A Liberal Minority: Challenges Ahead

From the start of the SNC Lavalin controversy to the “blackface” revelations during this campaign, the Liberals have had to claw their way back into a position where they could hope to return to power. It was a dramatic fall from grace over the past year, but they managed to hold on to a minority because the Scheer campaign had some unforced errors of their own, and the Bloc and NDP could not translate their surge in support to where it matters most – seats in the House of Commons.  

It will be remembered as a hard-fought victory, testament to Trudeau’s strong talents as a campaigner and the Liberals’ formidable ground game – the knocking on doors and pulling of the vote that ultimately matters. Yet the challenges over the last year have left their mark, and we predict a very different way of governing for the Liberals in their second mandate.

From Campaign to Government: How the Transition Works

Achieving political power is the objective of any election. With the campaign period behind us, what many refer to as stagecraft,  the business of governing, statecraft, is now underway.

 Before political decision-making can be executed by the winning party, the transition to govern follows a rigorous  process.  In this instance, the majority, incumbent government will work through the transition fairly smoothly and while there will be changes to the composition of Cabinet due to the election outcome, the operation of government is expected to resume given the PM and his caucus  are familiar with their respective roles.

In this instance the transition will be influenced by the minority status of the government.  This will impact the content for the Speech from the Throne, the update on the state of the Economy expected in late November and the legislative agenda.  The minority government will seek the support of other parties to receive a vote of confidence from the House for the Throne Speech and be constantly prepared to define the next electoral battle.

The Prime Minister designate is the decision-maker for government and will set out the timeline and decisions leading up to the official swearing-in of the Cabinet.  The PM will be supported by his transition team and the most senior ranks of the public service, including the Clerk of the Privy Council, Ian Shugart.  The decisions the Prime Minister will take in these next 10 to 14 days will encompass the structure and composition of the new Cabinet, identification of Parliamentary Secretaries, the short-to medium priorities  for the legislative agenda and the content of the Ministerial mandate letters.  The direction to the public service around implementation of campaign promises and files the government needs to manage prior to the official swearing in of the Cabinet will be overseen by the transition team with input from the PM and his political advisors such as Katie Telford, Mike McNair and Jeremy Broadhurst. There are a few pressing issues such as the appointment of a new Canadian Ambassador to the US, participation and attendance at the APEC Summit and foreign affairs matters relating to Syria and Turkey that will be brought to the Prime Minister designate.  

The most important task the Prime Minister must execute during the transition period is the formation of Cabinet.   The identification of the Cabinet portfolios, discussion and sometimes negotiation with Cabinet candidates, background and security checks are all required  and undertaken by the members of the transition team.  Cabinet is usually a reflection of electoral regions, with gender and demographic considerations top of mind in the composition of Cabinet.  The minority status of this new government will make this more challenging.  The inclusion of external party representatives (NDP or Bloc) is not expected in the new Cabinet formation.  The Prime Minister will receive briefings from Finance, Defense, Global Affairs, National Security on key priorities and issues that have arisen during the campaign and require direction prior to the functioning of the full Cabinet.  Premiers and foreign leaders will use this period to congratulate and prioritize issues and requests of support (political and financial) to the Prime Minister designate. These are more than courtesy calls, as many external actors have been contemplating how to engage with the new government for months.   

The continuity of essential government services is not affected during this period, similar to the caretaker period which has now concluded.

The transition team is not an official arm of the new government.  It usually completes its work following the swearing in of the Cabinet and turns the operations of governing over to the Prime Minister’s office, members of Cabinet and political advisors. The Chiefs of Staff for each Minister will be provided with other personnel recommendations, operating budgets for their office and important accountability measures to guide the role within the Minister’s offices.

