in the province. It also poses a quandary for the BQ as they now see themselves caught between two francophone nationalist political movements, the traditionally social democratic and separatist PQ and the conservative and nationalist CAQ.
  3. Greater Policy Demands. While the BQ always works to extract maximum benefit for Quebecois, the new provincial dynamic could turn into a bidding war for francophone support. This in turn may leave the BQ pressuring the federal Liberals between policies that are popular with francophone Quebec while targeting anglophones or which are unpopular with Canadians generally.

Want to read more?