The Opposition: Fighters in the Front Bench

Formidable front bench fighters who will be looking to hold this new government to account on key policy fronts include:

  • Candice Bergen: The former House Leader from Manitoba has proven to be the Conservatives’ secret weapon with parliamentary procedure. Helped along by effective caucus members in the Senate, key environmental legislation the NDP will support will face significant roadblocks given Bergen’s authoritative role as chief tactician.
  • Pierre Poilievre: The Finance Critic has driven the Liberal front bench to distraction over the last four years with his stinging criticism of some of the Liberals’ more glaring unforced errors. He’s likely to continue in this role – and he is equally hard hitting on ethics issues.
  • Mark Strahl: The son of the popular Natural Resources Minister during the Harper years, Chuck Strahl, Mark has amassed his own considerable political capital with his caucus colleagues from the west, and will be a significant voice on western issues over the next four years.
  • Michelle Rempel: The voice of Alberta for many. The Liberals’ energy sector policy, as well as its vaunted commitment for a municipal handgun ban, will face its sternest critic in this popular MP for Calgary Nose Hill.
  • Jagmeet Singh: Let there be no doubt now that Leader of the NDP has the potential to be a formidable communicator and a unifying force with real charisma. His real competition in the House as the voice of Opposition will be Trudeau, so expect him to take on a similar Critic’s profile – in Finance and notably, Natural Resources.
  • Charlie Angus: Much like Carolyn Bennett, Angus’s bona fides as a staunch defender of the rights of Indigenous communities will continue to be vital to a revitalized NDP.
  • Jack Harris: The comeback kid. He won a by-election seat to be an MP in  the last 1987 then lost in the general in 88. Ran again and won in 2008 again and in 2011 and lost in 2015. Was the leader of the provincial NDP from 1992 to 2006. Known in the province as lead defence lawyer in the Mount Cashel case. Strong character and solid parliamentarian. Was the Defence Critic under both Layton and Mulcair.
  • Alexandre Boulerice: Has been the Quebec Lieutenant and very popular in downtown Quebec. Elected in 2011 in the Orange Wave but a long time NDPer, active since 90s and ran unsuccessfully for the party in 2008. Was a tv journalist and CUPE activist.
  • Malcolm Allen: A long time NDP activist. Worked for the Canadian Auto Workers and won first in 2008 and was defeated in 2015. Was the Caucus Chair and a key part of caucus management. He was targeted by Conservatives in every campaign particularly on the issue of gun control.
  • Sheri Benson: Benson brings strong credentials on social justice issues from her work with the United Way and Saskatchewan’s Indigenous communities. She is also a strong advocate on LGBT rights and an ideal deputy leader for Singh, raising the profile and prominence of Saskatchewan’s voice in an NDP caucus.
  • Elizabeth May: She still has the strongest credentials of any MP with environmental issues, and she’s been remarkably effective building the foundations for a younger Green party; millennials like her message, and that is something both the NDP and Liberals will pay attention to in the coming parliament.

The Next Steps: The Timeline

What we’re likely to see in the Speech: commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, with legally-binding five-year milestones, language on Canada’s Digital Charter, the municipal handgun ban and a ban on assault rifles, the creation of a National Institute for Women’s Health Research, a commitment to providing all Canadians access to a family doctor or primary health care team, and of course, language on the commitment to a pharmacare plan.

What will be difficult is to articulate any positive language for the energy sector – which only foregrounds the challenges ahead in moving forward with the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The Legislation We’ll Be Watching For

  • Championing trade by moving forward on C-100 – the rebooted NAFTA agreement.
  • Labour code changes: a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour.
  • Health Act changes: with provisions for mental health – and yes, something like universal pharmacare.
  • Telecom and Broadcasting Act: restarting the modernization of key legislation to reflect the new digital landscape. The NDP will push for a price cap on telecom prices and the Liberals will be hard pressed not to negotiate on this.
  • Environmental Protection Act changes that will see the ban of “harmful” single-use plastics by 2021.
  • Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as law.
  • Introducing legislation for “distinctions-based” health care for Indigenous people, emphasizing mental health, healing and long-term care.

What We’re Likely to See in the First Budget

  • Deficit spending of more than $20 billion for each of the next 4 years, beginning with $27.4 billion next year.
  • Big ticket affordability items: a guaranteed paid family leave for parents, a commitment to see cell phone bills reduced by 25 percent, more money for Canada Student Grants, the Student Loans Program.
  • With taxes, we’ll see changes that include raising the basic personal amount to $15,000 by 2023, for taxpayers whose annual salary is less than $147,000, and a cutting in half of the corporate tax paid by companies that develop and manufacture zero-emissions technologies.
  • The implementation of a $40 million/year national workplace accessibility fund, with a focus on making small and medium-sized businesses more accessible.
  • The addition of $6 billion over four years to the federal portion of health-care funding to add and improve services.